Writer and Director: Scott Frank
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Michelle Dockery, Merritt Wever, Jeff Daniels
A review by Michael Walls-Kelly
A Marshall (Sam Waterston) walks through a destroyed town. Bodies and buildings have been burned, people have been killed and hanged, a train has been derailed. It’s a hell of a sight and it lets us know right away what kind of western this series will be. It will be dirty, violent, sad and it will absolutely live up to its title.
What Godless ends up doing over the next seven episodes is find a way to maybe dig some of these people out of the violence and sadness and give them a little hope. It was a gradual progression that I wasn’t expecting, but it ended up elevating Godless into something a little deeper.
The story is a standard western yarn with some interesting twists. It opens with Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), an outlaw on the run from his old gang, getting shot in the night by Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a hard woman struggling to run her stead. The two end up helping each other out while Goode is avoiding his old boss/father figure, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) an intense man who will raze towns to get to Goode.
There are other storylines and characters that you’d find in a typical western. There’s a mining town, a grizzled Sheriff (Scoot McNairy) and a hotshot deputy (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), but the creator, writer and director of the series, Scott Frank manages to find interesting ways to twist most of the storylines. The best is our main location, the town of La Belle. It’s a mining town that had a disastrous cave-in years back, killing the majority of the men. This gives an extra level of predation to the mining company weaseling in or outlaws attacking the town. It also allows for a large number of strong, supporting roles for women.
The stand out of the series is Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), the widow of the town’s mayor and the sister of Scoot McNairy’s Sheriff Bill McNue. She’s basically the acting mayor, sheriff and brain in the town. Mary Agnes doesn’t put up with anyone’s bullshit and it’s wonderful to see. She also gets the best romantic storyline, her relationship with the prostitute-turned-schoolteacher is very sweet and leaves me wanting more.
That’s one of the issues I had with some of the subplots. Godless is an odd beast. It was originally supposed to be a film, but was expanded into a seven episode miniseries. Because of that you get supporting characters who are explored enough that we care, but not enough to really give us a satisfying whole. Kim Coates plays Ed Logan, an extremely douchebaggy company man, and he’s fantastic. Unfortunately his character doesn’t end up amounting to much.
Another problem with the miniseries format is that it airs on Netflix, which plays it pretty fast and loose with the episode lengths. I wanted to binge the entire series because of how engaging it was, but the majority of the episodes are bordering on 70 or 80 minutes long. And it’s heavy subject matter. This may ultimately play in the show’s favour, people may space the episodes out and savour them more.
Turning away from my complaints, there are two major strengths I’d like to highlight about the series. The first is the cinematography. I mean, Steven Soderbergh is a co-creator and executive producer, so I should have expected the show to look gorgeous, but for some reason I was caught off-guard. The series was shot on location in Santa Fe and it shows. There are wide open vistas and towering mountains, distant rainfalls and dusty shootouts. Even a dark, lantern-lit tavern scene ends up being a visual standout. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch.
The second strength of the series is Jeff Daniels. Wever was an acting standout for me because I’d only seen her in a couple small roles before, but I had high hopes for Daniels and he blew them out of the water. His character, Frank Griffin, is a complicated one. Griffin is the most philosophical, most evil and possibly saddest character in the series, and he never makes it seem stale or overplayed. If they adapted Blood Meridian tomorrow he’d be my top pick to play Judge Holden. The relationship between Griffin and Goode has a few parallels with Judge and the Kid from that novel and it’s a testament to Daniels that he pulled it off so well.
I don’t expect Godless to end up being a big, mainstream hit like Stranger Things or the Marvel shows, but I hope that enough people take a chance on it. If only so we can get more smart, well-shot shows in genres that could thrive on a streaming service like Netflix.
Watch this show. If you’re not a fan of westerns I’m not sure that this will be the crossover hit that will change your mind, but I’d give it a shot anyway. The biggest surprise I had while going through the series was the slight tone change. The opening few minutes make Godless seem like it will be a nihilistic, horrors-of-the-wild-west kind of show. And, in some ways, it is. But as the series crept closer to a finale, and as the characters continued to develop, the show became a little more hopeful. I was no longer dreading the fate of my favourite characters, I was cheering on their chances. Ultimately not everyone got a happy ending, but I was glad that the series was smart enough to show that everyone could damn well fight for one.
All seven episodes of Godless are available on Netflix.