Godless, Netflix, 2017
Although loaded with terrific actors and wonderful visuals, this miniseries inexplicably stretches over seven-plus dawdling hours. Regardless, creator Scott Frank, who co-wrote the X-Men Western Logan and adapted two non-Western Elmore Leonard stories into screenplays, has created a world both true to frontier history and to the genre’s iconographic, cinematic history.
Outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his oversized gang (think Calvera’s band in The Magnificent Seven) scour New Mexico Territory in search of his criminal understudy, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), who has robbed and deserted the outfit. Frank, all fire and brimstone, rides his horse into a church to declare he will slaughter all the residents of any town that harbors or aids Goode.
Roy, meanwhile, finds work outside of La Belle on a small ranch owned by steely eyed Alice (Michelle Dockery) and her Paiute mother-in-law, Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal). Roy must get used to women running things ’round these parts because La Belle’s inhabitants are mostly women widowed after 83 men died in a horrific mining accident. The mayor’s widow, Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever), emerges as the de facto leader of the town when her brother, the feeble sheriff Bill McNue (Scott McNairy, in a fine performance), leaves to hunt down Griffin. Wever gently shifts between stoic and vulnerable, as the best Western heroes do.
Griffin, of course, shows up in La Belle looking for Goode, leading to a familiar town vs. gang showdown (those haven’t been the same since Blazing Saddles). The main problem with Godless, however, isn’t the familiar narrative or its occasional liaison with cliché but, rather, its length. Several interesting plotlines—such as Mary’s power struggle over La Belle’s future, and the interracial relationship of Deputy Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster)—peter out, flashbacks add only surface-level revelations to the story, and many scenes simply repeat information the viewer already knows.
Despite the miniseries’ battles with pace and length, there’s still much to appreciate in Godless. From its sweeping vistas to its Sergio Leonesque close-ups, the show welcomingly embraces its roots. The production design, acting and dialogue are often top-notch. There is no pretension nor any sci-fi genre-meshing. Godless represents the genre in its truest form but doesn’t seem like a victim of nostalgia. It’s a Western, plain and simple.