Starring: Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Angelica Huston

Director: Simon Wincer
Released: 1989

Mood: If you’re under the weather and need a long-winded Western that’s guaranteed to kill half a day on the couch and will probably lull you into a nice sleep.


“If you want only one thing too much, it’s likely to turn out a disappointment. Now the only healthy way to live as I see it, is to learn to like all the little everyday things.”

Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall)

I’ve heard Lonesome Dove called a lot of things. “An epic Western.” “The Western for all movie fans.” “The best Western ever made.” The TV miniseries is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 novel by Larry McMurtry (which he actually wrote from his own 1971 Lonesome Dove script that he’d unsuccessfully pitched to John Wayne).


The show spawned multiple spin-off books and shows. So you go into it with this idea that it’s THE Western to watch. 


Is it though? 


It’s GOOD. I definitely thought Lonesome Dove had many solid aspects. It’s just not my favourite for any of these actors, or my favourite story. And the first three hours presented my little brain with more challenges than rewards. 


Here’s my quick take: it’s the Game of Thrones of Westerns with 99% less action and zero dragons. (I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, but everyone’s obsessed with it so I’ve seen enough reviews and heard enough long-winded rants that I get the gist: everyone died except Peter Dinklage, so I assume he won the thrones.)


Better yet, it’s a Western version of Grumpy Old Men with 99% more dying.


Writing these analogies was sadly more enjoyable than watching most of Lonesome Dove


I’ve since seen Dead Man’s Walk, the prequel they made seven years later – holy shit, it’s SO GOOD, watch that instead. This might be the only time in my entire life I’ve advised choosing a prequel over the original.


photo of the Lonesome Dove DVD next to a pair of cowboyboots


The miniseries spans approximately six hours, and is broken up into four parts. Normally that would be nothing to me, I’m a muthaf*cking binge-watching queen! But the entire first part is soooooo much talking. Everyone is chatting away, and there are a LOT of characters so it’s difficult to follow. 


I realize that there were complex backstories to be developed for all those characters, but dang. I legit understood the plot more from reading the Wikipedia article than from watching. And then they reference things from the first two parts closer to the end of the show, which gets frustrating. 


It’s totally possible that trying to bring every last plot point from the book onto the screen is what actually made the plot too hard to follow. Trimming it down might have done wonders for the pacing and helped the really strong parts stand out.


illustration of a fancy moustache


Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones) and Augustus “Gus” McCrae (Robert Duvall) are two retired Texas Rangers running a cattle ranch in Lonesome Dove, Texas. The banter between Duvall and Jones is everything you’d expect – it doesn’t even feel like acting, they slip so comfortably into these roles. 


There’s a young man at the cattle ranch who could be anyone’s kid, since the whole team slept with his mama. Jake Spoon (Robert Urich) rides back into town to meet up with his former Ranger pals, and something about him is immediately off-putting so you know he’ll be trouble. 


Most of the men seem to be infatuated with the town’s one-and-only prostitute, Lorena (Diane Lane). It’s more than a love triangle; it’s kind of a love pentagon. Each of the women in Lonesome Dove has at least two love interests, which is actually super fitting for the ratio of men to women in those small towns.


There’s also side drama with Sheriff July Johnson (Chris Cooper) and his wife Elmira (Glenne Hedley). He goes out on the trail of Jake Spoon, who shot a man in Arkansas, and Elmira makes July bring her son along – then promptly takes off in search of her ex whom she regrets leaving. That drives Johnson’s deputy Roscoe Brown (one of my faves, Barry Corbin) on his own quest to find and notify the Sheriff about his wife’s antics. 


(If you’re already lost, imagine that it took an hour and a half plus reading Wikipedia to grasp enough of the initial plot points to write three damn paragraphs.)


There’s plenty of soapy drama, but there’s no dramatic tension, if that makes sense. No obstacles other than a couple of exciting scenes with a storm. Then BAM, part one ends with a hella sad incident that picks off one of the characters.  


The action picks up slowly through part two and then snowballs, with huge shootouts and a kidnapping and chases. Then, almost as abruptly, part four becomes something else entirely. Tommy Lee Jones has to carry the last 45+ minutes, which is a huge challenge given Call’s stoic nature. It’s like a show within a show at that point; an epic man vs. nature journey that is immensely satisfying as a standalone adventure.


illustration of a fancy moustache


Lonesome Dove is an interesting Western because there’s no hero, no crack-shot gunslinger to cheer for. Everyone has their vices and has done varying levels of bad things, or at least has a sad story that never gets resolved. In that way, Lonesome Dove is refreshingly ruthless, at least compared to other ‘80s Westerns.


With that said, the pacing really killed it for me. Commanding actors like Danny Glover and Anjelica Huston are kind of quiet and unmemorable. That’s the thing – nothing about Lonesome Dove stayed with me between parts, or after I finished watching.


Apparently author McMurtry was disappointed with the way the miniseries adapted the book. He said, “I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of Gone With The Wind of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.”


But hey, you get to see a young Steve Buscemi! One who looks, unsurprisingly, exactly like old Steve Buscemi. 


I do plan to read the Lonesome Dove book. It seems like it would be a lot better in that format.