The explosion of quality television programming these days, especially on streaming, has made it nearly impossible to keep up with every new show of interest, no matter how buzzed or acclaimed. The holiday break gave me an opportunity to finally catch up with one, Netflix’s well-regarded Western, Godless.
Produced by Steven Soderbergh, the limited series was created by screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Logan), who wrote and directed all seven episodes. Much of the promotion for the show played it up as a feminist neo-Western with a cast primarily of women. Unfortunately, that’s a little misleading and not entirely true. However, women do play a strong role in the narrative, more so than most Westerns.
The majority of the story centers around the small nowheresville of La Belle, New Mexico. A terrible mining accident killed almost all of the men in the town, leaving mostly only their widows behind. This forced the women to become self-reliant, though some miss their old lives more than others. The mayor’s widow, Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), is a very tough-minded pragmatist (and a crack shot when needed), who believes that the ladies are fine on their own and perfectly capable of sustaining the town without the need of any menfolk. She has also unapologetically taken up a romance with the resident schoolmarm (Tess Frazer), and Mary Agnes casts such an imposing presence on the town that nobody else would dare treat this as scandalous.
Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), one of the few men still around, is Mary Agnes’ brother. Most of the women think he’s a coward, but in reality he’s been hiding the fact that he’s going blind. Feeling useless and emasculated, Bill makes a probably unwise decision to go off on his own to hunt for notorious outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), whose gang of thirty hardened bandits has been reported in the area. Also on Griffin’s tail is Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston), perhaps a more effectual lawman, but one clearly near the twilight of his career.
As you can imagine, Frank Griffin is not a very nice man. Having recently lost an arm, he’s in a particularly sour mood these days. The amputation came as a result of an injury inflicted during a gunfight with one of his own men, a young desperado named Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) that Frank had raised since childhood as his own son. Furious about that betrayal, Frank burns with a Biblical-level of vengeance on his mind. He slaughtered an entire town of innocents – every man, woman, and child – that he believes aided Roy, and has vowed to do the same to any place that harbors him.
Unbeknownst to most of its residents, this is very bad news for La Belle, because Roy is currently hiding on a ranch just outside of town. Fundamentally a good man despite his career and upbringing, Roy may be developing feelings for the resilient widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) who patched up his own injuries and allowed him to stay and work for her as a ranch hand. As Frank follows Roy’s trail, and Bill follows Frank’s, a confrontation on the streets of La Belle looks inevitable.
Any Western TV series produced in the modern era exists in the shadow of HBO’s Deadwood, which is a near-impossible standard for most to live up to. In many respects, Godless is the closest thing we’ve had to a true Deadwood successor. For the most part, the show has excellent writing, performances, and production values.
The characters are richly-realized and three-dimensional. Merritt Wever (who’s great in everything she’s done, frankly) is a real standout as the take-no-shit Mary Agnes. Thomas Brodie-Sangster from Love Actually and Game of Thrones has a very fun part as Bill’s hotshot deputy, a boy who’s quick with his pistols but slow with his wits. Jeff Daniels, who’s mostly known for mild-mannered roles, goes very dark and is damned terrifying playing a monster. Yet even his villain turns out to be very complex and has facets you wouldn’t expect.
Shot in gorgeous scope widescreen (which looks especially great projected onto a Constant Image Height screen), the series is a first-class production all the way.
Where the show falters, unfortunately, is the feminist angle. Although the female characters are well-written and have more agency than the Western genre usually allows, the narrative ultimately comes down to a story of good men facing off against bad men, and sons confronting their fathers. In the final showdown, the women largely get short-shrift as the male characters take over and push them aside. I honestly found the denouement galling when, during a funeral scene after half the women in town are murdered, the only character to get a eulogy is a man.
Trying to put these issues in perspective, if Godless had been produced a couple decades ago, and perhaps hadn’t been promoted so hard based on its alleged feminist bona fides, it might have been hailed as a masterpiece of the genre. As it is, the show doesn’t quite live up to all its ambitions or lofty ideals. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling piece of entertainment that can be forgiven some flaws.