This is the first episode of Godless that feels like it could have almost been cut entirely. Sure, the background on Frank Griffin and Roy Goode’s twisted father-son dynamic is useful, but most of it has been incorporated already. The same goes for the lovelorn subplots of Mary Agnes McNue and Whitey Wynn, the two heartbroken residents of La Belle. No, only the climax of “Shot the Head Off a Snake” — in which Roy brings Alice Fletcher’s horses to the ladies of La Belle and crosses paths with Grigg and Logan — pushes the plot forward in a significant way. There’s a reason this is the shortest episode so far, but unfortunately, it also kind of feels like the longest at the same time. It’s very likely this is the last transitional episode as we lead into the final pair. At least, I hope so.
Our first flashback is to a younger Roy Goode being taught about horse-breaking from Frank Griffin. As we’ve discussed in earlier episodes, teaching forms bonds, and there’s a sense that Frank is controlling Roy even as he’s imparting knowledge to him. He speaks of the instinct of an animal — fear, flight, and fight. And how it’s better to tame an animal than to merely try to break one. Restraint and kindness get one further. When he says, “It’s about showing him he can trust you, always and forever,” he’s speaking about his dynamic with Roy just as much as he’s talking about the animals.
Shortly thereafter, Roy and Frank are nearly hung, but saved by the rest of the Griffin Gang. He reminds him that family is everything and tells him he will never leave him. Most interesting, he ends with a warning: “Now do as you’re told.” No wonder Frank feels so betrayed now.
In the present day, Grigg is walking and talking with the girl who is building a church for a preacher who will likely never come, when the newsman learns of a man at the Fletcher ranch who shot the head off a snake. Could it be the infamous Roy Goode?
We cut to Roy on the Fletcher property, and life seems pretty idyllic. He’s still learning how to read (although picking it up at a rather unbelievable pace). We get some of the show’s most sweeping classical compositions here, and the impression that Roy and Alice could have made for a nice family in a different world. Of course, in this world, the evil that is Frank Griffin is just over the horizon. Speaking of things that can’t be quite as our heroes want them, Whitey goes to see Louise, but turns away. Shortly thereafter, Roy finishes digging the Fletcher well, and pauses in a way that suggests he knows it’s the last chore he has to do. It’s finally time to go.
Meanwhile, Mary Agnes brings her niece and nephew to Ms. Dunne and quickly leaves. The teacher who was so recently Maggie’s girlfriend follows her to the street and causes a scene. She accuses Mary Agnes of being just as judgmental as the ladies of La Belle whom she hates. It’s the perfect button to push in an ex — the accusation of hypocrisy.
While Bill McNue is trying and failing to rustle up some manpower to chase Frank Griffin, the Griffin gang come upon the last known location of Lucy Cole. She’s gone, but Frank figures out that Roy must have been there. Where else would Cole have gotten the money to buy a nearby saloon? Frank is getting closer to his target.
While Whitey and Mary Agnes wallow in their heartbreak — the former more blatantly than the latter — Roy and Alice have a nice moment reading some of the mail that Roy found in the submerged stagecoach last episode. Don’t worry about Old West identity theft, though: He promises to give it to McNue when he gets back. For now, it makes for good reading practice. It’s a nice, tender scene between Roy and Alice that doesn’t feel overtly romantic. And Jack O’Connell is very good at selling Roy’s worry that this could all come crashing down the minute Frank Griffin arrives.
Another extended flashback reveals how Frank became a surrogate father to Roy. It turns out that the boy fell into his clutches shortly after leaving Lucy. He tried to steal Frank’s horse right in front of him. We also learn that Frank knew about his death that long ago — and that beat is starting to get overplayed — and it turns out Roy isn’t his foreseen killer after all. He brings Roy into his gang, promising to be his father. He says, “I won’t beat ya, and I won’t ever lie to ya. Ever. Welcome home, son.” The sequence feels both too long and not deep enough. The legend of Roy and Frank has already grown so big, it feels like their meeting should have been more dramatically intense. As is, it features a lot of familiar material, including the “Frank knows his death” beat and the “Frank is a surrogate father” beat. This crucial moment is Godless at its most repetitive.
The next morning, Roy Goode is picking out horses for people. He’ll give the ornery one to Mary Agnes, and the one who holds her head up high to Alice. Then Roy tells Alice he has to go. “There’s something I got to finish,” he says. He has to end it with Frank. He also tells Alice about reburying his father, and putting on the old man’s clothes. In a sense, he became his father and didn’t need a surrogate one in Frank Griffin anymore. It’s a long scene, but yet another excellent bit of acting work by O’Connell. Even in a subpar episode like this one, there are great performances to be found.
To end the episode, Alice and Roy bring the women of La Belle the horses they promised. More important, Grigg and Logan spot the mysterious man they call “Mr. Ward.” The antagonistic dynamic between Logan and Alice’s son feels like one that is going to pay off with the boy killing the smarmy villain. Grigg knows that this stranger has to be the Roy Goode that everyone is looking for, and he rides off to report what he’s seen.
• Scott Frank originally conceived Godless as a feature film, expanding it from about a three-hour running time to this iteration’s seven-episode structure. This is the first episode where I felt the film might have been a better choice. How about you?
• On that note, is this the kind of show that’s actually too slow for Netflix? It doesn’t really work well as a binge, especially with each episode playing out at almost feature-length running time. It can get exhausting.
• Speaking of epics, here’s my Western recommendation for this episode: the timeless The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. If you think about it, Godless also has a triangle structure with Roy Goode being its “Good,” Frank Griffin its “Bad,” and Bill McNue its “Ugly.”
• More great lines this chapter: “You go on a buffalo hunt, how’s it feel you come home with a rabbit?,” “I feel like I sprained my damned heart,” “None so fragile as a young man,” “The Good Book says pain is its own teacher,” and “Death ain’t such a big deal — it’s dying that ain’t too much fun.”