‘Where are you, Roy? We’re not…’ Sall swung the hammer up to his shoulder. Pain lanced through his side. ‘Finished!’
All around was the crumbling roar of burning timber and the hiss of steam as the blaze collapsed into the sea. He stumbled back the way he had come, back towards the long gun, trying to find a way out of the smoke.


Hello! Episode three’s Wisdom of the Horse opens on Bill arriving at the scene where Roy Goode escaped Frank Griffin. He’s got his glasses, but he’s already broken them. We’re treated to a series of flashbacks as Bill follows the trail of bodies to the mouth of a canyon. After running his horse out, Roy has to shoot it to survive. He comes down behind it and pops up with his rifle to shoot down seven or eight of Frank’s men. It plays out in all these wide shots, dudes get shot in the face, it’s great. Afterwards, Bill meets a strange Shoshone Indian on a white horse who might be a ghost. Poor Bill never really seems to get a go of the fun stuff.

Everything about this episode is a treat. While it doesn’t introduce much new, it pushes to give its characters a spiritual depth, while at the same time hits some cracking beats, especially at the start and the end. It’s how series creator Scott Frank does it which makes this episode so good. It stands out in contrast from the last one for its spiritual themes, gives the western a more rounded, human treatment, and gives the actors more time to shine. Everyone does good. So what else happens?

Mary Agnes spends the episode taking care of Bill’s kids and realises her maternal instinct is still there, and strong, but hardened. She seems okay with that, and is also developing a romance with the town’s schoolteacher. That goes okay too. She butts heads with Whitey, but their relationship is good for the both of them. Mary’s coming back to life, while by the end of the episode, everyone’s favourite Marshall is murdered unceremoniously by Frank Griffin with a shotgun to the head in the dark.

There’s a lot to do about horses. Roy breaks a black horse that reminds him of the horse he put down in the show’s opening sequence. He even mentions it’s good to see the horse again. Would you believe me if I told you the horse’s name is Ghost? Roy puts on Truckee’s dead father’s clothes – which pisses off Ilyovi, the superstitious grandmother – and teaches him how to ride one. She quickly calms when she and Alice see them bonding. There’s a lot of native American Indian mysticism playing out, and that’s really not my area of expertise. UPDATE: I wrote this then watched the newest episode of WESTWORLD (s2e8). It that really hits on the same themes with a story of native American Indians, ghosts, and spiritual rebirth. So go watch that and have a great ol time

There’s a series of scenes through the middle which function as little examples of senior characters using wisdom to navigate situations where younger characters are more headstrong. In one, Whitey goes to arrest Roy and is overruled by Mary Agnes, who makes a deal with Alice for her horses instead. In another, Mr. Grigg, a journalist, sends his clerk away in order to talk business with John Cook. Grigg has been reporting on Frank Griffin’s exploits and has been threatened by him in previous episodes. Later, Roy teaches Truckee some classic SHANE-style gun wisdom in a surprise interaction with Logan, Valentine’s hired man.

Bill comes across the same wagon train attacked by Griffin and his men. He can tell they’ve met Frank. The travellers question whether Bill is going up against Griffin’s thirty men alone. He doesn’t answer. He asks where Frank’s going. They don’t answer. This is where the episode gets really interesting.

Bill offers the mother local wisdom on curing her child’s camp colic, a sickness which the foreigners would not know how to deal with. The mother immediately tells Bill where Frank can be found. Olegrande, near La Belle. What GODLESS does so well here is that we know what’s going on inside Bill’s head. They give Bill their knowledge under the assumption Bill is the idealised Western hero, the single brave gunfighter who by pluck and wit will overcome the bandits. They don’t know, like we know, that Bill has lost his shadow, is losing his eyesight, and is incredibly insecure about his own status as a gunfighter. It really makes Bill seem desperate, and it’s this sense of the world of GODLESS being a bleak one that draws into focus each individual characters’ struggles. When John Cook dies at the end of the episode it further underscores this idea – the idealised gods of the old west, the cowboys, are all so dangerously mortal. For a western all about this idea, check out Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH. I’ll do a thing on the revisionist westerns of the late sixties and seventies one day, you’ll love it.

Back in La Belle, Mary Agnes and the schoolteacher Callie are in love. She’s coming back to life after the death of her husband, and trying to figure out who she is. In their scene together they establish that their feelings for each other were always there, and that no change happened overnight. That she is now exploring it is a sign of her own spiritual awakening. She put on her dead husband’s clothes, after all. Mary Agnes spends the whole episode taking care of the townsfolk, but it’s in the scene I mentioned earlier with Whitey that she weighs in on the episode’s mentor themes. While Roy is teaching Truckee not to shoot people you don’t like, Mary Agnes is teaching Whitey the same thing. It’s telling that Bill never did this for Whitey.

