Godless for Our Times



If ever there was a Western for our times, it is Godless. As a genre, a Western allows any story to be told, as long as there is a struggle between at least two forces set on an open horizon, because the cowboy will be moving on at the end. Western films are Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory of American identity turned into a fictional narrative. Mobility is the master key.

Godless, a six-episode Netflix production that began airing on November 22, was written and directed by Scott Frank. The cinematography, by Steven Meizler, is astoundingly powerful. The camera constantly compares the rich beauty of nature to the pitiless brutality of man. In the music, by Carlos Rafael Rivera, is the rhythm of a slow gallop, the creaking of the saddle, the dissension of the rising wind. Perfect.

The struggle in Godless centers on betrayal, a story told in competing narratives. Frank Griffin (who knew Jeff Daniels could be so nasty?) has been betrayed by a son he adopted and loved; Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) has been betrayed by a father-figure who corrupted him and taught him to murder. The classic good-evil dichotomy turns interesting because it is set in an environment that exchanges stock Western characters for modern-day folk. The town has lost almost all its men in a mining accident, so the women are mostly on their own. The schoolmarm – a former prostitute who’s now in love with a pants-wearing woman; the sheriff – not shooting so straight until he finds some eyeglasses; the Indians – a young man who is afraid of just about everything until taught by a white man to master his fears, and an old woman whose mysticism is rooted in a cynical knowledge of human nature.

In almost every episode, the series addresses gender in interesting ways. When a mining company sends a team of slimy men to take over the mine, most of the women can’t wait to sell out to their false narrative of protection and security. Yet only when the women stand up for themselves are they in fact safe.

It looks at race in the Old West. Blackdom, a settlement of freedmen and women, is apart from the white town of Labelle, but when evil rides in, the two towns join forces with a message that only together can we survive. The war is over.

And it looks at religion, in what might be the most subtle part for a series that seizes the subject in its title. The women are building a church, a wood-frame, one-room church for their dusty, one-street town on the plains. They have been corresponding with a preacher, who keeps delaying his arrival. When he gets there, arriving at a funeral after the big shootout, a woman tells him, “You’re too late.” But he assumes a leadership role with words, rather than weapons, speaking as the townspeople find themselves at a loss to explain what had just happened to them. He speaks of love, and how death is a reminder of the importance of love.

There is an awful lot of death in this series, a bucketload of explicit gore that makes me think Tarantino has ratcheted up the violence quota for every other film, often to their detriment. Frank Griffin rode with 30 men; he could as easily have ridden with fewer and saved a bullet or two. It wouldn’t have changed the story.

What makes this series so wrenchingly apt today, apart from the fresh perspectives already mentioned, is its foundation in a competing narrative. We can identify with Labelle, our leadership has absconded, we are trapped in the middle of two murderous competing narratives, and false narratives of security and protection are as useless as a dead mule. The women, and the town, win when they do the right thing, not the convenient or comfortable thing, but when they stand up for their futures (I am not advocating mowing down the opposition in a hail of gunfire!) But the point-of-view of Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) becomes increasingly important as she keeps her eye on the measure of possible good, and the practical route to getting there.

And then Roy Goode rides west, in languid and lyrical scenes through forest and desert, plain and mountain, on his way to California. It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter if he finds what he is looking for. He rides on.