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Netflix’s Godless: a dusty Western that could’ve been so much more

Godless has a star-studded cast and a town full of bitter widows. Why isn’t it more fun?

Godless
Merritt Wever and Michelle Dockery, pictured here in the show I wish Godless actually were.
Netflix

Watching Godless kind of feels like looking at one of those optical illusions where two people can see entirely different things. It’s a safe bet that many will check it out and find it to be a perfectly decent Western, complete with crackerjack shootouts and yarns of bloody revenge spun around a campfire. Others (like myself) might be disappointed by what feels like a missed opportunity.

The new Netflix limited series — written and directed by Scott Frank (Minority Report, Logan), executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh — unfolds in seven languid episodes. Actors including Jeff Daniels, Michelle Dockery, and Merritt Wever don faded leathers and play cowboy on the plains of New Mexico, as gorgeous as they are desolate. As a result, Godless is sweeping and serviceable.

But it could have been so much more.

Godless chronicles a sprawling web of gunpowder and grudges, with sporadic sojourns to La Belle, a tiny mining town that saw almost the entirety of its male population wiped out by a mining disaster two years ago. (A flashback to this moment — or, more accurately, to the oblivious buildup to the instant when everything literally crashes down — is by far one of the show’s most affecting.) But most of Godless focuses on the bitter, deeply personal rivalry between notorious outlaw Frank Griffin (Daniels) and his onetime prodigy Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell).

It’s a story familiar to anyone who’s even vaguely cognizant of how Westerns work, so it stands to reason that when sitting down to create the show, writer-director Frank likely wanted to account for the “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” trope in some way. What’s maddening, however, is that Frank concentrates so much energy on Griffin and Goode’s grim détente that he only occasionally makes time for the far more fascinating character dynamics nipping around the show’s edges.

As a result, I found Godless more confusing than captivating. So in the spirit of the Western genre from whence it came, let’s break down the good, bad, and what I like to call the “...huh!” of why Godless doesn’t quite fulfill its potential.

The good: Godless is a pretty production full of great actors

The first thing you’ll notice about Godless is that it is frequently stunning. The Western towns that dot the New Mexico landscape can sometimes embody more of a clean-cut, Epcot-esque vibe than the show is likely going for, but otherwise, everything looks gorgeous. Frank, who logged his first significant directing credits by helming every episode of Godless, takes advantage of the vistas and grasslands his setting affords him. Some of the show’s best moments are the completely wordless ones, filmed from above or far away as tiny cowboys gallop to their next destination, kicking up dust and buried resentments along the way.

But when the action gets up close and personal, it helps that Godless’s cast is by and large top-notch. Dockery brings a brittle determination to Alice, who’s trying to make a life for herself and her son on their own ranch. Halt and Catch Fire’s Scoot McNairy is endearing as a sharpshooter turned do-gooder in the face of the destruction that outlaw Griffin leaves behind. Wever is aces as Mary Agnes, the blunt de facto leader of La Belle who scowls around town in her dead husband’s three-piece suits. Tess Frazer is perfect in the role of Mary Agnes’s straightforward right-hand woman, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster steals just about every scene he’s in as Whitey, La Belle’s resident wiseass with a heart of gold.

In fact, the show’s two weaker performances somewhat surprisingly belong to the talented O’Connell and Daniels, who struggle to make much of an impression while they’re stuck in the furrowed brows of their boilerplate characters. Which brings us to:

The bad: so much of what Godless opts to focus on just isn’t all that interesting

Godless
Jeff Daniels as a grizzled outlaw. You know the type.
Netflix

On this point, I’m willing to admit that other viewers’ mileage may vary. But even when Godless is on target, just about every episode drags on far longer than it needs to, with most of them exceeding an hour in runtime.

Several of the show’s characters — usually the men nursing bourbon and age-old resentments — steer scenes with extended monologues that go on and on and on. Griffin and Goode (get it? His name is good) circle each other at a glacial pace and grumble into the distance. And while Godless’s early scenes of Griffin wreaking unholy havoc serve to impart just how far he’s willing to go to exact revenge on those who’ve wronged him, at a certain point they become unnecessarily repetitive, bleak for the sake of being bleak.

And after watching more than seven hours of Godless, it’s also a little hard to understand whether Frank is paying tribute to Westerns of old or indulging in their most basic clichés just because he can. The show’s characters are prone to spelling out exactly what their deal is — like when Goode solemnly tells Alice that he’s “like kin” to Griffin, or McNairy’s Bill delivers a lengthy speech to his dead wife’s grave — to the point that it shortchanges how well the actors are selling their characters’ relationships.

But my biggest complaint about Godless is one that could have been avoided entirely, had Frank only realized that if he’d concentrated less on hitting the more basic beats of Westerns, he could explore one hell of a more interesting story buried underneath.

The “...huh!”: a subplot about the accidental “no man’s land” town of La Belle is far stronger than the tired rivalry that overshadows it

Netflix’s official trailer for Godless depicts a much different show than the one I watched — one that I’m confident would have also been much better.

“Welcome to No Man’s Land,” it declares, focusing on the tragic story of the mining town of La Belle and the widows who are now running it while putting Dockery and Wever center stage. The trailer basically sells the show as an atypical tale of women doing vengeance for themselves rather than a more traditional Western built around a good guy–versus–bad guy conflict — but while I was confused to learn when watching Godless that it wasn’t exactly as advertised, I do understand why Netflix’s marketing for the show framed it that way.

Watching La Belle’s widows take control of their own lives as they navigate the sexist bullshit of their era — which is both routine and terrifying — is the most interesting aspect of Godless by a mile. A decimated community of women struggling to prevent their home from becoming a ghost town is a genuinely fascinating story that could have thrived, if only it were given more attention.

The same is true of “Blackton,” an all-black community outside of La Belle that’s introduced halfway through the season, makes an intriguing impression, and is quickly destroyed by Griffin and his goons.

With both La Belle and Blackton, Frank had the opportunity to tell some fascinating stories; instead, he invested way too much energy in the petty, predictable squabbles of the men surrounding them.

Whoever edited Godless’s trailer clearly realized that the unique dynamic in La Belle —and not the one we’ve seen a million times between men like Griffin and Goode — was the one worth teasing to hook an audience. It’s a real shame the show itself didn’t.

Godless is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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