Is it any wonder that Bass Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger?
We meet Bass in the middle of an ongoing battle Civil War, where he’s fighting side-by-side with his “owner,” Confederate Army Commander George Reeves.
Bass promises George he will follow him into battle and fire when necessary, and he does just that, shooting with laser-sharp precision, never missing his mark.
Like all wars, it’s a disgusting scene, and this one culminates in white men masquerading as Native Americans, scalping their opponents after their victory.
On Lawmen: Bass Reeves Season 1 Episode 1, we learn quickly that the brightest, most well-adjusted man in any room is Bass himself. Despite his circumstances, he’s a moral man who is fearless in the face of moral ambiguity or outright absence.
A story of a man this good might not work if not for David Oyelowo’s portrayal. He plays Bass as proud but never smug, as compassionate but never a pushover. He perfectly embodies every one of Bass’s varied notes.
When George abandons his post, Bass follows again, but this time, he acts to assuage George’s guilt at doing so while George simultaneously scoffs at Bass’s desire to learn to read the Bible. Why bother when only white people go to the big dance?
Oyelowo playing against the masterful Shea Whigham in these scenes is a reminder of the talent that has lined up of late to be a part of any Taylor Sheridan production, even those like Lawmen that he’s mostly hands off.
From our perspective, nothing phases Bass, but inside, he’s dreaming of a better life for himself and his lady, Jennie. It’s unclear if they’re married at that point, but they’re as deeply connected as any married couple could hope to be.
When Bass gets the opportunity to escape and find a better life for himself and Jennie, he takes it, besting George in a rigged game of poker that leads to a brutal fight.
Saying goodbye to Jennie, walking the raw earth until his feet bleed — nothing sways Bass from his determination to better himself, and nothing provokes him to the place of genuine dark anger that can be seen in so many others.
With each setback, Bass holds his head higher, a trait so admirable that it’s no surprise he’s saved by a Seminole woman and her child, given shelter and a chance to belong.
By all accounts, it’s Sarah and her son Curtis who teach Bass what it means to be free. Sarah proudly shared how her people never surrendered or made a worthless treaty, which made all the difference in the world.
For three years, they live in harmony until a vision of his past shakes Bass out of his reverie. The white man who once scalped people in battle has been captured, and his reemergence ends Curtis’s life and sends Bass back for the woman he loves.
Bass: He died brave.
Sarah: He lived brave.
Bass: My loss came for yours.
Sarah: You take Pistol. You live brave, too. Your heart still beats.
This is where the story really begins.
By Lawmen: Bass Reeves Season 1 Episode 2, we know enough about Bass and his convictions that we can’t imagine anyone other than him as the next US Marshal.
His shooting skills are useless when it comes to farming, and his farming skills, while admirable, are no match for the environment.
It actually hurts to see all of his hard work going up in smoke, but even having spent so little time with Bass, Jennie, and their family proper, you know that they’ll make it through anything.
Jennie: A gun is just a thing. A tool, an instrument. What matters is who plays it and you, Gabriel.
Bass: Honey, you only seen me shooting wild turkeys and feral hogs.
Jennie: Without a bullet wasted.
Their faith in God and each other is profound and offers a good backdrop to what makes Bass such a successful lawman.
Word might have gotten around that he’s not merely a sharpshooter but a man of principles. It was his time with the Seminole that inspired Deputy US Marshal Sherrill Lynn to recruit Bass, and that could have been the only reason he was paid a visit.
It seems unlikely that happenstance would have befallen just the right man at the perfect time, but I suppose history is peppered with such individuals whose lives changed on a dime.
Denis Quaid’s Sherrill Lynn is gruff with little patience, and it didn’t help that the same man he needed to capture had already killed another deputy.
But it’s also no surprise that Bass had relatively little to learn about being a lawman and that Deputy US Marshall Lynn had quite a bit he could glean from Bass.
You got three types of rogues around these parts. There’s the kind that steals horses, the kind that supplies whiskey, and the kind that’s happy to cut your heart out over both. Welcome to the Dead Line. You best load that antique of yours. Out here, there ain’t no laws, only outlaws.
Bass knows the importance of giving a man the opportunity to do the right thing as much as he knows how a caged man will react under pressure, even if he never went to such lengths himself.
Driving home how well suited Bass and Jennie are in life are intertwined scenes of his bravery trying to save a wanted man from burning alive before putting him out of his misery and Jennie comforting a ravaged calf before doing the same.
No matter someone’s plight in this world, the Reeves family treats others with dignity and respect, which is frankly a lesson all lawmen would be well to learn.
Bass: It’s hard for a man to put fear and hate behind him.
Sherrill: Oh, hell, Bass. I ain’t even tryin’.
Bass: Black, white, or red, we all just men.
I haven’t done a lot of studying on Bass Reeves so as not to muddy my reviews, but I do know that he captured over 3,000 outlaws, bringing them to justice instead of gunning them down.
When we look at history, gunplay tends to be played up to increase the action and raise the stakes, but we also loved The Lone Ranger, who used his weapon but took prisoners without killing them.
Apparently, Bass did kill 14 men in his quest to bring them to justice, but we’ve seen now that there will need to be a damn good reason for him to take that route.
Justice is about so much more than taking criminals off the streets. You need evidence and conviction at a fair trial to condemn a man; just wishing it to be true or making yourself judge, jury, and executioner betrays justice’s framework.
Bass: No need to puff your chest in front of my family.
Sherrill: Just so we’re clear. I would have done One Charlie the same way, not think twice about it if it meant it was you and I walking away from there with air in our lungs.
Bass: And I’m not lookin’ to take anything back, either.
Sherrill: Christ, Bass. You are the most earnest man I have ever met, which is likely to get you killed one day. You got sand for this. Most men don’t.
Bass: What you saying?
Sherrill: I had a revelation if you will, and I took some of your earnestness to Judge Parker.
Sherrill: And he wants to make you a Goddamned Deputy US Marshal. You think you can handle the weight of the badge?
Bass: I know I can.
And if it’s now no wonder why Bass was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, it’s also not a surprise that Judge Parker wants to offer him a more permanent role with the US Marshal Service.
Bass Reeves is the hero we need in 2023, an honorable man bolstered by faith and family to do right by those who have done wrong to others.
The Reeves family, too, is a blessing as Bass and Jennie exemplify relationship equality, withstanding their individual weaknesses with combined strengths.
Lawmen: Bass Reeves is the first in an anthology series about famous lawmen, and it sets a high bar for what’s to come. We’ve seen too many morally ambiguous lawmen depicted in entertainment.
It’s high time we explore how good-natured men approach the layers of justice instead of allowing gray areas to proliferate our understanding of their role.
What did you think of the Lawmen: Bass Reeves Season 1 premiere?
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on X and email her here at TV Fanatic.