Note: This recap covers the first half of Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ two-episode premiere. For a recap of Part II, go here.
Bass Reeves is known as one of the most storied lawmen in the American West. But he certainly didn’t begin there, as we see in Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ series premiere.
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Episode 1 of the Paramount+ drama lays out how the titular character, a slave during the United States Civil War played by Nightingale’s David Oyelowo, got started on the path to gunslinging glory. Read on for the highlights of “Part I.”
NOTHING CIVIL ABOUT THIS WAR | It’s March 1862 in Pea Ridge, Ark., and the Confederate Army is on the move. At one point, someone calls for a halt; moments later, the group of grey-uniformed soldiers on horseback is under attack. Among them is a Black man we’ll later learn is Bass Reeves; he’s a slave belonging to Major George Reeves (played by Shea Whigham, Gaslit).
While massive amounts of death and suffering are unfurling all around them, Maj. Reeves hands a gun to Bass, commanding him to follow and fire as the major storms the Union lines. Bass wavers for a moment but then does as he’s told, picking off a few soldiers from a great distance. Reeves and Bass’ approach is enough to distract the Union side from noticing that more Confederate soldiers are approaching from the side. When the reinforcements arrive, whooping and scalping with abandon, Bass (understandably) looks overwhelmed.
Back at camp, Maj. Reeves’ questioning of his superiors gets him dismissed and sent home to Texas. On their way, he and Bass come across two Confederate soldiers with a bruised and bloody Black man tied up and stumbling behind their horses. Bass and the man exchange a meaningful look, then the former rides on with Reeves.
As they sit by the fire one night, we get a good sense that Maj. Reeves is a) terrible and b) possibly delusional. He pulls a gun on Bass when he walks away to find grass for the horses; only Bass’ easy manner and quick thinking stops him from getting shot — he cajoles his master into docility so well, you can tell he’s had to do it before. Then, when the men discuss the afterlife, the major makes a point of telling Bass that if anyone goes anywhere after death, only white people will go to the good part of the great beyond. Like I said: a peach.
CHEATERS NEVER WIN | They make it back to Grayson County, Texas, and Bass quickly goes to his wife, Jennie (Lauren E. Banks, City on a Hill), who wonders if the war is over. “It is for me,” he says, embracing her. They make love, but then Bass has to hurry back to the main house; the major’s family is gone, visiting his wife’s relatives, and he’s bored/lonely/drunk/insane/who knows?
He offers to free Bass that very night… provided Bass wins in a game of cards. Bass loses, and sobs, then quickly realizes that Reeves cheated. They fight, and Bass ultimately gets the upper hand; he punches Reeves until he’s either unconscious or dead. (It’s hard to tell!) Then he grabs Reeves’ gun and runs to Jennie’s cabin, crying and apologizing for upending their lives. She kisses him, then orders him to go, because she can’t watch him get hanged. He reluctantly leaves her, gets on a horse and rides away.
Bass is barely off the property when he runs into some white guys with torches. They question him, and it’s starting to go bad, so Bass shoots all three of the men, remounts his steed and runs. The horse balks when they arrive at the river, so he lovingly pets her (“You still a good girl”) and then sends her running before he crosses the water alone.
BASS’ SAVIOR | He makes it to the Indian Territory, but he’s in rough shape; he’s barefoot, his feet are cut and full of things he’s stepped on, and his only sustenance is what he’s been able to scavenge from the bones of dead animals. He’s asleep one day when a gunshot directly above his head jolts him awake. “Seminole?” a gun-wielding woman asks. “Runaway,” he croaks.
The woman, Sara (Margot Bingham, The Walking Dead), brings him home and patches him up. When he recovers enough to thank her, we learn that her husband is dead and she’s raising her son, Curtis, alone. “You’re home. For now,” she tells him, and Bass agrees to stay and help her out.
THE CONFEDERACY LIVES ON | A few years later, Bass and Curtis are at Turkey Creek Trading Post when they see a wagon full of Confederate soldiers in chains; he recognizes one of the prisoners as Esau Pierce (Barry Pepper, The Kennedys), who spoke with him back at the army camp in Arkansas. Bass slowly realizes what’s happened. “The Union won?” he asks, mystified. But he doesn’t have much time to process that. Pierce murmurs a cryptic, “Take flight. Hell is coming on wings of its own,” and then the entire town is under attack from Confederate forces performing an extraction of sorts.
The prisoners hop out of the wagon and help in the melee; Bass is knocked down but gets his wits about him in time to see Curtis — who speaks no English — pull a gun on Pierce. Bass yells to the boy, who looks over… and while the kid is distracted, Pierce shoots him in the gut. As the soldiers ride off, Bass holds Curtis as he bleeds out and dies.
“He died brave” is all Bass can say to Sarah afterward. “He lived brave,” she replies. And then they decide that it’s time for Bass to move on. She gives him her horse, Pistol, and he rides off.
REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD | Two months later, Bass returns to the plantation to find Jennie gone. Reeves’ wife, Rachel (played by Oyelowo’s real-life wife, Jessica Oyelowo) sees him and conveys two pieces of information: Maj. Reeves survived his beating and now has designs on being a politician, and Jennie is has since set up in Fort Smith, Ark.
That’s where Bass finds his love, though he’s devastated to learn that she has a toddler daughter. When he finally works up the courage to talk to her, he’s broken. “I hope he treats you right, your new man,” he says. “He does,” she says, teasing. “Got a bad habit of up and disappearing, though.” He’s shocked as she introduces him to his daughter, then he falls apart on Jennie’s shoulder as the little girl grabs his finger.
The episode ends with Bass and his daughter playing on the bed at Jennie’s place while she looks on, smiling.
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