When Gunsmoke debuted on screens across America in 1955, it began a 20-year run that would change television forever. For two decades, the adventures of Matt Dillion and the townsfolk of Dodge City was required viewing for millions of fans.
The Western had tremendous longevity due in large part to the memorable cast and great writing that kept the show fresh each week. Though they aren’t all classics, the first 10 seasons of the show are known for having some of the best episodes of the entire series.
Season 1: The Guitar
The debut season of Gunsmoke was a revelation for the early days of television and showed the power of the new medium of entertainment. Coming late in the first season, “The Guitar” tells the story of a friendly musician who is threatened by a gang of cowboys when they find out he fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.
The episode shines because it draws a clear line down the middle of Dodge City, and the characters are forced to pick a side. Though Westerns aren’t often thought of as period pieces, the episode ramps up the historical element of the show. Great performances and writing elevate a simple story into a memorable moment for the young show.
Season 2: The Round Up
The second season found its stride early and delivered a gem only four episodes in with “The Round Up.” When Matt accidentally shoots an old friend after mistaking him for a bandit, he goes on a rampage and tries to shut down the whole town in anger.
“The Round Up” is great because it offers viewers something they hadn’t seen up to that point: Matt Dillon out of control. Matt had always been portrayed as stoic and cool-headed, so when he loses that cool, it shows depth in his character.
Season 3: The Cabin
Though the show began in the modest days of the 1950s, Gunsmoke wasn’t afraid to take the stories to dark places. “The Cabin” sees Matt seeking shelter from a blizzard in an old cabin in the woods. There he finds a young woman who has been trapped by a pair of crazed bandits.
“The Cabin” was the darkest episodes of the show up to that point and the clever writing keeps the tension high throughout. Though Western tropes often glorify the Old West, “The Cabin” reminded viewers that it could also be a dark and sinister place.
Season 4: Blue Horse
Morality was usually at the heart of each episode of the show and “Blue Horse” was one of Matt’s toughest dilemmas. When Matt is seriously injured transporting a prisoner, an indigenous man saves him and prevents his prisoner from escaping. Matt is then faced with a tough choice when he finds out that the man who saved him is also wanted by the law.
“Blue Horse” is a perfect example of what made the show great, telling morality tales wrapped in Western guise. Matt is torn between his duty as a lawman and his duty to the man who saved his life and the audience is brought along to ponder their own morality.
Season 5: Tail To The Wind
Halfway through their first decade on the air, Gunsmoke never failed to ask the hard questions. In “Tail To The Wind” a gang threatens a farmer and his wife when they refuse to sell their land. Shockingly, the farmer refuses Matt’s help even when violence breaks out.
The episode sees Matt questioning the role of law enforcement and whether he can do any good in the Wild West. “Tail To The Wind” showed that the show could subtly ask political questions without drawing any negative attention from censors.
Season 6: The Blacksmith
The sixth season showed its best stories early and the second episode was the strongest of the whole season. “The Blacksmith” sees a gang of ruffians trick an immigrant blacksmith into leaving his house so that they can burn it down.
Gunsmoke proved that the show was still influential in the new decade of the 1960s with a taut story about racism. Matt faces a tough challenge when he finds out that he can enforce the law but he can’t stamp out hate.
Season 7: The Gallows
After the sixth season, Gunsmoke’s runtime was expanded to a full hour and the writers proved they were up to the challenge. In “The Gallows” Matt is wounded while transporting a prisoner who has been sentenced to death. The prisoner doesn’t run away and actually saves Matt’s life which leads to the Marshall questioning everything he believed about the man.
“The Gallows” is rife with tragedy as Matt realizes that the law can often be too swift and harsh to judge people. Matt, and therefore the audience, is left to question their own ideas about law and whether or not it really is possible to have justice.
Season 8: With A Smile
While Gunsmoke is often about the common people of Dodge City, “With A Smile” shows the upper crust of the old west. A rancher’s son is convicted of murder and yet he believes that his wealth and privilege will get him off the hook.
Matt Dillon’s belief in justice is often challenged and in the episode he must think rationally instead of emotionally. The episode is subtly political and asks tough questions about the power of justice and whether it really is fair for all.
Season 9: Prairie Wolfer
As civilization comes to Dodge City, so too does conflicts between the old west and the new. “Prairie Wolfer” tells the story of a man who is hired by the Cattleman’s Association to hunt the wolves that have been killing cattle. While hunting he discovers that it is actually the work of cattle rustlers who frame him for the cattle killings.
“Prairie Wolfer” shows that sometimes truth isn’t easy and is often the hardest option to take. The character’s loyalties are questioned and Matt finds himself stuck in the middle unable to do anything but listen and hope the truth comes out.
Season 10: Hung High
Halfway into becoming one of the longest-running TV shows ever, the writers found ways to introduce new and interesting scenarios. “Hung High” sees Matt framed for murder when the prisoner that he is transporting is killed by a mob.
Matt Dillon is usually on the other side of the law and the episode gives him a unique opportunity to learn strong lessons about justice. The episode asks questions about capital punishment and whether or not there is any truth to the idea of law and order.