‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’: David Oyelowo and Chad Feehan on the Finale’s Explosive Showdown and the Future of the Western Series

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SPOILER ALERT: This story contains major spoilers for “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” all eight episodes of which are now streaming on Paramount+.

When David Oyelowo first learned about the legend of Bass Reeves — who escaped enslavement to become one of the first Black U.S. Deputy Marshals west of the Mississippi — nearly a decade ago, the actor-producer set out on a mission to bring the story to the masses.

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Oyelowo’s goal was the same as the one he’d set when playing Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s “Selma”: Who is the man behind the myth?

Over the course of eight episodes, “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” aims to answer that question, filling in the gaps in the historical record about Reeves’ life and career.

“You realize he wasn’t just some saint, or some savior, or someone unattainable in terms of what and who he was,” Oyelowo, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance earlier this month, tells Variety. “He was flesh and bone like me, with all the foibles that come with that. But he did it anyway.”

Oyelowo and “Bass Reeves” showrunner Chad Feehan began plotting the epic 53-minute finale over dinner, when Oyelowo pitched his idea for the character’s arc. “We started by discussing, what is going to make this more than just a Western? What is going to make this universal for a global audience?” Oyelowo recalls.

During that meal, the two men bonded over their experiences as husbands and fathers (Oyelowo has four children, while Feehan has two) trying to make a living in a business that often requires long periods away from home. Reeves and his wife Jennie had 10 children, so that tension between work and family became the core of the show.

“That’s a pretty universal challenge — but you add on top of that a very dangerous job, going out into what was then called ‘the Indian territory,’ which was one of the most difficult and dangerous places to be deployed,” Oyelowo says, noting the high mortality rate for deputy U.S. Marshals like Reeves. “The fact that Bass had a 32-year career is truly miraculous.”

Likewise, Feehan recognized the pillars of the story, which follows Reeves from enslavement — and his harrowing escape amid the Civil War — through his career in law enforcement during the period of Reconstruction as the era of Jim Crow laws begin to take shape.

Looming large in the story is the fictional character, Esau Pierce (Barry Pepper), a ruthless former Confederate soldier who goes on to become a Texas Ranger with intentions that skew less honorably than Reeves’.

From their first encounter on a Civil War battlefield, the two men’s diametrically opposed viewpoints serve as an important source of tension in the show. (Not to mention that Pierce murders a young Indigenous boy who Reeves has come to think of as a son at the end of the show’s pilot.) Over the course of the series, Reeves begins to hear stories about “Mr. Sundown,” a supposedly cannibalistic slave catcher who’s become more myth than man; in the penultimate episode, things come to a head when Reeves begins to suspect that the two men are one and the same.

So, in the finale, Reeves accepts Pierce’s invitation to his Texas cattle ranch and learns that the Ranger has instituted a horrifying grift: re-enslaving Black men who’ve been convicted of crimes and sentenced to death and forcing them to work his land, while collecting his salary for delivering on his duty of bringing them to justice. It’s a plot point inspired by the “convict leasing program,” a system in which Southern states would lease prisoners to private railways, mines and plantations, forced thousands of Black people into what has been called “slavery by another name” from 1865 until the 1930s.

“He has a real sense that Esau is up to no good,” Oyelowo says. “But I don’t think anything prepares him for what he actually sees when he arrives.”

Upon seeing the evil Pierce is enacting, Reeves realizes there’s only one thing to do — take him down, once and for all.

Read on as Oyelowo and Feehan explain how they crafted the final showdown.

The finale begins with a young boy coming up to Bass Reeves to ask, “Are you a lawman or an outlaw?” Why was that conversation important?

Chad Feehan: It was something thematic that we were wrestling with. Bass is wrestling with that question himself, and when it popped into my mind, it was like “What better person to ask than an innocent child?”

David Oyelowo: From the moment when Bass is asked by Judge Isaac Parker [Donald Sutherland] to be a deputy U.S. Marshal, the thing that plagues his mind is “Am I an instrument for justice? Or am I being used as a weapon for ill by a government, a culture and a society that has treated my people in an unconscionable way for centuries?”

The Civil War was fought largely over the evils of slavery, and we are talking about 10-15 years later. At the beginning of the show, we see Bass enslaved and fighting on the side of the Confederacy, so he is under no illusions as to the mindset of a lot of white people in the South — especially people in authority and people who built their wealth on the backs of enslaved Black people. There is a real mistrust and distrust around what “law” and “justice” actually means when it is being pushed through their lens.

So, by the time we get to Episode 8, and Bass is being asked that question, we have seen him go through a myriad of situations — like the arrest of Jackson “Jackrabbit” Cole (Tosin Morohunfola) in Episode 5, who stood up to white man who was re-enslaving people and burning them alive. Similar to Bass, who in Episode 1 nearly beat his master George Reeves [Shea Whigham] to death because of ill treatment. That really throws off Bass’ sense of his own morality and of the justice that he’s supposedly upholding. By the end, there is a gray area to whether he is indeed a lawman or an outlaw.

