Considered one of Netflix’s big budget originals, Godless debuted on the internet entertainment service in November 2017 after a long journey of rejections of its storyline. The limited series, written and directed by Scott Frank and executive-produced by Casey Silver and Steven Soderbergh, was originally set to be a three-hour movie but gained a lot of hype when it was made into a seven-part series.
Godless’ plot and story develops quite slowly, like a classic piece of literature that’s shot to be a Hollywood cowboy movie. I personally enjoyed the slow development of the plot and was actually relieved that Godless does not have those dramatic robbery type scenes you would expect in a Western series. Instead, the series creatively presents some historical backstories with a sensitive and authentic approach to the time period the story is set.
If you tend to avoid Westerns due to their overly-worn storylines and tired tropes, Godless may still suck you in. In full disclosure, I have never been a Western fan. There is something about the white men-equals-hero and Native Americans-equals-heathens-needing-some-civilisation-intervention story formula of this genre that I don’t like watching on screen.
Godless, however, is more focused on the squabbles of white people versus white people, and the shift from the Wild Wild West to the state and its rule of law. Plus, it does throw in some non-traditional female roles to root for – a former prostitute who becomes a schoolteacher and a widow who drops her husband’s surname, enters into a same-sex relationship with the schoolteacher, all while developing a reputation as one of the tough leaders of a female-dominated town.
Godless is set in La Belle, a late 1800s white mining town in the New Mexico territory. Tragedy has struck this town when they lost almost its entire male population in just one day after a mining accident.
Two years later, the women – who are now all widows who have chosen to stay in the town – carry on with their lives, work together to build a new town chapel, negotiate business deals with outsiders and decide whether or not the town has a future. The town’s leader, Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever) is the widow of the town’s late mayor. She gets into a relationship with the prostitute-turned-schoolteacher, Callie Dune (Tess Frazer).
The way in which this town survives in this risky pistol-carrying capitalistic climate plays a center theme throughout the seven-part series. The town is prey to all sorts of men, criminal and capitalists alike.
Most of the women hope for a return to normalcy and are eager to entice more men to refill the ranks of La Belle, even if it means striking an unfair deal with a mining company.
I still need to point out that while Godless has broken some boundaries in the traditional Western Hollywood sense, it has left some critics less impressed. Critics noted that the female roles were given limited lines and even when playing out a heroic scene, their roles were dependent on men’s ability to support them on their quest. Native Americans are pretty much invisible, except for two supporting roles. The black community was also not given a big enough platform to develop into a more central part of the story.
But what makes Godless binge worthy is the main protagonist Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a notorious and bloodthirsty gangster who leads a gang that once wiped out an entire frontier town as an act of vengeance. While most of his actions are undeniably cruel, his strange religious background allows for moments of compassion and humanity to come through. He has a continuous twisted desire to be seen as a pappy to his men, particularly to Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) whom he saved at a very young age.
Roy has seen enough cruelty and horrors committed by Frank to know and realise that something needs to change. Roy intercepts a robbery stunt and takes off with Frank’s recently pilfered cash.
Frank goes around the entire New Mexico territory in search of retribution. Roy Goode, while fleeing, is struck by a trailing bullet that pierces his throat. He lands in a farmhouse on the outskirts of La Belle. This farm house is owned by the notorious rancher Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), her Paiute mother-in-law Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal) and son Truckee (Samuel Marty).
This outcast family maintains an uneasy truce with the townsfolk who treat them like pariahs. Alice has a past and at some point, weds a Native American man who died after he was stabbed in his back the townsfolk. Alice’s family is accused of black magic that is said to have caused the town’s destruction.
Roy ends up being saved by Alice and the relationship between the whole family and Roy flourishes. This, of course, creates more jealousy with the women in town. No one in the town knows Roy’s true identity and they have no idea how much danger he will cause them as Frank continues to pursue his former protégé.
Blackdom is another community located outside La Belle and is the home to free Black people. This Black community is not to be messed with as they have the legendary Buffalo soldiers who pushed back many armies and gangs throughout the years.
Sadly, they are living in dire poverty and are resenting the town for carelessly poisoning their river with mine wastewater. All they want is a land where they can grow crops, but even that becomes impossible because of the run-off the mine has on their water supply.
While these complex small Western town dynamics play out, I know most viewers would want to know when they can expect the action to begin. Have no fear because at some point, these people will be required to fight back or be killed.
But whether these people will win or not is something I will not tell you. Here’s a teaser, though: the epic battle of gunslinger and pistol carrying cowboys, widows, and gangsters surely makes for some binge worthy TV.
Round up your family friends this weekend and settle down to watch Godless. This Netflix original Western drama is sure to impress.