Godless debuted on Netflix last week, and other than being a Western starring Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels, I didn’t know anything about it going in. I get a notification from my phone that there is a new Netflix series, and I watch it. That notification is typically the only promotion I hear or see.
It’s a great series: An old-fashioned Western revenge flick drawn out over seven splendid hours. The cinematography is gorgeous, it’s well-plotted, and the actressin’ is phenomenal all around. It reminds me in some ways of 3:10 to Yuma in that it doesn’t exactly reinvent the Western, but it livens the tropes and over the course of seven episodes, we really get to know the characters before some of them are invariably killed off. I genuinely loved every moment of this series.
In it, Jeff Daniels is the riveting villain, Frank Griffin, who adopts wayward souls into his outlaw gang and turns them into murderers whose only loyalty is to him. He’s a real motherfucker. Jack O’Connell plays Roy Goode, a charming desperado who double-crosses Griffin and seeks shelter on the farm of Alice Fletcher, who is played by Michelle Dockery. She is incredible in this, and for anyone who only knows her from Downton Abbey, they will be pleasantly surprised by her gritty performance. In fact, her American accent in this is the sexiest accent I’ve heard since Chris Evans’ Boston accent in Gifted.
Fletcher — a single mom raising the child of her deceased Native American husband — lives on the outskirts of a town called La Belle, whose inhabitants are almost all women, owing to a mine accident that killed all the husbands and sons in town. Scoot McNairy plays the sheriff who is trying to stay relevant as his eyesight fades, and Merrit Weaver basically plays the de facto mayor of the town. Sam Waterson, meanwhile, plays a heavily mustachioed marshal on the hunt for Frank Griffin, who hung and murdered every citizen — children included — of a small town for protecting Roy Goode.
I loved it; it’s one of those series you end up staying up until 3 a.m. to binge watch even though you’ve seen enough Westerns to understand exactly where it’s likely going to end up: A big shootout between Frank Griffin’s outlaw gang and the mostly female inhabitants of La Belle. It’s a fantastic, glorious blood bath, too.
There’s just one catch: Godless is not a feminist western. Netfix has apparently been promoting it as such, and for obvious reasons given the current cultural climate and the success of Wonder Woman. Exec producer Steven Soderbergh and creator/writer/director Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Logan) didn’t actually intend it to be a feminist western, however. The “feminist” aspects are incidental to the premise. Frank himself said on NPR last week that it was meant to be a Western about “fathers and sons,” and it is that, but it’s also a Western where the two female leads are put on equal footing with the two male leads. That said, most of the female townspeople are redshirts, but then again, so are most of Frank Griffin’s outlaw gang.
It’s largely a character-driven story that revolves around the characters played by Dockery, O’Connell, Daniels, and Weaver with a couple of B-plots concerning Sam Waterson’s character and the deputy sheriff played by Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones (Thomas Brodie Sangster). It feels a little like Scott Frank had some leftover affection for Westerns after Logan and decided to make a full-length television series. It has that sort of that Logan vibe.
As a straightforward Western, it’s phenomenal, but those looking for a female-led Western will likely end up feeling disappointed, not because the female characters aren’t good (Dockery and Weaver are lights out), but because the story is as much or more about the men as it is the women. That’s on Netflix for the way it’s promoted the series, but it should not be a knock against Godless, unless viewers simply have no interest in well-made, well-acted and compelling conventional Western with a few fun trick up its sleeve. If Netflix is smart, they’ll return to the town of La Belle next season and give us the female-led Western many were expecting out of this.