After more than six hours of buildup, we arrive at the climax of Netflix’s limited series Godless: an old-fashioned, high-noon shootout in the center of a New Mexico town. It took too long to get here, but the finale of Godless is satisfying, providing various degrees of closure for Frank Griffin, Roy Goode, Alice Fletcher, Bill McNue, and Mary Agnes McNue. Series creator Scott Frank originally conceived Godless as a feature film, and it’s disappointingly easy to see where the original concept was stretched to fit a TV format, but the filmmaking and ensemble made the narrative speed bumps easier to forgive. Godless may not have lived up to the potential of its excellent premiere, especially when it comes to the promised exploration of gender and women’s rights in the Old West, but it offered enough cinematic flair and memorable performances for fans of the Western genre to be satisfied. Maybe even enough to hope for a second season.
In the pre-credits scene, Mrs. Dunne is reading the papers to the ladies of La Belle. She gets to the Taos paper run by the slimy Mr. Grigg, who has written a story that not only paints the town of La Belle as a disaster area but also puts a target on it at the same time. There’s an interesting thematic undercurrent here in which Frank seems to be exploring how much journalists can stoke fear and put innocent people at risk, though it’s not explored too deeply. Grigg doesn’t think twice about the carnage that will ensue when Frank Griffin finds out the “wretched women” of La Belle are harboring the man who betrayed him.
Not only does the story reveal to Griffin that Roy Goode is in La Belle, but it also reveals the true identity of “Mr. Ward” to the women who live there. They head out to Alice Fletcher’s ranch to get him, but he’s gone. Now they have to figure out how to protect themselves. Mary Agnes has the right idea: Head for the hills. They’ll ride the horses Alice sold them to someplace nearby and the Griffin Gang will just presume La Belle has been deserted. This plan gets destroyed when the cowardly head of security for the Quicksilver Mining Company, Mr. Logan, and his men steal the horses from La Belle and take off themselves. Now they’re stuck. Truckee has run after Roy Goode, the horses are gone, and the enemy is coming. They’re going to have to arm themselves and do what they can to survive. Grigg returns just in time to get the story, and to get some spit in his eye from Mary Agnes.
As the Griffin Gang gets closer to La Belle, Roy Goode goes to reclaim the money he buried in his father’s grave when he took his clothes. While the residents of Blackdom, the small town of Buffalo Soldiers an hour outside of La Belle, decide what to do, Roy stumbles upon the Quicksilver men who have stolen the La Belle horses. As if that coincidence isn’t eyebrow-raising enough, Bill McNue finds the almost-burned newspaper of the story of La Belle from Taos, and then happens to find Roy and the Quicksilver jerks at the same time. Boy, the Old West was smaller than I thought. Westerns often thrive on coincidence, but there sure are a few of them stacked up here in a row. Still, it’s all worth it for Jack O’Connell’s line delivery after shooting one of Logan’s men because he’s “so damn mean.”
The first shootout comes at a table in Blackdom. As the men and women there are discussing what to do, Frank Griffin and his men arrive to make the choices for them. Frank just wants the people there to stay out of the fight in La Belle. He says grace. He wants to purchase supplies. But these former slaves have history with the Griffin Gang. And that history leads to bloodshed. Shots ring out across the cabin, and Frank is one of the few people left upright. Louise escapes just as Whitey comes up to take her to La Belle.
Dawn is breaking as Bill and Roy ride back to La Belle. Did Roy come back for Alice? We learn that the Native American who has been following and advising Bill is a ghost. So is his dog! Sure, why not? Anyone else feel like Bill’s journey was the most disappointing of the season? He took off in the premiere and then he came back in the finale; it’s as if Frank couldn’t figure out what to do with him. Anyway, as these two new friends ride back into town, Mary Agnes is setting up the ladies of La Belle. She gives her girlfriend an extra pistol. And Alice, looking for her son Truckee, sees the dust being kicked up by the incoming Griffin Gang against the horizon. Grandma can sense evil is coming, too.
