Godless is a classic Western, with a twist. Bringing fully fleshed characters, and a landscape to die for (literally), this could and should be your latest Netflix binge.
Godless, set in 1884, follows the rivalry of two gunslingers, Roy Goode and Frank Griffin, and a little town of La Belle in New Mexico that gets swept up in their feud. Adding an extra element to the mix is that the town of La Belle is almost exclusively inhabited by women, bringing in a wonderful array of female characters to this reimagining of a classic Western. The series, created by Scott Frank and Steven Soderbergh, is sadly a limited series with only seven episodes: so, savour each of the beautiful hour long (or more) episodes. Or binge it like I did. Either way, it’s hard not to enjoy, and when it’s done you can ask yourself if it lives up to its title.
There’s no doubt that Godless is choc-full of nods to the Western genre, with touches of the classics that are (thankfully) inescapable. Just as a short list of stereotypes you can expect: the anti-Hero, several fabulous moustaches, a ghost town, an outlaw, and several quick draws to whet the appetite. If that’s not enough, the stunning landscapes and dusty backgrounds bring to life the Wild West in sumptuous detail.
It is, perhaps, what makes Godless break away from the classics that bring it to life, and give it a more interesting touch. The series shows significant racial representation, outside of the almost exclusively white main characters. Native American characters are not simply ‘savage Indians’, and a group of African American characters are not denigrated in any way. Racial diversity tends to be notably absent from many of the great old Westerns, despite their historical involvement in the West. Similarly, the portrayal of women is surprisingly refreshing. There is a distinct lack of sexualisation of the female characters, without denying their sexual appetites. This contrasts with many of the other television shows, like Game of Thrones, that seem to depend on a sort of sexual violence that is used less for plot development and more for a certain aesthetic. Instead, the female characters challenge maternal norms and ask the question: can women survive in the male dominated West?
The show does well to stylistically satiate any Western desire, with stunning silhouettes against sun soaked dust. But Scott Frank also brings more interesting direction for some of the scenes. Most notable is the portrayal of the past in an almost colourless filter. The shots highlight certain things, like blood, almost in a surprisingly successful way of capturing the way memories work – with only the most vivid parts in startling colour. Similarly, with one important memory the entire thing is captured in full colour, bringing emphasis to it.
It differs in this way from some of the best TV out there today, but should still find itself up there
Propping up the beautifully shot show is the brilliant cast, with known and unknown faces alike. Perhaps most striking to a British audience will be the several English faces, including two of the main characters Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery). Michelle Dockery, who perhaps seems most out of place from her Downton Abbey days playing English aristocrat Lady Mary Crawley, does incredibly well as the hardened widow Alice Fletcher. While the two characters seem world apart, they are united by their determination and stubbornness brought to life in both by Dockery. It seems Dockery really has a knack for playing women with a disregard for some social conventions, with Alice’s trademark being a welcome to visitors with a rifle in her arms. Jack O’Connell is also fantastic as the lone ranger type Roy Goode. O’Connell will always have a soft spot in my heart for playing the rough around the edges James Cook in British favourite Skins, but he brings something special to this character. Can he compete with the likes of Clint Eastwood? I might tentatively venture a yes as a new form of cowboy, if that isn’t Western heresy. And, of course, American heavyweight Jeff Daniels doesn’t bring us your classic villain with his depiction of Frank Griffin. Griffin has a strangely layered character for a villain, with his striking fatherly attitude hinting at his own conflicts. The rest of the cast are equally strong, bringing personalities to even the smallest characters.
Some of the highlights include some brilliant lines, an interesting exploration of the relationship between men and women in the West, and an accident that haunts the town but doesn’t eclipse the story. It is full of interesting details, laden with metaphors and imagery that aren’t overbearing. An occasional and very dry sense of humour brings more life to the show, with great wit. The show is not overly gory, instead building tensions in the relations between the characters rather than relying on sensationalism. Violence comes quietly, more insidiously, to bring a more brutal reality of the wild, wild West. It differs in this way from some of the best TV out there today, but should still find itself up there.
It seems I find it difficult to fault Godless, and the glorious American West landscape will help to assail any of those Westworld pangs as we wait for that second series. Godless is great television, and set in ‘the land of the bleeding rifle, it’s Godless country.’
Godless will be available on Netflix from 22nd November
Image: Ursula Coyote/Netflix