“There ain’t nothing as scary as a man with a gun,” reflects Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) in Godless, Netflix’s new Western series. It’s a prescient line in a show that flirts with a bold revision of the genre, with the action taking place in a town run entirely by women. But for better or worse, Scott Frank’s Netflix Western sticks to the tried and tested classics – almost entirely for the better.
“There ain’t something as helpless as a man without one,” Roy adds, even as he knowingly becomes just that. The former protege of outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), he had a change of heart and stole Griffin’s gang’s loot, before fleeing to hide in La Belle, the aforementioned testosterone-free town. There, he lives in the barn of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a widow in a community full of them, who is raising a half-Paiute son, Truckee (an excellent Samuel Marty). There are shades of Shane in the figure of a man who has turned his back on violence, and O’Connell, who is one of Britain’s best young actors right now, is perfectly cast as the quietly intense, brooding antihero; the kind of man who will teach your outcast kid to hunt, but also responsibly explain the perils of firearms.
It’s Roy’s relationship with Frank that fuels the whole series, and the duo shoulder that burden with a righteous conviction – literally, in the case of Jeff Daniels, whose villain wanders about in the garb of a priest, quoting from Isaiah before committing all manner of sins. Daniels is given endless monologues to savour and he does so commendably without a side portion of ham, uttering threats with a head cocked to one side and a croaky voice that disguises a nasty sense of justice. So good is he at talking that even Roy’s profound motto turns out to have originated from Frank’s mouth first.
Writer-director Frank rewards Daniels for underplaying every scene by giving him another, and another – a delicious case of less is more that both actor and director clearly relish.
“This is the paradise of the locust, the lizard and the snake,” he intones, with a savage superiority. “It’s godless country.”
Father-son bonds. Revenge. Religious imagery. Surnames like “Goode”. This is the kind of weighty, meaty material that has become Scott Frank’s specialty. Over the years, he has penned the screenplays for Logan, Minority Report and underseen Joseph Gordon-Levitt thriller The Lookout (also directed by Frank and sporting a fantastic turn by Daniels), and has honed a knack for exploring the intense collision of two macho forces. He more than justifies his presence at the helm here: every single shot is composed impeccably, working with DoP Steven Meizler to capture the dusty aftermath of a horrific massacre and sunset-bathed silhouettes of people riding across the plains. Given over seven hours to play with and a hefty budget, he’s in his element, and it’s a pleasure to see.
With most of the seven episodes stretching out to 70 or 80 minutes, Godless may not be the feminist Western one might hope for (see The Keeping Room, also on Netflix UK, for a top example of that), but it’s certainly a Netflix Western, and that take on the genre proves bold enough to satisfy: between Griffin and Goode, Frank finds time flesh out every single character we meet. That includes the more familiar archetypes you expect – Scott McNairy is on Halt and Catch Fire-level form as Bill McNue, a Sheriff thought to be a coward, but actually going blind – to those you don’t – Merritt Wever is scene-stealingly good as Bill’s sister, Mary Agnes, a tough cookie who has had enough of society’s stereotypical female role and spends her days wearing men’s clothes, carrying a gun and dating a former prostitute, who is now the local school teacher. Agnes is faster on the draw than anyone we meet, quicker witted and more outspoken – it’s a humdinger of a performance that brings a whole wave of depth and colour to this tale’s old-fashioned pages.
It’s a shame, in a way, that the whole show isn’t just about her and La Belle. Godless, though, doesn’t short-change us for paying its dues to male convention: there are fascinating politics at play in the community, as some of the women are happy to welcome in a dodgy-looking bunch of shooters promising to revive the town’s mine, and real emotion, as desaturated flashbacks show us the tragic death of all the men in the now-abandoned shafts years before. Michelle Dockery, in particularly, brings a whole heap of grit to her poignant role, as Alice makes a living on the outskirts of the town, just as Marie Wagenman as young Trudy McNue tries to get on without her mother – a loss that Bill still seems to resent her for.
The men are beautifully drawn and performed too, with Thomas Brodie-Sangster (yes, him from Love Actually) getting so much more to do than in Game of Thrones as Whitey Winn, the young deputy sheriff who is still naively in love with the rooting-tooting wildness of the west. (One subplot devoted to his learning the reality of gun-slinging life brings him into contact with Louise [Jessica Sula], who plays the viola with a delicate beauty.) Mudbound’s Rob Morgan and a weary Sam Waterson, meanwhile, make their most of their small parts – par for the course in a rounded ensemble that stops Frank’s slow-paced story from feeling dull or overly indulgent: there’s a lyrical, literary tone to the poetic shots of slow-motion gallops and the sudden intrusion of hooves upon church floorboards that balance the painstakingly-realised sense of community with expertly choreographed set pieces. (Even after six chapters, it’s testament to how good it all looks – and how evocative Carlos Rafael Rivera’s score is – that you’ll never skip the opening credits.) Tense shootouts are deployed sparingly but judiciously, as episodes subtly shorten to under one-hour, building up momentum to a precision-crafted climax that combines windows, rooftops and fire to thrilling effect.
And wrapped around it all is the destiny-laden showdown between Griffin and Goode, two towering myths who manage to become more than archetypes. “This is not how I die, I have seen it,” declares Griffin, repeatedly, foreshadowing his eventual encounter with fate. Along the way, Daniels’ faux-preacher takes time to help a disease-laden house, showing a surprisingly compassionate side that would be lost in a shorter feature-length outing, while O’Connell sways between sacrificial redeemer and hard-nosed survivor with a charisma that’s destined to make him a Hollywood leading man. (He makes a nuanced contrast to our other ostensible white hat, Bill; one a home-settled family man and the other, a wandering loner pining for a long-lost relative, both capable of standing up for themselves when the time comes.)
It’s almost churlish to suggest that Godless could be better for focusing on its supporting characters, as it would deprive us of these two fantastic performances – that, perhaps, would be the defining line between Godless as a long-running series and Godless as a movie, which this show sits somewhere between. If Scott Frank were to want a second season, it would certainly be a welcome approach to the genre to embrace his superb female cast and give them centre-stage instead. As a standalone mini-series that is smart enough to stop at seven episodes, though, this is a potent mix of genre tradition and progressive characters that makes a pertinent point about the futility of men with guns, and gives their toys to the women too. It’s a testament to just how successful the end result is that it can be taken seriously in the wake of HBO’s Westworld, let alone still feel fresh in classic trimmings and trappings that have long since become old hat. Accomplished, confident and sumptuous storytelling, fans of Westerns have just had their prayers answered.
Godless is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.