January 1, 2016KR BlogUncategorized

Gus, All Too Human

I swear, Gus. You’d argue with a possum.” -Call

Is Lonesome Dove the greatest miniseries of all time? I’ve definitely watched it more times than any other miniseries. Watching Roots was like jury duty–just tried to get through it, though it had some interesting moments. Feast of All Saints was better, I thought, if you’re interested in slavery-era stories. John Adams was pretty dope, and Shaka Zulu is, of course, a classic. But the story of ex-Texas Rangers Captain Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones) and Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae (Robert Duvall) stands out from all others. Why? Robert Duvall’s Gus is one of the most fully human characters to ever appear on a TV screen.

He enjoys prostitutes, whiskey, and giving a swift kick to his two pet pigs. He owns half a herd but never works in a traditional sense, though he takes on some of the most dangerous jobs–tracking an outlaw Indian named Blue Duck, carrying out a rescue mission to retrieve his friend Lorena from a rough bunch that are out to kill him. He asks Clara (Anjelica Huston) to marry him over and over through the years and she always refuses; he cries in a pecan grove when he thinks about how he let her get away from him. His best friend is Call (Tommy Lee Jones), his foil–an emotionless, statue-faced man who speaks in clipped sentences, devoid of any color unless you count husk and rasp. (SPOILER ALERT) But when Gus is on his deathbed, blood-poisoned by gangrene because he won’t let the doctor amputate his other leg on account of his vanity, Call gives us more emotion than any other moment in the series, with that same gruff voice, in a one-word sentence, as he lays his hand on Gus’s chest and whispers like a ghost, like he’s the one that’s dying, “Auu-gusss-tuussss.” Two masters, Jones and Duvall, at the height of their craft, rendering characters who each shine light on the strengths and flaws of the other. Together their silhouettes and voices cut from the sky and air the very definition of friendship: a thorough knowledge of the other’s weakness, a total respect for the strengths that grow out of those limitations, and love. More love than usually can fit within a script or a screen.

We fall in love with Gus, truly, though, through his interactions with Lorie (Diane Lane). She is at once his favorite prostitute, and a kind of surrogate granddaughter. He is protective but not aggressive about it. When she takes up with Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), whom Gus knows will soon leave her, he warns her gently about Jake, warns Jake about Jake, reminding him that he likes to make promises he can’t keep, and continues to charm and joke with Lorena, and, of course, continues to do all he can to get a “poke.” When she is abducted by the psychopathic Blue Duck, then rescued by Gus only moments from being raped and cut up, he brings her back to life with a game of cards–the same thing he’d use to trick her into having sex with him in the past. But this time, the game invites Lorie to come back to reality. When she lays down her cards, even before they’ve place their bets, evidence that she can’t even cognitively process a hand of poker, he calmly reminds her of the rules of the game. “They shouldn’t have took me, Gus,” she says and breaks down. He holds her, and says “I know, honey. But they did. I know they shouldn’t have, but they did. They did.” He knows she has to face the reality of what happened in order to heal, that if she buries herself in unacceptance and resentment, she may never resurrect. This is his strength, to face the reality first, and invite her in.

“Now, you just go ‘head and cry it on out. You got a long time to live, and you don’t want this thing draggin ya back, see? So you just cry it out on ol’ Gus. You’re safe now,” he says while Lorie sobs into his chest. Long before there was the 20th century concept of trauma, I suppose some people knew about how pain leaps out of the past to occupy the present, and future, of a person. Hopefully, in the days before the miracles of modern therapy, there were more than a few Guses who, through their own familiarity with loss and crime in a beautiful and uncontrollable world, consoled and encouraged their fellow travelers with humor, spontaneity, and presence.

All this talk of strength has led me to revise my thesis–perhaps Lorie is the most human, strongest of all characters in the story. She is hurt so much, so mistreated, yet manages to want to love again, be vulnerable again. She is also, of course, the one most likely to be seen as weak, but that is because this is what we do: misunderstand, and under-esteem, those we deem to be weak–the abused, the downtrodden, the suicides–when they are, based on what they have survived or even failed to survive up to this point, no matter what condition they may now be in, probably the strongest among us.