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.’