The episode ends on a stablehand telling Whitey a folk tale about a town of African Americans near La Belle who fought native Indians during the wars. They earned the nickname Buffalo Soldiers from the Paiute after the leader John Randall held seventy of them off with only a pistol. They’d be a powerful ally if Frank Griffin ever came to town, but we know by now what happens to folk heroes in GODLESS. When John Cook wanders into the saloon in Olegrande and meets the end of Frank’s shotgun, Roy is reading a nursery rhyme. He says, ‘This is the song of the bee.’


Hello again! Let’s get into it. This piece’ll be about the conflict between wilderness and civilisation. Once we start to pick apart the storylines you’ll see that’s really all this episode is about. It’s focused around the town of La Belle, the women who run it, and the mining company who seeks to purchase it. Alice makes a strong move to help her family, and Bill goes off after the villain, Frank Griffin, who delivers a lengthy monologue on some of his own overarching personal themes and at the same time a commentary on modern day America. It’s a two-for-one deal!

The Quicksilver Mining Company has arrived to make an offer on the town. It’s run by the smarmy and condescending J.J. Valentine. He presents himself as different from your standard cigar-chomping mining tycoon, as a more refined character, possessing interest in poetry, high fashion and smarmy condescension. The townswomen titter at word of his arrival, as they are at news of basically any man coming to the town, but Mary Agnes is less than impressed. She doesn’t even put on a dress! It’s also where we meet Logan, Valentine’s head of security, a burly moustachioed man who’s basically Wolverine from Scott Frank’s other thing. Mary sticks to her guns while Valentine gets all sexist about bringing men into the town, because she’s not going to be any good at business. It’s cheesy when he promises “money and men” in exchange for the silver mine. Despite Mary’s stern protest they take the deal. Mary’s speech, where she’s determined to hold onto the town her, her husband, and all the other women in the town built drives home the very human need to have something stable of your own beneath your feet. Westerns are among the best genres for expressing this idea. So is 2002’s ALI G INDAHOUSE.

There’s also a good bit where the town whore explains to Valentine how she became the schoolteacher. It’s a quick example of the jag between Valentine and La Belle’s respective worlds.

Bill is shown up in a shootout by his young deputy Whitey Wynn. I like Whitey. He reminds me of the character I wrote in ROLLING SIXES. He’s all about making a name for himself and doing the thing where you twirl guns around your fingers. He’s a big dumb kid and that’s great. His whole story throughout GODLESS is pretty sick, without spoiling anything yet. Anyway, so Bill decides he needs to do something to prove himself before he goes completely blind. Roy Goode handed himself in to Bill at the end of the last episode, so you can imagine what he comes up with. Later in the episode a man sells him some spectacles, and his quest for redemption takes a small step forward.

Alice, after failing to break any of the thirty wild horses she owns, loses them all. Truckee is no help, he’s afraid of them. Bill eventually rounds them up before heading off after Frank, but it’s not enough. Alice rides into town and holds Whitey at gunpoint until he releases Roy Goode. It’s another example of the way GODLESS comments on traditional western masculinity. Women holding guns in westerns are traditionally reacting with hysteria, not reason. In this instance Alice seems perfectly reasonable, but simply not in the mood to take no for an answer. She takes Roy back to her ranch and they work out a deal. He’ll break the horses, and she’ll teach him how to read. With the horses, her ranch’s future is a little brighter. She can stick out in her piece of the wilderness with her native Indian son and his native Indian grandmother for a bit longer.

Alright, so, finally, Frank Griffin comes across a Dutch immigrant wagon train travelling west to find a new home. He sits down with them and recounts the story of how he came to the west as a child, also by wagon train, when there was an attack by bandits claiming to be Christians. Everyone was murdered, raped, or both, and Frank was taken by the outlaw leader. The key factor here is that they all claimed to be religious men – remember the name of the show? So we understand where Frank comes from. He was raised by the bandit leader, an even stronger cultlike figure than himself, and a whore who claimed to be a nun. There are different ways westerns play religious themes. Traditionally it was an aspect of civilisation men brought to the west. Later, in movies like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER discussion of religious themes were more revisionist, bloody, and rooted in discussions of duality, the nature of man, etc. Does it make sense that GODLESS might also seek to tear down, to subvert, the mythos of the old west? There’s an excellent Atlantic article that goes into GODLESS’ approach to myth in greater detail.

The episode ends on Frank Griffin unloading the final oeuvre of his monologue. He’s all about the wilderness. He trusts no god but the chaos of the land. “This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake,” he says. “It’s the land of the bleeding and the wrathful. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you all are gonna live.” In its last moments he finds a swarm of bumblebees has claimed his severed arm, and as he unrolls its wrappings finds a finger on the hand pointed towards La Belle. That’s the sort of thing he trusts.