The climax of Godless is nearly upon us as long, tense scenes feature the gang riding into town, Grigg taking notes, and Whitey preparing for a fight. Whitey heads out to fight, twirls his guns, and gets a knife in the chest. Poor kid is the first casualty of a day La Belle will never forget, but he won’t be the last. As the men come upon the hotel, all hell breaks loose. The ladies seem to be doing pretty well at first, particularly Mary Agnes and Alice, taking people out from the roof. The men set most of La Belle on fire, and Grigg takes a few bullets in the torso but manages to crawl under the saloon for safety. No one seems to take aim at Frank, who just looks around at the chaos he’s incited.
The action intensifies as a few of Griffin’s men get into the hotel, riding up the stairs on horseback, shooting women along the way. There are a few well-staged sequences here, including a horse going out a window into the fire below. Frank drops the sound effects away, letting the score take over. It’s the kind of bloody, violent, extended sequence you don’t often get on television, and it’s what Godless has built toward for hours.
It’s time for Bill and Roy to do their part. He walks up to the center of town and pulls his rifle. Roy does the same on the other side of the gang. The shooting starts, and Western fans know that you have to suspend disbelief that no one can hit a nearly blind sheriff standing in the middle of the street. It actually looks like La Belle is starting to get the edge. Some of the regulars of the Griffin crew — in other words, the few outlaws who also had dialogue — start falling. Alice shoots a man just before he gets to Roy. It’s nice that she saves him, and not the other way around.
The music and film style changes. The wounded are coming out of the hotel. The battle is over. Some are injured, many are killed, and the survivors are traumatized. Mary Agnes is shooting all of the bodies on the ground to make sure they’re dead. The elderly and the children come out of hiding, and Bill hugs his boy and girl. Louise finds Whitey’s body. And Roy has a job to finish.
After a brief encounter with Alice’s son, the final showdown between Roy Goode and Frank Griffin happens in a green field, against the gorgeous New Mexico sky. Frank takes his shirt off, revealing his missing arm and his wound. Is he playing to any remaining sympathy in his surrogate son? If so, it doesn’t work. Roy orders him to pull his gun. Frank tells him he loves him, just before he does. Of course, Roy beats him and plugs Frank in the chest. Frank looks stunned. Remember, he’s seen his death, and he claims again that this ain’t it. Well, Frank’s vision was wrong. Roy shoots him in the head.
In the final scenes, the long-awaited preacher of La Belle finally arrives in time to give a eulogy for Whitey Wynn. God has finally come to Godless. Roy says good-bye to the Fletchers one last time, telling them that he won’t see them again. He asks Bill McNue to take care of them, and we get some gorgeous shots of Roy Goode riding the Western countryside. As Alice digs under the fencepost that she fixed with Roy in the premiere, finding his satchel of money buried there, we see that Roy has arrived at the coast. He stares out at the ocean as we cut to black, hearing not the score that usually ends an episode but the sound of waves gently reaching the shore.
• Netflix has billed this as a limited series, but I’m sure they’ll do more if fan response is strong. Do you want more? Or do you think this should be the end of Godless?
• Who was your MVP? Michelle Dockery and Scoot McNairy started strong, but their performances felt wasted as the season progressed. Jeff Daniels was fun, but also somewhat limited in development. Jack O’Connell and Merritt Wever made the show for me, and I’d pick the latter as best of the series if I had to pick only one. Hers was the character I was eager to see more, and I feel like she did the most with what she was given.
• Since this is the finale, I’ll triple up on Western recommendations: The climax reminded me of High Noon, Unforgiven, and Sam Raimi’s underrated The Quick and the Dead.
• Final quotes: “The only way you’re getting off that horse is if I shoot you off”; “Mister, I don’t think you’re savvy. In fact, you’re about a second away from getting dealt out of the game”; “Ain’t nothing but pure-ass luck gonna save us now”; “Easy, sister, they don’t need to be killed but once”; and “’Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”