Godless is a 7 part mini-series Western from Netflix. It’s a sweeping tale of evil power vs. good. The story features misshapen religion and disastrous interference from the press. There are love stories, family stories, and stories about fathers and sons. It takes place in the 1880s. Beware the spoilers.
Let’s start with Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). Jeff Daniels is brilliant in this role. Griffin regards himself as a preacher and a father figure to lost boys. He mostly raised one of the good guys in this story, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). Don’t you love it when the good guys are named Goode?
Griffin has a gang of about 30 men who obey his every command. When they are killing everyone in the town of Creede, Colorado for the mine’s payroll, Roy Goode takes the money, saves a woman being raped, and leaves. Griffin considered Goode his son and feels betrayed and vengeful.
It becomes the goal of the entire gang to find Roy Goode and kill him.
Roy runs, wounded. He ends up at a ranch in the New Mexico Territory near a fictional town called La Belle. The woman who owns the ranch is Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery). She shoots him, too. He has three bullet holes in his hide, but Alice and her Paiute mother-in-law Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal) nurse him back to health.
When he’s up and around, Alice discovers that Roy is great with horses. She has a herd of about 50 horses that need to be broken.
The La Belle sheriff Bill McNew (Scoot McNairy) arrests Roy. He’s in jail guarded by the deputy Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). Bill takes off on a lone search for Griffin and his gang. Bill can’t see well enough to shoot anyone, but he plans to capture a whole gang of outlaws by himself. Somehow, he catches up to them just in time for the big climax.
Alice goes to the jail and springs Roy Goode so he can work on her ranch and break her horses. Whitey Winn thinks the prisoner’s name is Mr. Ward. That’s a lucky break because when people come looking for Roy Goode, the deputy can honestly say he’s never heard of him.
In the process of breaking her horses, Roy assumes a father role for Alice’s fatherless half-Paiute son Truckee (Samuel Marty). Truckee learns an enormous amount from Roy, but Iyovi never accepts him. She sees him being a great father figure for Truckee, but she’s unimpressed.
In the town of La Belle, most of the citizens are widows. All the men were killed in a mining disaster. Men show up with offers of money for the mine. The widow of the former mine boss is Mary Agnes or Maggie (Merritt Wever). She’s taken to wearing men’s clothes and is trying to assume the leadership role her husband had. She doesn’t want to sell the mine. She’s outvoted by the other women.
A contingent of mine “security” forces led by Ed Logan (Kim Coates) move into town in preparation to restart the silver mine. I don’t know why these men were in the story, unless it was to give the women someone to entertain while we waited for the big ending. They were certainly no help when the town was under threat.
Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer), who had great financial success as a whore, is now the town’s schoolteacher. Other women are filling various roles, including building a new church.
Lots of love stories are floating around among all these characters and some characters I haven’t mentioned. Alice has warm feelings about Sheriff Bill because he saved her from being raped. Bill even rides a white horse and wears a white hat.
Alice also finds Roy Goode irresistible. Roy’s out there in Alice’s barn, not pushing the relationship. Alice initiates things, which I liked about the story.
Roy wants to go to California to find his brother. He leaves. He seems sadder to leave Truckee than Alice. He doesn’t get very far before he runs into Bill and they head back to La Belle for the big fight scene.
Also in love are Maggie and the teacher Callie Dunne. Maggie is the jealous type, and love doesn’t run smoothly for those two. But it does run.
The deputy Whitey is in love with Louise (Jessica Sula). She returns his affections, but her parents forbid them from being together. Louise lives in Blackdom, a small enclave of former Buffalo soldiers and their families. Whitey is unwelcome in Blackdom.* (These names!)
When the asshat newspaper man A. T. Grigg (Jeremy Bobb) publishes a story about Roy Goode hiding in La Belle, Griffin reads the news. That leads to the big battle against good and evil. Can a newspaper man who publishes a mostly untrue story that leads to a massacre claim innocence for what followed? That’s a question for today’s world.
Griffin and his gang head for La Belle. On the way they stop in Blackdom and kill everyone but Louise and her younger brother. Whitey rescues them.
In spite of being rescued repeatedly from rapists and murderers, the women in this story are not damsels in distress. The women of La Belle arm up. They gather in the hotel, because it’s fireproof. Louise joins them, vowing the kill the whole Griffin gang personally.
Maggie and Alice are on the roof. Armed women are in every room, at every window. When Griffin arrives it’s an epic gun battle, beautifully atmospheric and action packed. Stunningly filmed. The women do a fantastic job plugging holes in the Griffin gang. When the fight is almost over Sheriff Bill and Roy Goode enter the scene and pick off the last few stragglers.
La Belle is safe. Most of the women are still alive. But Griffin escaped. His death had to come later at the hands of his “son” Roy. Poetic justice.
Not many of the lovers had happy endings. People got killed or left. But it was okay, because life went on. And there was all that money Roy Goode took from Griffin. It had to end up somewhere, right?
Scott Frank wrote and directed Godless. Many things about it bothered me. It was a classic Western. Not that there’s anything wrong with classic Westerns. I thought there was too much time spent with the rugged horsemen and their dangerous religion. Not enough time was spent getting to know the women in La Belle. There were rapes that did little to advance the story except make men into saviors. When I had only seen the first episode, I complained about mislocated Native people and the settings. I thought the later episodes used better settings.
On the other hand, the characters that were developed – Alice, Roy, Bill, Maggie, Griffin – were given some depth and interesting backstories. Most of the backstories came from flashbacks, which were very well done. The performances from the whole cast were quite good. In terms of filming and cinematography, this series was beautiful in many ways. Lighting, framing, and scenery all captured to perfection.
The themes in Godless were well handled and certainly topical: interracial love, same sex love, the role of father figures, empowered women, men who think they can take whatever they want vs. men who give what they know others need, and religion distorted for self aggrandizement.
I wanted Godless to be more about the women. At first I thought it was going to ruin it for me if the women weren’t truly the stars. But it seems a Western with even a few developed female characters is enjoyable television. Kudos to Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever for making it so.
*Blackdom was an actual town in New Mexico, settled by all all Black community of farmers. However it was not at the time or in the place Godless suggests.