If you’re a sucker for Westerns, boy, are you going to love Godless.
If you’re not a sucker for Westerns, boy, are you going to love Godless anyway. This new limited, seven-episode series from Netflix is just that great.
Replete with gorgeously infinite landscapes and so many fascinating characters that you’ll change your mind every five minutes about which one is your favorite, Godless is a wonderfully modern addition to the genre that’s simultaneously classic and traditional in all the right ways. It’s a thoroughly American piece of work that’s landing at the perfect moment: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which lets audiences appreciate it on the most American of holidays.
Created, written, and directed by film scribe Scott Frank and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, Godless may wind up being credited with reviving the Western, even though films such as Hell or High Water, Logan (co-written by Frank), and Wind River, not to mention HBO’s Westworld, already suggest that it’s still alive and well. But unlike those examples, which mix a Western sensibility with other modes of storytelling (see: heist flick, comic-book movie, crime procedural, and sci-fi), Godless is a true purebred. It’s got gun battles and galloping horses, sweeping shots of wide open spaces and climactic showdowns in the middle of dusty main streets, and bad men preying on decent ones as well as righteous men chasing down the wicked.
What distinguishes it is the way it draws on those familiar tropes while unfurling a narrative that also deals with race, sexual orientation, and, most pointedly, gender, in addition to more typically Western themes of honor and resilience. In many ways, Godless is a lot like your grandfather’s Western. But it also speaks to your mom and your sister and your best girlfriend, and makes sure to hand them a fully loaded rifle while it’s at it.
The show’s core relationship and central cat-and-mouse game involves frightening outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell of Unbroken and Money Monster), a valued member of Frank’s posse who cuts ties — and takes off with the loot from a robbery — after Frank’s behavior crosses a moral boundary Roy can no longer abide. After making his getaway, Roy winds up on a farm owned by Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a widow living with her Native American son and mother-in-law on her New Mexico property, where she provides Roy with shelter in exchange for his help with her horses.
Alice is considered an outcast by the women who live in the nearby town of La Belle, where the population is mostly comprised of females due to a devastating mining accident that wiped out nearly all the local men. With their husbands out of the picture, the ladies have taken on positions of greater authority, a role that Mary Agnes (a superb Merritt Wever), once married to the town mayor, particularly relishes. Her brother, Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), relishes his authority, too, even though he’s losing fragments of it on a daily basis because of his rapidly diminishing eye sight. Still, his near-blindness doesn’t stop him from eventually trying to find Frank and get him in custody before that unstable drifter can roll into La Belle and wreak serious havoc on a town still desperate for stability, so much so that the women strike an agreement with a mining company that may not be entirely to their benefit.
These are just the broadest strokes of the plot, which also explores the dynamics in various developing romantic relationships, some same-sex, interracial, or otherwise forbidden. Given the scope of the series, it’s hard to believe that Frank originally envisioned Godless as a movie, even though visually that ambition is obvious in just about every frame. Shot in a cinematic 2:39 aspect ratio and presented with black bar framing to preserve the endless stretch of canyons, blue skies, and flat, untouched land, there are scenes in this that could easily double for moments from a John Ford film.
But if Scott and co. had tried to condense all this story and detail into a two-hour experience, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact it has by taking its time to unspool. Sometimes, one could argue, it takes too much time. Each episode is practically a movie in itself, with most running well over an hour and the finale extending to a feature-length 80 minutes. Certainly there are segments that could have been shortened without losing too much, like the extremely lengthy episode-three sequence in which Roy tames Alice’s horses. Then again, there’s something pretty great about sinking into this evocatively wild world and hanging out with its characters for as long as it wants to let us.
And wow: these characters and this cast. Everyone in this is so terrific that if every member of the ensemble gets an Emmy nomination next year, I’d say, “Yeah, that actually makes sense.”
Wever, who already has an Emmy for her work on Nurse Jackie, oozes so much low-key strength that I found myself wishing Mary Agnes had her own spin-off. Even though she loved her husband, there’s no question that this woman has truly found herself in the wake of the town tragedy. She doesn’t just walk down the street, she striiiides, proudly wearing pants instead of the skirts and dresses that society expects of her and looking with sideways skepticism at just about anybody who crosses her path. But Wever also infuses her with warmth and compassion, which she shows to those she particularly cares for, including Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the skilled but thick-headed town deputy. In a year where TV has been blessed with many quietly powerful female characters and performances, this still rises as one of the best. (By the way, if you want to feel old, please help yourself to remembering that Brodie-Sangster, now in his late 20s, is the same actor who played young Sam in Love Actually. Further by the way: he’s also very good in this.)
What Michelle Dockery does here is pretty high up there, too. Since Downton Abbey, the actress has seemingly made it her mission to wash all the Lady Mary Crawley right out of her hair, first on TNT’s Good Behavior and now on Godless. Well, achievement unlocked: as Alice, her accent is devoid of any trace of British refinement and she speaks in a lower octave suggestive of weariness but also no-nonsense practicality. I’m not sure what the exact polar opposite of Lady Mary is, but Alice comes pretty damn close. The fact that Dockery can make both of them so vivid and real is a testament to her talent. Like Mary Agnes, Alice carries herself with confidence but a capacity to switch into high alert when she senses that her family’s peace may be threatened, qualities that women only rarely got a chance to convey in the Westerns of yore.
Speaking of threatening, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jeff Daniels as Frank Griffin, who is established from the get-go as a monster but eventually reveals a capacity for empathy that only makes it more unnerving every time he glides into a scene. You just never know if the guy is going to show kindness or blow someone’s head off, and Daniels clearly relishes playing with those opposing forces. Just the way he delivers certain lines — “You want me to kill ya?” he says while holding a key character at gunpoint. “Turn you into a bedtime story?” — allows his words to ooze out and stick rather than simply land. He’s terrific.
So is the reliably excellent McNairy and the brooding O’Connell. The English actor’s breakout Hollywood moment may have been his starring role in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, but it’s his portrayal of Ray that really establishes his star quality. He may be British, but he has a stoic and sturdy charisma that makes him a total natural to portray the flawed hero in a good old-fashioned American Western.
Look, I could go on and on, especially about the extended climactic face-off in the finale that is one of the best action sequences on TV in recent memory. (I gasped twice while watching it, and I am not a gasper.) But I’ll stop writing now and just leave the rest of Godless for you to experience.
It is Thanksgiving and while times are hard, there are things for which all of us can be thankful. One of them is this: that Godless is very, very good.