Godless

Starring: Michelle Dockery, Jack O’Connell, Jeff Daniels, Scoot McNairy, Merritt Wever

Director: Scott Frank
Released: 2017

Mood: If you’re like “yes we’ve come a long way but there’s still HUGE gender inequality” and want to see strong female Western roles RIGHT NOW but also watch something dark and murdery because you’re still mad about the inequality.

I f*cking love when I discover something so good that I wish I’d seen it sooner. 

Godless was buried on my watchlist since mid-2018. It looked dark, and you have to be in the right mood for dark. After a long work day my brain doesn’t go, “let’s fill our last few hours of consciousness with something depressing!” But ten minutes into the first episode, I was kicking myself for ignoring this miniseries

series art for Godless showing a woman with a rifle before 30 men on horseback
Source

Godless is dark, that’s for sure. It feels dusty, dry, and haunted – all great qualities for a Western. Within the first few minutes you get TONS of action: shooting, gruesome injuries, a flash of a train wreck, scattered dead bodies in a town, and Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) being nonchalant about his arm literally falling off. 

The town of La Belle, New Mexico, is almost entirely populated by women for a reason that you have to wait almost 40 minutes to learn. Godless takes its time unfurling details, trusting that you’ll be hungry enough to wait – and you will

Street signs indicate female-owned shops, and it’s clear from the way that the women of La Belle carry themselves that they’re doing just fine. They also don’t hide their disgust for the local sheriff, calling him a coward and sweeping dirt onto his head as he rides through town (another story you have to wait for).

The town also collectively dislikes Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), who maintains a ranch outside La Belle with her Native American son Truckee (Samuel Marty) and his grandma Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal). 

The whole “what if all the men were gone” theme has been done in tons of movies, shows, even graphic novels. Godless does it in a way that isn’t really about gender; the women aren’t all strong and independent, so it’s not a warrior feminist show. But they’re not all pining for male companionship, either, so it’s not a romance. Both Western female archetypes are present, but the story weaves so many unique characters together that none of them are its defining theme

At the same time as you get to know the women of La Belle, Griffin (Daniels) is on a manhunt for his adopted son, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). He’s literally destroying anyone and any town that he thinks has helped Roy in this betrayal (another story worth the multi-episode wait). 

Roy wakes up in the Fletcher family barn, having been shot in the neck by Alice when he rode up on a dark and stormy night. As Roy heals, he makes himself useful around the ranch and endears himself to Alice and the sweet, determined Truckee. 

You can bet that his presence means Griffin will bring the shitstorm to La Belle. 

There are SO F*CKING MANY rich characters that make Godless worth watching, I don’t even know where to start. Holy shit. We’re taking this to a bullet list:

  • Jeff Daniels’ Griffin is a deeply scary and sadistic bastard, right up there with John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer (Dexter) because you’ve come to trust his sweet, cherubic face in movies; he’s totally unpredictable: slaughtering an entire town one minute then caring for a pox-ridden sickhouse the next, raping women, but kind to homeless boys and horses
  • If you liked Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey, you’ll love watching her work a ranch like a boss; she’s got this guarded look and manner that’s perfect for Alice’s backstory
  • Maggie (Merrit Weaver) was a total standout and one of my favourite characters; she wears men’s clothing, hunts, defends her family property and the town, all in this matter-of-fact way: “I’m done with the notion that the bliss of me and my sisters is to be found in child bearing and caregiving,”; she also gets a subtle queer storyline that was a welcome change of pace in its casual inclusion
  • O’Connell does a good job as that pretty, rugged male lead; he’s strong (and a great shot), but not in a way that takes away from the strength of the women; also, he has a way with horses, which I’m not ashamed to admit makes me hella weak at the knees
  • Deputy Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) was another favourite, but be forewarned: if he reminds you of cocky, charming baby Leo DiCaprio in The Quick and the Dead, it’s for good reason 

Netflix did itself proud with Godless, and it deserved all those award nominations.  The cinematography is on point, with lots of sprawling panoramic views mixed with shots that feel wary, peering out through windows. The entire series feels like it has a thick layer of dust over it that’s crumbling away.  

But its real power lies in the storytelling. The primary plot of a mining company coming into a town run by women hoping to exploit them would have failed. The revenge plot has also been done into the ground, and wouldn’t have made for strong TV. But the layers upon layers that bring multiple smaller stories together – that’s what makes Godless binge-worthy.   

The finale isn’t just any ol’ finale, either. It’s an hour and 20 minutes of serious AF intensity that includes a quick and brutal mass murder that shocked me because I thought the plot was going in another direction. I also legit think the final showdown was the craziest f*cking Western showdown I’ve ever seen. The action erupts with men and women fighting as equals, in the sense that the women don’t get a softer treatment in the filming – you see them getting shot in exactly the same way as the men. 

Every few episodes I’d find myself thinking about the meaning of ‘Godless’ in this series. It makes sense on so many levels. No one in this place and time could catch a break, so they felt like their god had tuned out. There are countless acts that would be considered immoral. Plus, the town has no pastor so it’s literally godless. 

Sidebar: there’s one scene where Griffin says, “God? What God?”, and I immediately thought of that scene in 30 Days of Night with the same dialogue, right before a vampire slaughter. It was fitting.  

Go watch Godless. Do it right now. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again to pick up more of the tiny details from the first episodes that make sense when you learn stories later on. 

PS – Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston) deserves a nod for his fantastic moustache. 

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