The third episode of Godless switches things up a bit. “Wisdom of the Horse” is structured with lengthier, character-driven scenes that allow for the development of supporting players, especially Mary Agnes McNue and Whitey Wynn. The episode is also thematically consistent in that it’s about teaching and the bonds that form between teacher and student. Knowledge is a gift, whether it’s reading or horse-riding or violin-playing, and that giving forms a bond. It’s a slower episode than the first two but just as rewarding, even if it does place the Roy Goode–vs.–Frank Griffin arc on the back burner until its explosive final scene.
Bill McNue opens the episode as he rides toward the canyon in which Roy Goode held off Frank Griffin and the 30-odd members of the Griffin Gang. As Bill cases the scene, we flashback to the showdown in what is the best-staged sequence of the series so far. We see how Roy pulled off a miracle, starting with a gunshot to the head of the horse he’s riding. He then leaps behind the horse, using it as a shield as he takes down “seven men in the time it takes to spit. All dead before they hit the ground.” Instead of just shooting Frank Griffin, he injures him, knowing that a wounded leader will force the entire gang to leave. As Bill reconstructs what happened, a Native American stumbles upon him. He eyes Bill and tells him that he has “lost his shadow.” That’s putting it kindly.
Marshal Cook is dining with Mr. Valentine and the men of the Quicksilver Mining Company. He encourages them to get to La Belle soon, also mentioning that Frank Griffin has lost his tenuous hold on sanity since Roy Goode betrayed him. You can say that again.
Meanwhile, the man who broke the thin ice of Frank Griffin’s sociopathy is on the Fletcher ranch doing some horse whispering. Roy even wrangles the toughest colt in the pen — he’s clearly got a gift. It’s concerning that this subplot undermines the feminist angle of the show by making Alice so reliant on Roy, but he’s not quite reached savior territory yet. It helps that it’s also a well-directed scene by Scott Frank, especially the great shot of Roy riding into the distance. There, he sees Whitey Wynn and a carriage of La Belle Power Women coming to speak to Alice. They want Goode back. She makes a deal: Alice will sell the town her surplus of horses if Roy can stay and break them. In the exchange, Mary Agnes proves she’s a quicker draw than Whitey. Of course she is.
While Marshal Cook gets closer to his target — running into the reporter from who was bullied by Griffin — Bill comes across the traumatized family from the last episode. The woman who was raped and beaten by Griffin and his men tells Bill that he’s only about a day behind the gang, and they’re headed for a nearby town. She gives Bill firm instructions: “You find them, Sheriff. You find them and you kill them all.”
In an episode full of minor details, my favorite may be the woman in La Belle building a church for a pastor who will likely never come. And then we cut to a woman who waits for no man, Mary Agnes McNue. It’s a very good scene between her and Whitey — two people worried about Bill. There’s also a protective side to Mary Agnes, as she tries to take care of Whitey’s dumb ass. (He’s starting to strike me as the kind of likable sidekick who does something heroic in the finale just before he gets shot in the head.) After Mary Agnes leaves, Whitey rides to the outskirts of La Belle, where a group of black Buffalo Soldiers reside. Whitey takes violin lessons from one of the young ladies there, but he’s really just there to flirt. (Now that this subplot has been introduced, the bloody violin in the opening credits add a nice foreboding to Whitey’s future.)
Back at the Fletcher ranch, Roy makes the mistake of putting on the clothes of Alice’s dead husband. She takes it relatively fine, but the dead man’s mother is furious. Roy also notices that Alice’s son can’t ride a horse, so he decides he’s going to give him lessons. The boy gets kicked off his steed, but Roy makes him get back on. In an episode of long scenes, this one seems almost too long but Jack O’Connell gets some nice character development.
Mary Agnes and her girlfriend are seated on a couch, and the pretty local teacher wants to take care of her. It’s interesting that our only romance so far is between women — not exactly typical for the Western genre. In the tender scene that plays out here, Merritt Wever deepens the range of Mary Agnes as a character, showing that she has a soft, romantic side as well.
Roy and his ward are trying to find the escaped horses when they spot the men of the Quicksilver Mining Company. Roy notices that Logan, the smarmy head of Quicksilver security, is kicking his horse to death. It’s a nice detail distinguishing hero and villain. Roy, who is unarmed and with a child, submits and survives. He and the boy bring the horses back and Roy teaches him one of the most important lessons: Taking shit from bullies is the smart move if it means you live another day.
A series of final, shorter scenes unfold. The story about the Griffin Gang coming for Roy Goode and anyone who protects him is published; Ed Logan gets to La Belle and announces he’s the law now; Alice comes to get an educational primer for Roy from the town teacher; and Whitey is advised that he should be wary of the Buffalo Soldiers. Finally, Marshal Cook gets to a darkened saloon, suddenly lit by a match held by Frank Griffin. With little warning, Frank blows the Marshal’s head off. And he takes the note from his pocket about Lucy Cole, someone close to Roy Goode. Frank Griffin is getting closer to his target.
• This is Jack O’Connell’s best episode so far. The whole cast is strong, but he really looks like he stepped out of the Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s, an era in which he would have been a household name.
• The structure in “Wisdom of the Horse” is really different in terms of length of scenes and the withholding of Jeff Daniels until the final beat. It’s great when a show mixes up format this early in its run, keeping things fresh over a relatively long haul. There may only be seven episodes of Godless, but they all run around 70 minutes, which means this is close to the length of a narrative you’d see on ad-supported TV like FX or AMC.
• The opening shot of Bill coming upon the dead bodies in the valley against the endless sky reminded me of John Ford, the king of the Western. And there’s a biblical allegory aspect to the show that I think he would have liked. So, let’s make this episode’s movie recommendation one of the master’s best: 1939’s wildly influential Stagecoach.
• The best quotes from this episode: “That boy’s about as musical as a trout,” “You should never have to eat another man’s dirt,” and “There’s more word for whore than there is for doctor or lawyer.” And, of course, this great exchange: “She’s not right in the head.” “And neither will you be you keep hollering at her like that.”