Don’t let Netflix’s recent trailers for Godless fool you. Yes, this western limited series does contain a town run by women, and their stories and lives are a pivotal part of proceedings. Except the streaming giant is selling Godless as something it’s not. It is a feminist western compared to most (not hard in a genre where the women are usually whores, or dead wives) with engaging, and memorable female characters, but the town of La Belle is but one half of this shows tale. Despite the mostly glowing reception the series has gained, many critics rightly criticised Netflix’s marketing strategy. The show, and its representation of a town full of women fighting to keep their independence after a mining tragedy killed most of the town’s men is certainly timely, but not in the sense that something like The Handmaid’s Tale is timely.
Marketing trickery aside, Godless is something quite special. Written and directed by Scott Frank (The Lookout, A Walk Among the Tombstones) this limited series is a celebration of the Western genre, as it also deconstructs it. Beginning life as a two-hour screenplay, Frank was encouraged by director Steven Soderbergh (who also produced the show) to turn it into a TV series. It’s a good thing that he did as Godless makes an inspiring case for the return of the Western to the small screen.
Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) stars as Roy Goode, a gunslinger who has betrayed his surrogate father Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his band of cutthroats in a bid to escape his violent past. After a stand-off, in which Roy shoots Frank, causing the Preacher to lose his left arm, the injured Roy stumbles into the ranch of Alice Fletcher, played by Michelle Dockery, on the outskirts of La Belle. Alice, who shoots Roy in the neck for his troubles, is a figure of hate and superstition to the ladies of La Belle, led by the quite astounding Merritt Weaver as the town’s de-facto leader. What follows is a tale of good (or Goode, get it?) evil, love, and loss in the grand tradition of the genre.
The first thing you notice about Godless is how stunning every shot is and how complete Frank’s vision of this often-romanticised time in American history is. Not since the heady days of Deadwood has a show felt like it’s bringing this period back to brutal, violent life. The seven episodes allow Frank to indulge in all of the genre’s best troupes: there’s gunfights, plain speaking that serves as a kind of poetry, lots of horses (the budget must have been ridiculous), and a often sensitive look at the people that live in this harsh time.
As gorgeous as it is, Godless’ main attraction is its performances. In this the women just edge it, with Merritt Weaver as Mary Agnes strutting about in her late husband’s clothes owning every scene she’s in, even managing to stop Thomas Brodie Sangster’s Whitey from running away with the entire show. Michelle Dockery is just as good as Alice, a woman that has steel in her veins, ready to shoot first if anyone comes near her family. It’s a testament to Dockery, who is still most famous for her role as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, that her performance as Alice is less of a shocking transformation and more of a brilliant actress proving her range.
On the blood feud side of things Jeff Daniels has rarely been better as the pious, but completely insane Frank Griffin. His mindset turns from kindly holy man to all-out devil at the drop of a hat; and his gang has an uncanny habit of sneaking up on people, even when they fill a small room. Jack O’Connell brings a sense of melancholy, and precision as Roy, breathing life into a role that could be considered the most clichéd.
Godless is a thrilling, heart-breaking series but there is a real sense of frustration at a world that feels only slightly explored. The limited series format does work, and it’s relatively self-contained, but like any truly great piece of television it leaves you wanting more.