Wednesday, December 20, 2017
December 20, 2017: Longmire Lessons: Cowboy Bill
[I know I wrote a week’s series of posts on Longmire a couple months back. But having now seen the show’s last season, I can say definitively that a central wish for the AmericanStudies Elves this year is for everyone to experience this wonderful American cultural work. So this week I’ll make a relatively spoiler-free case for doing so by sharing a handful of lessons we can learn from characters on whom I mostly didn’t focus in that prior series. Add your thoughts in comments, Longmire Posse and everyone else!]
[Addendum to the above: serious Season 6 SPOILERS in these final three posts!]
On a mysterious character who embodied first Western myths and then American realities.
One of the new villains introduced in the last two seasons of Longmire was Eddie Harp, a murderous, psychopathic thug in the employ of the Boston Irish mob. Played to perfection by Dan Donohue, Harp became a lot more than that stereotypical character description, or even than that of a charming psychopath (itself a pretty common stereotype in recent pop culture). The son of a lifelong aficionado of the Western genre, Harp was perhaps even more obsessed with the genre than his father, and spent a good bit of his screentime and dialogue offering meta-textual commentary on the show’s various uses and revisions of Western tropes. As a result, while his character significantly contributed to the final two seasons’ plotlines, Harp added even more to the show’s overall engagement with the genre of the Western, and in particular with the kinds of iconic myths and images that constitute that longstanding American cultural form.
Longmire likewise introduced its own version of another such mythic figure in the final two seasons: Cowboy Bill, a legendary and seemingly likable bank robber/outlaw weaving his chaotic way across the West. Such outlaws have been a Western staple since at least the Gilded Age stories and myths of Jesse and Frank James and Billy the Kid and the like, and as was often the case with those stories (historical facts and details be damned), Cowboy Bill is famously polite and charming, frequently even leaving his victims offering praise for the man who had robbed them. Yet as it did so frequently, Longmire also added layers and revisions to the longstanding Western myth, such as the central detail that Cowboy Bill did not use (or at least did not show) a gun while performing his acts of outlaw banditry. Indeed, a key plot thread in the first episode of Season 6 centered on the misuse of guns by those seeking to thwart a Cowboy Bill robbery, a strikingly new iteration of the stories of armed and dangerous outlaws (charming or otherwise) so prominent in Western and Wild West mythologies.
Yet it was toward the end of Season 6 that Longmire truly complicated, and indeed entirely undermined, any and all mythic qualities to Cowboy Bill. It did so by revealing Bill to be none other than Bob Barnes (John Bishop), a lifelong friend of Walt’s who has since the show’s pilot episode also embodied a kind of self-aware irresponsibility and blockheadedness. At times Bob has been a harmless buffoon, but ever since the Season 2 storyline in which Bob and his son Billy were revealed to be the drivers behind a drunken hit and run accident that gravely injured Cady Longmire, there’s been a dark side to the character as well. In the final seasons, that dark side was amplified by Billy’s descent into drug addiction, one Bob blames on his own reckless and irresponsible parenting and actions. And Bob’s criminal performance as Cowboy Bill was a direct result of those histories, as he could no longer pay for Billy’s rehab stint and resorted to bank robbery as his last-ditch effort to do right by the son he had helped push toward such a tragic 21st century situation. I don’t think too many Wild West outlaws had drug-addicted sons for whom they felt responsible and in service of whom they were desperately committing their robberies, and that reveal both changed the meaning of Cowboy Bill and exemplifies Longmire’s commitment to presenting 21st century revisions of Western myths.
Next lesson tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other texts you wish we’d all check out?