The one-liner pitch that you’ve probably heard about Godless, the seven-episode Western TV series from Netflix, is that it’s about a Wild West town populated entirely by women. That is factual, but it’s also not really what the story is about. Expectations can play a tricky role in how you come into a new piece of pop culture and it can be argued that selling Godless with that blurb does a disservice to the expectations of viewers.
If, however, viewers can set aside that expectation, they’re in for one of the better American TV shows set in the West in a long time.
While there are multiple storylines and characters with plenty to do and care about, the crux of Godless centers around Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a cruel man with dubious religious beliefs who leads a murderous gang across the West, and Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), whom we meet as an injured outlaw on the run from Griffin, whom he has stolen from and almost killed. Goode is taken in (after almost being killed) by Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a self-sufficient frontierwoman raising her half-Paiute son with the help of her mother-in-law.
While they figure out what they all mean to one another, the nearby town of La Belle, populated almost entirely by women after a mining accident killed nearly every man who lived there, has to deal with what to do with that valuable mine and which men they can trust to have around.
La Belle is the most prominent setting of the show,but it’s far from the only one. Truth be told, while the selling point on the show might be the progressive nature of a town run by tough, independent women, Godless is still at its core a traditional Western, focused on cowboys, outlaws, broken men, and redemption at the end of the gun. It also dabbles in a few tropes that seem intrinsically linked with the genre (the magical Native American acting in service of the white people comes up more than once).
Those issues aside, there’s still a lot to like about the show and much of it comes from the performances. Daniels continues to remake himself, this time as a menacing monster who barely masks his contempt for others while also generating enough presence and charisma to let us understand why 30 men follow him at will.
It’s likely that if American audiences know Dockery at all, it’s as Lady Mary from Downton Abbey. Her role here is about as far as one can get from that and it’s amazing how quickly you forget the former. Her accent is spot-on and she owns the surefire will and determination that you’d expect someone in her predicament to have.
O’Connell and Scoot McNairy, who plays La Belle’s ailing sheriff Bill McNue, both offer up layered performances about wounded men trying to figure out their place in an unforgiving world. Merritt Wever’s turn as La Belle’s de facto leader Mary Agnes balances femininity and masculinity in a way we’ve rarely gotten to see in the Western genre. Her relationship with well-off prostitute-turned-schoolteacher (Tess Frazer) adds a sweet and romantic note you’d also be hard-pressed to find in many other shows like this.
And of course, we can’t go too much further without mentioning Sam Waterston’s turn as Marshal John Cook, gracing us with what might be the greatest mustache the world has ever known.
Indeed, the predicament of La Belle does offer up plenty of opportunities for show creator Scott Frank (screenwriter of Out of Sight, Minority Report, The Wolverine) to explore what a female-centric Wild West town might have looked like. Life carried on for the women of La Belle but we see different aspects of what that means through the eyes of various characters, some of whom would like to see more men around and others who are more than happy to proceed without them.
While it does sound as though Godless was developed as a TV show, it’s hard not to imagine after the fact that it was conceived originally as a movie. The throughline of the show ultimately puts on the onus of Frank and Roy, and that plot is woven throughout all of the others that happen around it. As such, some of the secondary and tertiary plots do get some short shrift to make room for the battle at the center of it all. A budding romance between a Pinkerton agent and a La Belle hideaway feels forced in. Meanwhile, the entire storyline surrounding Blackton, the neighboring town populated by Buffalo Soldiers and former slaves, feels rushed and not entirely serviced as well as it could have been.
Godless might actually be the rare modern TV show that could have benefitted from more episodes. While most TV shows these days seem to have a strong understanding of their beginning and end and use a lot of filler in between (Hi, Marvel’s Netflix shows), Godless seems to have a very clear idea of where it’s going along the way and ultimately could have helped its case more by adding one more episode to pad out some of those competing storylines featuring interesting characters.
Of course, you could also chalk up those frustrations to one of the core tenets of the show itself, that life in the West was cruel and unfair. There is very little justice to be found in a place as lawless and, well, godless, as this one. That’s the ethos that Frank Griffin carries with him on his death march across the land and it’s an idea that comes up time and time again as doom befalls certain characters in more brutal and heartbreaking ways than you would hope. One death in particular that comes early in the seventh episode almost feels like a mistake until you remember the unfair outcome is the reality of what life was certainly like back then.
Frustrations aside, Godless provides a very clear vision of what it’s trying to say and how it wants to get to its conclusion. That conclusion includes one of the best, and bloodiest, shootouts we’ve seen in a while. It’s entirely possible that the show will return for a second season, but you could make a solid argument that it sets itself up to be a contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. If that’s the case, it might be for the best as most of the characters get the sendoff they deserve and audiences are reminded that while there are new ways to tell stories like this one, there’s something about a simple story of good vs. evil that remains timeless no matter the details.