If the last few episodes have torn down what we believed about westerns, this episode right in the middle of the series is where it starts putting it back together. In this episode, Roy’s fatherhood arc reaches its zenith when he takes Truckee hunting, Bill comes face to face with Frank Griffin, and Whitey gets in trouble with the wrong girl’s dad.
But what this episode really does well is talk about a long and rich history of fatherhood in westerns. It’s also where GODLESS starts to move away from taking literally everything from 1953’s SHANE, and starts to properly deal with another central idea of the western genre – what constitutes masculinity. From RED RIVER’s subverted homoeroticism to HONDO’s stress on ‘50s gender roles and HIGH NOON’s oedipal complexes, GODLESS entirely seeks to distance itself from old fashioned critique and show us instead something else.
We’re shown a lot of dudes in this episode. It opens on a flashback to the mine collapse, when all the good strong dudes died. We’re then shown John Cook, dead, with Bill there to identify him. None of the town of Olegrande stood up to Frank, and they even let him take the Marshall’s badge. Bill flies into a rage. He’s not looking too good. His hair’s a mess, his spectacles are broken, and he’s always shown in this episode either scrabbling through the dirt or standing knee-deep in muddy water. His lone, stubborn pursuit of Frank Griffin is getting desperate. Some hero, right?
Much of this episode takes us on a tour of La Belle’s male population. There’s A.T. Griggs, the weepy-eyed journalist who has just arrived. Once he finds out there’s no men in La Belle he puts his best hat on and goes out, but he’s useless. The dude literally can’t get laid in a town full of women. There are the old men, who weren’t able to work the mine when it collapsed, so they’re pretty well disregarded. In the western, a man’s worth directly relates to his physical ability. I’ve mentioned this before with Bill’s spectacles. There’s also Whitey, but he’s too young to be an effective man. Finally, we’ve got Roy Goode. He takes Truckee out hunting with Ilyovi. He plays a softer role when it comes to the act of hunting, seeking instead to coach on technique. Where Ilyovi looks at Truckee with disdain when he chokes on his first shot, Roy pats the boy on the shoulder and provides encouragement. He’s turning out to be the only decent father in the show, but wait. Who raised him?
Frank Griffin did! Frank spends the whole episode doing the right thing by a sickhouse full of people dying of smallpox. He helps the young caretaker bury the dead and take care of the sick. Every moment you’re waiting on him to rape or shoot someone, but he doesn’t. He does what he can without fear of catching the smallpox and performs some genuinely kind acts. The irony of Frank’s character is it’s his complete and solid belief in the world being a terrible, chaotic one that drives him to be a good sort of steward for the people around him. He leads a band of thirty desperadoes from broken homes, after all. They follow him for a reason. It’s just a shame he’s also batshit insane. The scene transitions to Alice’s ranch with a roll of thunder. Roy says the storm’s a northerner. It’s getting closer. The show’s reminding us where it’s headed.
Near the end of the episode, Bill McNue’s trying to wash himself in a river when Frank and his band ride up to him. Bill is perhaps at his most vulnerable here. The shot of Bill squinting up at Frank on his horse while he stands to his knees in the river is every bit as pathetic as it seems. He can’t even run away. Each part of this scene is constructed to make Bill look weak, but Frank sees right through it. He sees the noble sheriff that rescued Alice, the hard man buried beneath his shattered exterior, and asks what took the life out of his face. Damn man, leave him alone. He refuses to kill Bill, instead letting him go, with the hope maybe Bill can get his shit together and actually have a proper go at him, because dude, ya bitch.
My last point is on how the void of masculinity is filled now in the absence of old oedipal values broken apart by GODLESS’s thoroughly human ministrations. I’ll start by saying my only issue with this episode is Alice’s writing. She doesn’t quite get enough credit for saving herself from the Indians, and nor does she play much more than a standard western maternal role in this episode. Ilyovi kills it but. The real winner here is Mary Agnes, whose relationship with Whitey continues to develop. As modern society leans away from traditional family structures, single mothers can and do make excellent fathers for their sons. It’s often women who fill the void building strong dudes nowadays, and GODLESS recognises that. That’s not to say actual fathers are useless. Roy’s there to stop Whitey from shooting John Randall when Whitey sees him beating his daughter, whom Whitey’s keen on. Fundamentally, it’s cooperation. That’s what keeps everything together, and that’s what GODLESS is all about.
That’s why I love westerns. The genre just never gives up. Instead it changes, it evolves. There’s always something new to say. It’s growth we don’t see in other genres, because like I keep saying, westerns are the most human genre. They allow stories with an incredible versatility you can apply to any other genre. There’s a strong argument that westerns don’t even need to take place in the old west. THE MATRIX, for instance, is a western, and so is DIE HARD. One of the greatest westerns is Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI, which was reworked by John Sturges into THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (another sick one). Y’all thought I was joking when I mentioned ALI G INDAHOUSE.
Aight hoiya have a good week