Godless is a patient western that is often grim, visually stunning, and brutal. And, at all times, it is completely absorbing.
This series starts off in a fashion that sets the tone. Smog shrouding the camera, slowly dissipating until it reveals a landscape littered with bodies, harassed by flies. A man sitting still, deathly still, a bullet hole in his head, a train wreck, a young boy hanging from a noose, a woman crouched by a corpse signing a mournful hymn. It is bleak, almost serene in its desolation. A slow build up to dramatic conclusion. This is exactly what to expect from the series. You have to be patient. You have to take joy in it’s purposefully slow moments of tranquil beauty. That beauty is not just in the environment, but in the characters – their motives, their actions, their personalities. If you are to enjoy this series, you must enjoy it for its whole. Even when it is at its bleakest.
After this alluring, yet morbid, introduction we are brought to the crux of the story, and the culprit behind the tragedy. As we venture off to the mining town of La Belle, where nearly all men were killed in a mining accident, we learn that the bleak intro was all at the hands of the superbly menacing Frank Griffin (played with incredibly dark intent by Jeff Daniels). Recently rendered one-armed, Griffin is hunting for an outlaw, formerly one of his own crew, and more importantly, a son-like figure to him, named Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). Goode turned against Griffin and his gang when he had enough of their unhindered violence. He saves a woman from being raped, escapes with the haul, and fends off Griffin and his whole gang. In his escape, he ends up in the town of La Belle, in the farmstead of widow, Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery).
This series was initially intended to be a film. But as a film it would not have worked. It needs the full eight hours to really develop the characters, the emotion, the whole subtly of its initially simple plot. This is not just a western about good guys versus bad guys. It brings with it a whole variety of grey that makes you see characters in a way you would not expect. Be that Griffin’s preachy help towards the sickly and his aversion to hurt those who have not wronged him or don’t have something he needs, to the strength held by a group of women who are doing all they can to ensure the survival of their catastrophe-stricken town. The perfect example of this slow burn beauty is a scene where Goode goes through the process of “breaking” horses so they can be ridden. It is drawn out perfectly, violins playing gently in the background, tugging on the heart strings, Alice and her son Truckee marvelling at the affinity between man and beast as Goode builds that relationship and trust. It was the stand out scene in the whole series, if only because it was proud of what it was trying to achieve. Characters first, building the story around them.
Never before have I seen a cast of female characters portrayed with such gravitas. Alice is brutal as the twice-widowed farm owner who is not ready to trust and unwilling to concede even when the world seems to be against her. The development of her relationship with Goode is handled by a true craftsman, building on their initial distrust until it burgeons into something akin to love. Merritt Wever is at her best as the unerring Mayoress, Mary Agnes, who is will do anything to see the survival of her town, even if it means putting her life on the line. Each and every one of the female support cast drag you in to their desperation, even as they make decisions that may see the end of their way of life.
It is not just the women who shine. Scoot McNairy gives the performance of his career as Sheriff Bill McNue who is trying to overcome, with all of his dwindling strength, his slow onset of blindness. He comes across as haphazard, clumsy, and sometimes even bitter. But beneath all that it is clear that there is still the hero of a lawman waiting to burst out. He also doles out some incredible one liners that will make you chuckle, and make you see that there is, built in to that broken man, someone genuinely intelligent. A personal favourite of mine was, “You don’t seem all that much like a desperado, so much as you just look desperate”. It was unexpected. And it was brilliant.
The casting Is exceptional, even if it is sometimes unexpected. Thomas Brody Sangster, usually portraying geeky defenceless characters, is so well cast as the bath evading deputy Whitney Winn, exuding an air of confidence and courage. He is afraid of no one and nothing – at least in the first few episodes. As we progress we see a more nuanced, naïve side to the character. One who wants to love, and to be loved, and will do anything in that almost childlike desire to see the woman of his dreams released from the burden of her oppression. We also get to see some of the Marvel Netflix alumni Erik LaRay Harvey and Rob Morgan playing Civil War veterans of the local town, Blackdom. They are firm in their demeanour and strict in their ideals, but, deep within them, is an intrinsic sense of right and wrong. They are character with so many layers you find it hard not to try to understand them even when their ideals are against our own.
At the centre of it all, carrying the thread of the narrative, is the story between the mentor and his protégé. Two men with a relationship close to father and son. A man who has betrayed those closest to him for he can no longer carry the burden of their wrongs. If the two actors at the centre of this story were not able to carry their weight, then this series would have been an outright failure. Thankfully, they are perfect. These two actors played the antithesis of what they were when I first saw them. Jeff Daniels has always been the goofy, idiotic Harry Dunne for me. Dumb and Dumber was the first time I had seen him in a film and that image had always stuck with me whenever I saw Daniels in anything. Until now. He gives us a twisted take on Christianity, helping those who are sick, sprouting the prophecy of his death, while dribbling whiskey down his beard. Then we have Jack O’Connell, who I first remember from his twisted and vile role in Eden Lake. He shrugs off the burden of that stereotype and gives us one of the most understated performances of the year. His relationship with horses is a beauty to behold, his innate and often hidden goodness is endearing. And through all this, he still carries that lurking brutality. This is a man who was a prominent member of a violent, murderous gang. A man who held off 32 outlaws while he made his escape. Through all of this though, it is clear that he is just as vulnerable as everyone else. The first time we see him he is close to death’s door with a wound to the neck. This wound renders him temporarily speechless, so all of his emotions and intents are conveyed through facial expressions and his general aura, and it is here that O’Connell does his best work. He draws us in to the character and that is what a great actor does. It is great to see him, finally, as a leading man. If this performance is anything to go by, he has an even brighter future ahead of him.
This is a slow series. But its pace has a purpose. If you are looking for a quick thrill, you are not likely to enjoy Godless. But, if you are looking for a series that takes its time to introduce you to its characters, lay out the beauty of the vistas, and gives you a story both simple and enticing, then you will enjoy it. For me, it was without fault and was, without doubt, the best series of 2017.