Scott Frank and Steven Soderbergh worked together on the masterful Out of Sight, and they’ve finally reunited to create Netflix’s Godless, a show that filters the clichés of the Western through a modern take on female empowerment. With wonderful performances from top to bottom and cinematic production values, this is the kind of series that should make for addictive binge viewing over the Thanksgiving holiday. While Godless boasts quite a deep ensemble, this premiere episode centers on the introduction of four characters on three separate story arcs, so let’s break them down separately as we dive into the series.
Roy Goode & Alice Fletcher
The male protagonist of the show, played with just the right blend of heroism and mystery by Jack O’Connell (Unbroken), Roy Goode is a former outlaw turned hero. After betraying his villainous father figure, the infamous Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), Goode goes on the run and winds up at a ranch on the edge of a town called La Belle. Arriving in the middle of the night, Roy doesn’t declare himself or his intentions quickly enough and gets shot by Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame). She nurses him back to health with the help of her son Truckee (Samuel Marty) and mother-in-law (Tantoo Cardinal), before learning the truth about Goode’s criminal background and how badly the most notorious gang in the state wants him dead.
Given that threat, Alice just wants Roy gone as soon he’s healed. As he’s doing that, we learn more about her day-to-day life on the ranch, including the fact that she’s teaching Truckee how to read. She goes through Roy’s stuff, finding a letter addressed to him in New Mexico from another Goode in California. We also learn that Roy is something of a horse whisperer, which it appears Alice could really use. Truckee’s grandma may not like this newcomer, but the boy needs a father figure and Alice isn’t much of a wrangler herself. It certainly helps that Roy is also a crack shot: When a townswoman brings her baby to Alice and her mother-in-law to whip up a treatment for roseola, he shoots a coiled rattlesnake moments before it attacks the child.
As Alice and Roy warm to each other, we get some background for her character. (This happens while they literally mend a fence. That’s just how people got to know each other in 1884, I guess.) Alice came to La Belle when she was only 17, promised to marry the son of her father’s business partner. They were looking at their property when a “six-foot-tall wall of water” washed her future away from her in front of her eyes. She wandered alone for eight days until she was found, although she saves the details about exactly who found her (and how that man became her second husband) for a future episode. Ultimately, we can tell in the premiere that Alice Fletcher is independent but could use some help, and Roy Goode may have stumbled onto her property at just the right time in her life.
Sheriff Bill McNue
We meet the good sheriff of La Belle with mud on his eyes while he’s sitting in a tent, searching for spiritual help. Played with wonderful world-weariness by Scoot McNairy (Halt and Catch Fire), Bill McNue is a man going blind. He lost his wife a few years ago, and seems to be disengaging from the world more with each passing day. He tells his wife’s tombstone that he can’t forgive his daughter, which likely means that she died in childbirth. Bill is wallowing in grief as the lights dim out on him, but perhaps the arrival of Roy Goode will give him another chance at finding a purpose.
Nobody seems to like Bill, including his sister Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever of Nurse Jackie), who has become something of a masculine figure since becoming a widow, taking control of her own life. You see, La Belle lost almost all of its men in a mining accident, and Mary isn’t just going to sit around and wait for another man to save her. She suggests that Bill go to Alice to see if she’ll sell them some horses.
Later in the episode, Bill meets Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston), who comes to town to drop some exposition about Roy Goode and Frank Griffin. By the time Bill gets to Alice’s farm and discovers that Roy is staying there, he knows precisely how dangerous he is. Even if his villainous days are behind him, Roy will surely attract Frank Griffin and his crew soon enough. After trying to convince Alice to help a town that she feels betrayed her — it seems that the ladies may have shot her second husband in the back — Bill meets Roy face-to-face. The outlaw turns himself in, telling the truth about Griffin and what happened between them: He was trying to draw his malevolent leader away from the town of Creede by stealing money the gang was robbing from a train. It didn’t work. He claims he held off 32 men in a canyon, but lost the cash in the river.
Which brings us to the villain of Godless, played with bushy gray beard by Jeff Daniels. Griffin is a lunatic. We know this before the opening credits even roll, when we see the body of a child hanging in the middle of a slaughtered town, later learning that it was the work of Griffin and his men, who killed everyone in Creede. These are the kinds of people who would kill a child, and they are hunting down the man who not only ruined their robbery but betrayed the gang: Roy Goode. It doesn’t even seem to matter much to Frank that he just lost an arm due to a bullet wound during his last run-in with Roy. He’s the one-armed man of this Western epic, and he’s determined to get revenge.
The premiere is all about setting up the legends of Roy Goode and Frank Griffin. To that end, Frank rides his horse right into a church, trotting all the way up to the pulpit while he sings “Nearer My God to Thee.” He’s the closest thing to God in this country, and he delivers a warning to the congregation: Anyone who protects Roy Goode will suffer like our Lord Jesus.
And Frank knows from suffering. We learn as much during an extended flashback that stands out from the rest of the episode in style. It’s action- and music-heavy, amplifying the sense that these men are already more legend than truth. Still, it’s a bit heavy-handed, especially when a swooning Daniels begins shouting, “You folks want a lynching!? You got one!” Again, there’s a legendary aspect to this flashback that makes the hyperbole forgivable, but one hopes it doesn’t bleed into the present-day material.
In the episode’s final scene, we see Griffin and his men riding through a river, water splashing, silhouettes against the sky. They’re coming for Roy Goode, and they’ll kill anyone who stands in their way.
• If you’re thinking about the gender politics of the show, consider how each of the major characters is introduced: Roy and Frank both have bullets in them; Bill has filth on his eyes; Alice shoots someone to protect her family; and Mary Agnes is defiant and independent. The men are weak and injured, while the women are strong.
• You probably saw Jack O’Connell in Unbroken, but if you like him here, you should seek out his great performances in Starred Up and 71.
• Godless was clearly inspired by Western literature and film, so I’m going to pick a particular movie that pairs well with each episode, in case you want to continue the genre journey. With its lyrical takes and infamous characters, the pilot brings to mind Andrew Dominik’s excellent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
• Frank’s ear for dialogue is so good. A few of my favorite quotes from this episode: “I seen my death — this ain’t it”; “My twilight’s come home, and I didn’t even hear it knocking”; “You shot him — least you can do is feed him something”; and “I have heard of you, Marshal, and of your mustache.”