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<<