One of the most fascinating and mesmerizing villains in the canon of modern Westerns has got to be Jeff Daniel’s Frank Griffin.
An outlaw, Bible thumper, caring foster father, and slaughterer of towns, Daniels' Griffin is the kind of complex antagonist whose vacillating viciousness and tenderness can only come from a man with a code, albeit a twisted and mad one.
In one of the later episodes of the Steven Soderbergh-produced Netflix mini-series Godless, Griffin and his gang drop by an all-black town, a settlement populated by former Buffalo Soldiers of color. They are invited in by the woman of the house. They sit down to a meal.
However, as things are wont to happen in tense situations, despite Frank’s exhortations that he “doesn’t have a quarrel” with the black folks, misunderstanding occurs and because everyone is armed in the Wild West the bullets fly. Dinner with the black family ends up in a massacre and Frank also ends up killing the man across from him.
He learns though, and much to his disappointment, that the ex-soldier in front of him wasn’t even armed. “Have you no gun, sir?” Frank asks, pretty irked at the state of things. He proceeds to mercy kill the poor dude even as, outside, his gang falls upon the rest of the town’s hapless citizens.
Welcome to the era of the frontier. Life is cheap here and guns are even cheaper.
Written and directed by Scott Frank and arced through seven episodes that take their time, paced like a slowly trotting horse until the finale, when everything is set ablaze in glory, Godless is the latest vision of the West as creationism of the American pioneer spirit.
It’s romantic and gritty, beautiful and brutal all at once. It’s like Red Dead Redemption except with better storytelling and an embarrassment of potentially rich characters.
Speaking of, there’s plenty romance to be had on Godless. After all, the Wild West is still the mysterious era that both filmmakers and historians like to frolic in, regardless of message or theme. Which is why it can be melded on to sci-fi (Westworld), horror (The Dark Tower), or any similarly themed daytime soaps—Rodenberry’s Start Trek is technically a Western drama in space. The folktales and the epics of frontier life can be couched in many ways and Godless plays on them all, but also traffics in the shades of gray that its wannabe heroes, petitioning and embattled women, and villains wanting redemption seek amid the dry vistas and towering cliffs.
The landscape of Godless is a harsh ecosystem that impinges and affects the characters, hardens them or breaks them. And we’re given a surplus of complex and varied characters that still play to genre tropes, giving them a fresh patina of modern depth.
There’s, of course, the murderous and paternal Frank Griffin (Daniels), but there’s also the struggling and empowered single mother Alice Fletcher, widowed twice and saddled with a half-Indian son, played to the hilt by Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery. There’s the local sheriff Bill Mcnue (Scott McNairy), once vaunted lawman of the territory, whose eyesight and shooting skills are going as he tries to hold on to his duties even as, the Indians say, he’s “lost his shadow"—which is likely tribal-speak for “get your mojo back, man.”
Then there’s Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), the prodigal adopted son of Frank Griffin, who also happens to be a hell of a gunslinger. We learn in the premiere episode that he has not only stolen a sizeable amount of cash from Frank’s gang, but he has also shot off Frank’s left arm. Neither act has endeared him much to Frank and in fact has brought down the white man’s equivalent of a blood feud upon his head. Which must explain why Frank is all cranky at the start of the series, burning down towns and entering churches to interrupt masses with dire threats not to harbor Roy on pain of more Biblical retributions.
Amid the outlaws, train heists, brooding heroes, disillusioned lawmen, and murdering sociopaths, another main pillar of the fascinating dramatis persona are the women of La Belle.
In an age where guns equals protection, and men are often the bearer and most skilled with guns, the women are in a unique predicament. See, the men of the mining town of La Belle are all gone. Save for a the infirm, the old, the crazy or those whose work left them in town (including Sheriff Bill), almost all of the dudes were killed in a mining accident. 83 men left 83 widows.
Far from simply giving up, the women have held their own with Maggie McNue (Merritt Wever), the wife of the late mayor, as the de facto chieftess. They’re also in the process of building a church, they’ve already established a school run by former prostitute Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer) after the local brothel went out of business.
They’ve also taken to arming themselves, believing—and rightly so—that only warriors, or in this case gunslingers, opt for peace, while others are condemned to it.
Godless unpacks this very unique, and truthfully fascinating, premise of a town almost exclusively populated by women in the Wild West in each episode. It progresses steadily, without haste, and also mostly succeeds.
Still, even this is a sideshow to the greater arc of revenge, coming of age, and the finding of spirit in an essentially godforsaken land. The playwright Pluthero Quexos said: “In any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there is only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death.”
The main triad here that overshadows all the other phantoms and side quests on these seven episodes is the bonds that link Frank Griffin, Roy Goode, and Bill Mcnue. The outlaw, the prodigal adopted son, and the lawman chasing them both.
All the thrilling scenes of horse riding and gunslinging do make for a visually entertaining ballet of violence (watch out for UFC fighters Ketih Jardine and Donald Cerrone).
Plus, the combo of gorgeous women (watch out for a topless Michelle Dockery, and other such scenes of, uh, exquisite pulchritude) with rugged and sweeping vistas of what must be national parks are also powerful factors in the binge-ability of this series. The show's biggest fault, however, is it often overlooks the most interesting characters and their potential for top-shelf story.
Alice’s son Truckee (Samuel Marty) and his troubles could've been give more time, seeing as he’s born of a white girl and an Indian father. How about the story of Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston)? He's the only law enforcement officer with the kind of military sense to know what it’d take to defend La Belle from the storm of Griffin’s marauders. Maybe they’d like to give us the lowdown on La Belle’s Martha, the German strawberry blonde, who parades around town in cowboy boots and nothing else, that’s more than a tease of her flight from domestic abuse?
Despite my complaints at having nearly all of these stray threads untied, Godless stakes its claim firmly in the new Western canon with much savagery and seduction.
Wait for the firefights. Stay for the rousing finale with gun-fu almost worthy of a John Woo film. And love it for Jeff Daniels, whose Frank Griffin is complex man with a propensity for slaughter.
In one scene, Frank steps into a house full of smallpox sufferers that a town has abandoned, helping the residents. In another, he berates a Norwegian frontier immigrant even as he dawdles the man’s toddler on his knee: “God? What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the bleeding and the wrathful. It’s godless country.”
Take your time with this one. It’ll be worth it.
Godless is now streaming on Netflix.