TV Review: Exquisite Storytelling in Netflix’s “Godless”
If you’ve seen any of the Godless trailers, you may think this show is a “feminist Western” about a town full of women. But that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s really a classic Western with some female-forward components.
That’s not to say it’s bad. Godless, written and directed by Scott Frank, is an example of excellent storytelling: from the exquisite New Mexico scenery, to the juicy characters like a nearly blind sheriff and a former whore turned schoolmarm, to the contemporary love stories that add complexity and interest.
Godless takes place in 1884, when most of the West was just getting settled. There is a strong sense of lawlessness (and Godlessness), where whomever had the most guns had the most power. And all you needed to know about a man was in how he took care of his horse.
The main premise of Godless is the war between preacher collar-wearing outlaw Frank Griffin (the usually smiley Jeff Daniels) and his protégé, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). The underlying theme, however, is the cycle of men coming into young boys’ lives at a very impressionable time. It started with Griffin, whose family was murdered by Isaiah Hate. Hate then took Griffin in and raised him to be the murderous outlaw he is today. Griffin then came across orphaned Roy Goode and took him in, explaining, “These are your brothers, and I aim to be your Pappy.” Later, while Goode is in hiding, he teaches fatherless Truckee (Samuel Marty) some poignant life lessons.
Griffin rolls with a large posse (about 30 men) and seems unstoppable, robbing from mines across the West. Now an adult, “bad boy turned good” Roy doesn’t like this rapin’ and pillagin’ way of life, so he breaks from Griffin’s entourage. He returns, however, for the robbery in Creede, CO, stealing Griffin’s loot and goading Griffin into a shootout. This results in Griffin losing his left arm and slaughtering the town of Creede in retaliation.
Living the outlaw lifestyle, Griffin has had his life threatened a time or two, but he claims to have already seen how he dies, and no matter how dire the situation, he always proclaims…“this ain’t it.” And you know what? He’s usually right.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…widow Alice Fletcher (subtlety played by a freckled Michelle Dockery) is struggling to make a living with son Truckee and Paiute mother-in-law Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal). Goode finds solace at the ranch, but is without purpose now that he’s left Griffin and his crew. Ironically, all of his answers lie in the letter in his pocket that he’s incapable of reading.
Roy and Alice strike up a deal, he’ll help her train her horses if she teaches him to read. This works out well for everyone, and you can feel the mounting sexual tension in all of those candlelit reading sessions.
Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) is also looking for his purpose. He’s been failing at most things lately, and wants one last shot to do something right. Seeing his chance at redemption, he leaves La Belle to help Marshall Cook (a mustachioed Sam Waterston) hunt for Griffin.
The town of La Belle is sputtering along after a mining accident killed most of the men in town two years ago. It’s another example of the West’s Godless life, with the town in the early stages of building a chapel and the new preacher has been “on his way” for months now.
There are some highly acclaimed actors in this cast like Jeff Daniels and Michelle Dockery, but they’re still no match for Merritt Wever, who expertly plays spitfire Mary Agnes McNue. We find Ms. McNue wearing her dead husband’s trousers and shedding her married name, “I’m not gonna carry it around like a bucket of water.” Ms. McNue is easily one of the more complex characters, but throughout her life changes, she seems so very content in her own skin.
Ms. McNue handedly takes the reigns of the town in her brother’s (the sheriff) absence. She, along with other prominent La Belle women, attempts to negotiate terms with a mining company in order to get the town’s mine back in business. While Ms. McNue fights for fair terms, the other ladies are desperate for the deal and agree to a lame 90/10 split of profits.
Predictably, Griffin eventually discovers where Goode has been hiding, and hightails it to La Belle, kicking up dust as he goes.
Again, Ms. McNue leads the town in the battle, gathering and distributing all the weapons to the women and stationing them inside Hotel La Belle, the town’s most secure building. As Griffin and his men ride into town, McNue tells Alice Fletcher, “Ain’t nothin’ but pure-ass luck gonna save us now.”
While there are more gun fights than you can shake a stick at throughout the series, this rootin’ tootin’ shootout is the most impressive. The violence is never romanticized; men are brutally shot and are left to lay in the streets. All without the camera blinking away.
After the dust clears, wounded victors emerge, and life continues on. And you’d better believe a cowboy rides off into the sunset.
There will not be another season of Godless, so the story is complete after the last, epic episode.