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves epsiode 8, season 1 streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lauren "Lo" Smith/Paramount+
David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in “Lawmen: Bass Reeves.”

Tell me about crafting an episode that must resolve both Bass’ family strife and this score with Esau.

Feehan: The family and Jennie have always been his anchor in our story. It was really important for us to whittle away that safety net in the back half of the season, only to find it reinstated when he is able to make sense of justice versus law, which he learns are two very different things.

Esau was always designed to bookend the show. I wanted to present the counter argument to the way Bass lives his life. Bass is a man of God; Esau is not. Bass believes in justice; Esau does not. Bass is a family man; Esau is not. So, it’s putting those two blunt forces in opposition to one another in the finale. The way that I described it in the room was, “What would happen if Bass Reeves walked into the Colonel Kurtz’s lair at the end of “Apocalypse Now”? How would Bass — a man of such high integrity and moral standards – respond?” And watch the fireworks explode from there.

Oyelowo: You have to start with a great actor, and Barry Pepper was my first hire. For what Chad and I were talking about to work, you needed a formidable opponent. Someone who was going to loom large over the eight episodes whether they were on screen or not.

Bass is a man of few words. He’s someone who watches more than speaks, and we wanted to give him that thing that literally keeps him up at night. Even though Esau Pierce is a fictional character, he is based on a mindset of people who wanted to keep Black people enslaved, who saw certain people as lesser-than, and had completely bought into the idea of them as possessions as opposed to people. And of course, that’s going to be the most unconscionable thing for someone like Bass, and that’s what leads to the showdown.

Bass and Esau’s tension comes to a head at the dinner table. What do you remember about filming their verbal showdown?

Oyelowo: That was a very intense day of filming. I love Barry as an actor and as a person, but we did not spend much time in small talk that day. We knew we had this very intense scene to do. The levels of unacceptability with not only what was being done, but the images in this episode were profound. All of that tension, that reality and that history worked its way into that scene.

During that scene, it’s revealed that Jackson Cole was not only kidnapped by Esau, but we see through a window that he’s shackled to a post. What was that like to witness?

Oyelowo: We deliberately didn’t have me see it until a camera was pointed at me. I wanted that because, yes, our job is make believe, but any and every time you can be in a situation where you could possibly elicit a real reaction you want to take it. And it was very hard to see. It was very hard to be around.

Between takes, Tosin would stay up there, so you suddenly have a situation where he’s being fussed over by some white male crew members. And they’re just walking around nonchalantly doing their job — as they should — but there’s this weird melding of a historical truth and a modern-day reality that’s becoming something akin to what would have been back in the day. There wasn’t an off button that day. Barry and I are going back to our corners between each round — it was less about doing scenes and more about sparring, or full-on cage fighting.

That setup mirrors the first episode, when Bass is playing a card game against his owner George Reeves for his freedom. How has Bass evolved from that moment to this scene at the table in the finale?

Oyelowo: There’s some design in having these different interactions feel evocative of each other, but bookending the show. What you’re looking for with any protagonist is a steep arc of transformation, so he is a very, very different human being by the end. In Episode 1, you see Bass lash out in a way that was deeply life-threatening for him and Jennie. By Episode 8, he’s a far more measured person, someone who understands the game, the terrain, the stakes, and is able to play the situation in ways that exhibit experience wisdom and strategy, which is why he went on to have a 32 year career in law enforcement.

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves, episode 8, season 1, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lauren Smith/Paramount+
David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in “Lawmen: Bass Reeves.”

The war of words escalates into a shootout on horseback, with Bass shooting Esau off his horse. Did you do that stunt, riding with the shotgun?

Oyelowo: I spent a year learning to do all that stuff — to ride and shoot at the same time, to rear a horse, to ride on all sorts of different terrain. Because that’s the actor’s job. You have to convince the audience that you are that person. That’s how you get them to go on that journey with you.

It was super challenging shooting at night and with horses who, after a while, gunshots make them skittish. But it wasn’t just playing cowboys. It’s rooted in real history that has real stakes, real ramifications, real truth. One of the first images ever captured on moving film is a Black man on a horse. I always was keen that this show should not be something that could be deliberately dismissed as a Western, because Westerns are steeped in myth, distancing the audience in a sense. About a guy who doesn’t say much, has a bit of a squint, a questionable moral compass, gets the girl and rides out of town at the end. We wanted this to be flesh, blood and bone, high stakes, complex, human, flawed. Whereby the audience can see themselves reflected in all of this.

Bass’ last words to Esau are “Death is the only light in this darkness.” How did you land on that last line before he shoots him?

Feehan: It was a question that we talked about a lot in the writers’ room: “Is murder ever justified?” I don’t know if we have a definitive answer. But Bass makes the decision that this man does not deserve the opportunity to continue on, and by the nature of who he is, potentially have the ability to do these heinous things again.