The next episode gets mystical. It’s a lot of fun. Seeya there next week.



OH BOY did I enjoy GODLESS. All seven episodes of this epic western are a masterclass in what makes the genre great. Scott Frank has taken all the best parts of the western and made a feast with all the courses and not spared a single morsel. It’s a story of vengeance, redemption, love, survival, with elements that’ll remind you of everything from DANCES WITH WOLVES to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Everything is interwoven so well I can’t overstate exactly how right the dude gets it. I’ll try, though. I’m going to pull it apart episode by episode and lay it out as best I can.

All GODLESS really needed was a crazy prospector. The first character we meet is Marshall John Cook, a wry old cowboy in pursuit of a notorious outlaw. He’s come across a trainwreck. Everyone aboard is dead, most murdered during a brutal robbery. The villain is Frank Griffin, a cult-like figure who has been leading a pack of bandits in a series of mine robberies. It’s a familiar type of story we all know, but with the long-form promise of seven lengthy Netflix episodes we’re allowed to settle into it. Scott Frank, who also co-wrote the screenplay for LOGAN with James Mangold, shows off his chops with a deft hand, playing the establishing shots like something by Sergio Leone, all extreme long shots, then bringing it in on John Cook’s face real close as he comes to inspect the wreck. He uses similar shots all through the episode. They’re often not accompanied by much sound, very much like Leone’s westerns, and show us the landscape, the wide stretches of dirt and grassland where time passes slow. I knew I was in for a good time when I saw those.

Frank’s telling us he’s going to take his time. The land isn’t going anywhere. Near the end of the first episode, for example, John meets the local sheriff Bill McNue. He lets him know what Frank Griffin has done and the role Roy Goode, the key protagonist to the series, has played in it. Frank Griffin attempted to rob fifty thousand dollars from the mine’s payroll, but his adopted son Roy stole it from him in a final act of betrayal. He also shot his arm off. Thunder rumbles in the distance as John Cook speaks. It’s quiet and foreboding. The storm’s on the way.

So then there’s Sheriff Bill McNue. He’s my favourite. He wakes in a Paiute Indian tent with mud on his eyes. He’s trying everything to recover his failing sight. He blames himself for the death of his wife, and is generally resented by the people of the local town. He’s not a very good sheriff on account of his failing eyesight, but the townsfolk aren’t aware of that. The Paiute tells him he has “lost his shadow”. His dogged struggle for redemption and desire to still be a good sheriff to his town and his lone deputy make him a massively empathetic character, and an interesting subversion to the resolute lawman archetype that segues excellently into the role of women in the series. Bill McNue is one of the few men left in the town of La Belle. The rest of the men died in the collapse of the town’s silver mine. We’re introduced to Mary Agnes, Bill’s sister and assumed mayor since the death of her husband Albert, the former mayor. She’s a woman broken by grief and the stress of keeping the town together, but facing it all with a grim determination. We’re also introduced to Alice Fletcher, a widowed homesteader trying to keep her farm going on the outskirts of town since her Paiute husband was shot dead on the streets of La Belle.

With strong overtones of George Stevens’ SHANE Alice finds herself bonding with the desperado who wanders up to her ranch, Roy Goode. In the case of this story, however, she shoots him in the neck for trespassing, wounding him. She lets him stay in her barn until he returns to health, even though she soon learns his trouble with Frank Griffin. As he recovers, Roy begins to fill out the role of father figure to Alice’s son Truckee, and helps with her horses. SHANE isn’t the only western to do this. There’s HONDO, to some extent RED RIVER, I dunno, there’s more than you could count. They explore the ways in which parents pass information along to their children to help them survive in the harsh landscapes they’ve chosen to build their lives.

The father/son dynamic is fundamental to the western’s masculine roots, and over the course of the series Frank explores this dynamic. By subverting traditional western genre conventions, but still remaining true to how they work and the characters within them, he brings out fresh colour and flavour to the genre.

What’s most fascinating about each story at work in GODLESS is that they are all extremely human stories. For the people of La Belle, their struggle is the classic tale of the big mining company doing everything they can to take the land away from the small town. I’ll get to that properly in my piece on the next episode. All the first episode really does is show us storm clouds boiling over the horizon. They’re approaching across the plains, and at the frontier where humanity is stretched thin they can be all the more cause for concern.

There was stuff I definitely couldn’t cover today, so go watch it yourself, eat it up. I’ll do the episode two one next week!

And remember, my own western ROLLING SIXES is available as a totally free download <<through that link right there<<


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