Sunday, November 5, 2023

REVIEW: 'Lawmen: Bass Reeves' - Bass Journeys From Slavery to Becoming a U.S. Marshal in 'Part I' & 'Part II'

Paramount+'s Lawmen: Bass Reeves - Episodes 1.01 "Part I" and 1.02 "Part II"

Bass rides into hell. Esau makes a violet impression on Bass. Bass escapes his chains, but has to make a hard sacrifice. Bass and his family endure tough times on their farm. Bass gets a visit from the law and is faced with an interesting proposition. 

"Part I" was written by Chad Feehan and directed by 
Christina Alexandra Voros
"Part II" was written by Jewel Coronel and directed by Christina Alexandra Voros

Previously enslaved, Bass Reeves ultimately became a famed U.S. Marshal responsible for the capture of over 3,000 criminals without ever being wounded. His story has long been ripe for dramatization. It's churned through the Taylor Sheridan brand of westerns that have proven popular for Paramount+. However, these opening episodes of Bass' journey mostly depict these accomplishments as something that happened out of pure convenience. It's a coincidental journey where he happened to be at the right place at the right time. The storytelling aspires to keep the narrative grounded in Bass' humanity. It depicts his life amidst the vast expanse of late 19th century Texas and Arkansas. However, it's depicted as if he stumbled into this job in law enforcement. He simply had the skills necessary to help Sherrill Lynn after his previous partner was killed. Bass obtained those connections and skills during the years he spent hiding amongst a Seminole tribe after escaping from his master.

It's a depiction that seemingly robs Bass of choice. That's not uniform across the story. It actually has the potential to be a salient observation given the limitations of enslavement. Bass was expected to obey his master's orders no matter what. George Reeves always expected Bass to run away before he gave him his freedom. Of course, George was never serious with that offer. He just enjoyed threatening Bass. He watched over his every move. He expected him to ride into battle alongside him for the Confederacy. Bass did. He proved to be a remarkable shot. He was only given a weapon once the battle had commenced. The rest of the time he wasn't trusted. Nor can he question George's word when it's abundantly clear he cheated in a card game that determined Bass' fate. Bass' eruption is visceral. The scene leading up to it is intense. Bass understands the pressure. Freedom is within grasp. It's cruelly taken away. He takes it back. He endures the harsh journey across the plains. He's rescued by Sarah. Yet that life isn't destined to last. The tribe cannot avoid the battle lines of the Civil War. The fighting continues even after the Union has prevailed.

Bass once again has an emotional reaction upon the death of Curtis. He spent years with this family. Curtis stood up against the soldiers who chose their trading post for the scene of their latest battle. Bass was prevented by the chaos from reaching his surrogate son in time. That didn't matter as Esau Pierce was always intent on killing. That's his overall impression whenever he appears. He arrives to showcase his brutality in front of Bass. They are completely random meetings. Bass' life is never threatened. It's still a consequential action. One that probably teases Pierce as one of the fateful criminals Bass will be charged to capture in the pursuit of justice. Those connections are apparent for keen television viewers who understand the basic structure of narrative stakes. It's a rather clunky execution. The emotion is meant to swell as it all points Bass back to Jennie and the life they could build together. And yet, nothing really occurs to make the audience desire for that particular outcome. It's just a plot point that needs to be hit because it's true to the life Bass Reeves lived. As such, it's a routine biographical telling of events without any of the underlying emotion.

"Part II" features Bass' start in law enforcement. The story moves ahead a decade. Bass tries his best to provide for his family as a farmer. He just isn't good at it. Sherrill arrives desperate for a man skilled with a gun and fluent in the language of the indigenous people. That was never a requisite skill for the many previous jobs Sherrill took. It's a priority now because Bass needs to get involved. It's a plot device constructed out of convenience. It aspires to showcase Bass' incredible earnestness. His faith provided him with hope that a better future was possible. He never blamed God for the chains that confined him. He sees the humanity in all people. Sherrill has animosity towards all the people native to the land. He blames them collectively for the near death experience he endured. These two had different interactions in the past with this community. That forever shapes how they engage with them moving forward. Bass leads with empathy. That's impressive to others even though they believe it's only a matter of time before he's killed in the land of the outlaws. Bass even gets a couple of good punches in because he can't abide by the sense of justice Sherrill is comfortable with executing.

Bass returns home with the expectation that he will not be compensated for this job. He left his family with nothing to show for it. Of course, his journey had narrative merit to it. Jennie's purchase of a piano is completely tangential. The stakes don't operate at the same level. It's meant to offer her individuality and complexity as well. It doesn't work. It moves at a glacial pace without any passion. David Oyelowo offers a commanding performance as Bass Reeves. However, he's surrounded by an ensemble of notable actors with nothing of merit to do. They are all defined in their relation to Bass. They don't expand beyond those basic archetypes. That's unfortunate. It should weigh heavily on Bass every time he's asked to put on a badge. It first happens because he needs to provide for his family. This job promises to do that. It's not meant to be a lasting offer. He's just providing his assistance on this one particular case. When Sherrill returns, he comes with the invitation to join the agency. He asks if Bass is willing to carry the burden and responsibility that comes with the badge. Bass doesn't hesitate. And yet, the show doesn't offer a deeper understanding of what this means. It should be powerful for a former slave to enforce the laws created by the white man. Instead, it's just a plot point that moves the narrative to the next stage of his life. It was inevitable. That pulls the viewer out of the moment and any potential for understanding why Bass made this choice.