Oyelowo: For Bass, Esau’s death is where the light lies. But death inherently is darkness. We’ve seen that Bass has been plagued by the ghosts of those he has killed in the line of duty, so that line represents the inexorable complexity of that time. The foundation of this thing is rotten in terms of the notion of justice and it begs a big question of America. This country was built on a lot of death. The notion of manifest destiny, that’s a kind of light, but for a lot of people, that’s a hell of a lot of darkness. That line encapsulates all of that.

L-R David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves, Tosin Morohunfola as Jackson ‘Jackrabbit’ Cole and Forrest Goodluck as Billy Crow in Lawmen: Bass Reeves episode 8, season 1 streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lauren "Lo"  Smith/Paramount+
David Oyelowo (as Bass Reeves), Tosin Morohunfola (as Jackson “Jackrabbit” Cole) and Forrest Goodluck (as Billy Crow).

After Bass and his posseman Billy Crow free the Black men Esau had enslaved, there’s an epic shot of them riding away from the burning ranch. Then, Jackrabbit says solemnly, “No one’s ever gonna know, but you made history today, Deputy Reeves.” How does that line underline the intention of this series?

Oyelowo: We wanted that line as an acknowledgement of the myriad of stories about Bass Reeves that we will never know about. In the 32 years he had in law enforcement, the 3,000 outlaws he brought to justice, his ability with a gun and with a horse, his compassion for animals and people, there must have been some unbelievable things he saw and did.

It’s also an acknowledgement of the fact that there’s tension as a Black person in law enforcement, both then and now. At times you feel like you’re betraying your people, and at times, it is absolutely necessary you exist for your people for them to even have a shot at justice.

Feehan: The opportunity to try to correct a wrong is the greatest ideal that you can strive for in this business. A friend of mine is a councilman in a small city in California. A couple weeks ago, he went to the state school board conference where they were pitching new curriculum and one of the pitches was to include Bass Reeves. I’m delighted with the viewership, and over the moon about the accolades that the show, and David specifically, are receiving, but that text from my friend made me feel like “OK, we did our job. We achieved what we wanted to achieve.”

Rachel Reeves (Jessica Oyelowo), the wife of plantation owner George Reeves, also returns unexpectedly, asking Jennie and the Reeves kids if they’d like to return to the plantation to tend her home instead of facing the threat of re-enslavement and the encroaching Jim Crow laws. How did you come up with the idea for her to come back?

Feehan: Jennie and Bass are both visited by the ghost of Christmas past, and have to experience fighting the monster who so much of their life has been in opposition to. Jennie wanted to remain isolated from the changes that are happening and put blinders on. We decided to have it come full circle with a literal slap in the face. “You cannot escape what is coming.” It also gives Jennie, the agency of — if there is a Season 2 — saying, “I’m going to fight back too. I cannot remain isolated and sheltered in this house underneath the power my husband wields. I need to get involved.

The series ends with Bass, Jennie and the Reeves children reuniting in a tender, quiet moment. How did you want to wrap up their story?

Oyelowo: Platforming and celebrating this Black family at the center of this story was incredibly important to us. Despite all of that degradation and all of the challenges they come back together — it’s them and their kids, and there’s joy and love. That’s not just an attempt at a happy ending. That’s what it is, in my opinion, to be African American in this country. There is a resilience that you must have to have Black excellence, to have “Black boy joy,” to own the reality of being an American citizen. Because the alternative to that is a brokenness that’s impossible to come back from.

Because this show was intended to be a limited series, Bass’ arc has a definitive end. But there’s more to his life and legendary career. And “Bass Reeves” has been a big success for Paramount+, so what are the chances of more episodes?

Feehan: I would love to do more, if David is willing and able. It was partially conscious and partially the narrative that drove the decision to end it in 1877. But there is plenty of meat left on the bone in Bass’ life: whether it be him arresting is his son Bennie or the famous outlaw Bob Dozier, who he had a very cat and mouse type of relationship with. There’s plenty of other stories in the canon that, should Paramount ask, I would be willing and able. I had a wonderful experience, and collaborating with David has been the highlight of my career.

Oyelowo: We’ll see. I mean, the reason it’s called “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” is there’s a real intention to showcase other stories and characters that are maybe even less known than his. That’s certainly my hope. Hopefully, we’ve blown the hinges off the door for who walks in after us. There’s plenty of other folks who built this country and were integral to what the West was. I have a voracious appetite; I’m very dedicated to the contextualization of Black life. There’s so much more to do and say and celebrate, so I’m focused on those. For now, I’m passing on the baton to whoever’s got next.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

L-R Lauren E Banks as Jennie Reeves, Demi Singleton as Sally Reeves, and David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves, episode 8, season 1, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lauren Smith/Paramount+
Lauren E. Banks (as Jennie Reeves), Demi Singleton (as Sally Reeves) and David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in “Lawmen: Bass Reeves”

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