‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ Review: A Frontier Injustice

What we know, or have decided to accept, about the life of the deputy U.S. marshal Bass Reeves has more of the flavor of carnival legend than of scholarship. The Paramount+ series “Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” which concluded on Sunday, was based not on history books or biographies but on novels. The most prominent telling of his story so far was a dramatization of a dramatization.

That kind of haziness leaves room for invention, and the tales that have settled around Reeves — a former slave credited with 3,000 arrests; a crack shot said to have killed 14 men in the line of duty — could be the basis for a new take on classic western action and adventure. The tales also suggest that the career Reeves carved out for himself, and the extreme success he found, would at least occasionally have caused him some excitement and joy. That is not where “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” ended up.

David Oyelowo gave an unimpeachable performance as Reeves, focused and intense and emotionally true. And the show’s creator, Chad Feehan, and his directors, Christina Alexandra Voros and Damian Marcano, put onscreen a notably handsome and visually credible evocation of the American West in the 1870s. The show had texture — it gave a tactile pleasure throughout its eight episodes.

But as it went along, it became less of a treat to watch and more of a chore. Its story of heroism against all odds had gun battles and frontier romance, but we were almost never allowed to simply enjoy them. And poor David Oyelowo appeared to be having less fun than anyone.

It was to the show’s credit that it didn’t try to make Reeves a six-gun superman — he operated with guile and caution, letting other people’s carelessness and hotheadedness work for him, and he grimaced and cowered when under fire. But the show’s one-note insistence on his beleaguered nobility, even as his composure faded and his trigger finger got too itchy, was so continual and unmodulated that it flattened the character and drained the story of humor.

Reeves’s arc in the early episodes, as he emerged from slavery, tried his hand at farming and then was recruited into the marshals’ service by a sympathetic judge (played by Donald Sutherland), had an urgent, realistic snap to it. But once he put on the badge, the show slowed and got down to its real business, which wasn’t dramatizing the exploits of an exceptional lawman under grueling circumstances.

The latter half of the season was, instead, about putting Reeves through a crisis of conscience over his enforcement of laws enacted and administered by the same white men who had once enslaved him. (The more interesting choice dramatically, and probably the one better supported by the historical record, would have been for him not to care.) And having established its seriousness, the show went big, inventing as its embodiment of racist evil an ex-Confederate Texas Ranger (played by Barry Pepper) who used Black prisoners as slave labor and, just to drive home his odiousness, quoted French Enlightenment drama.

That “Lawmen” would undergo a mytho-melodramatic implosion is perhaps not surprising. It is in the purview of the executive producer Taylor Sheridan, who has shown a bent for gaseous mythologizing in westerns like “Yellowstone” and “1883.” And Feehan has a history with shows that privileged macho poetics over straightforward action, like “Ray Donovan,” “Banshee” and “Rectify.”

The best moments in “Lawmen” were its domestic scenes, which ran in counterpoint to the alternately depressive and histrionic story of Reeves’s work. Reeves’s wife, Jennie, and his oldest daughter, Sally, who kept the farm running in his absence, were played with warmth and great feeling by Lauren E. Banks and Demi Singleton; as impressive as Oyelowo was, it was always a relief when the action shifted to the farm.

And racism and racial oppression in the post-Reconstruction era were treated more cogently and dramatically in those scenes as well. The awakening of the pragmatic Jennie to the larger issues championed by her sister Esme (Joaquina Kalukango) was subtle and touching; by contrast, the closing scene of Reeves leading a column of Black prisoners to freedom bordered on camp.

Sheridan’s track record as a producer has ticked up lately, with “Tulsa King” and “Special Ops: Lioness” and even the early episodes of “Lawmen.” But when he makes westerns, modern or historical, he always seems to be caught between two conflicting impulses. One is to make anti-westerns like those of the 1960s and ’70s, in which the clichés of the genre are exposed and debunked; the other is to make deluxe versions of the classically sentimental western, in which those same clichés are renewed and celebrated. There’s another choice, of course, which would be just to make a good western.

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