While you’re waiting for the next season of Westworld to come back next spring, Godless might be the perfect thing to distract yourself… depending on what you enjoy about Westworld, that is. Godless is not as subversive or groundbreaking as Westworld, but it is a bloody (truly bloody) good time.
The new Netflix limited series has impressive talent in front of and behind the camera, including producer Steven Soderbergh and writer-director Scott Frank, who wrote the recent X-Men spin-off Logan. Godless‘ seven episodes have a combined run-time of over seven hours, and is currently streaming on Netflix. In comparison to some other shows, Godless is much less of a time investment for the viewer. It’s true that at times, Godless feels like an incredibly lengthy film, but ultimately, it feels like a television series that’s over too soon.
Related: Watch the Trailer for Godless
Unlike Westworld, which blends elements of the Western genre with science fiction, Godless is a pure and unadulterated Western. Additionally, while fans of Westworld felt the floor drop out from under them each week with a new and surprising twist, Godless has a relatively straightforward concept. Much of the show builds towards the eventual showdown of the final episode, and reveals or shocks are few and far between. If robots, multiple timelines, or world-shattering Nolan-style twists are what drew you to Westworld, you may be dissatisfied with Godless and its linear narrative that is interspersed with some clearly delineated flashback sequences.
The landscape alone might be a reason to watch Godless. Westworld was filmed in California and Utah, while Godless was shot in New Mexico, outside of Santa Fe. While the atmosphere is different, the results are the same: the scenery and cinematography are masterful. The show’s length allows for extended sequences. As a result, camera lingers: on faces, on silhouettes, on horses, on the landscape. The show can be beautiful, but the camera is equally unflinching in violent sequences.
But the cast of Godless is easily the strongest part of the show. Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) is both unrecognizable and exceptional as the big, bad bandit Frank Griffin, who is certifiably terrifying. Frank is a man who is bound by his own code of honor; however, the particulars of that code are often indecipherable to the viewer, giving Griffin an uneasy and unpredictable air. Frank’s repeated catchphrase in the face of certain doom – “This ain’t my death.” – gets somewhat tired, but Daniels gives a strong performance in spite of this nervous compulsion. Frank’s foil, Roy Goode, is played by Jack O’Connell (Money Monster), who gives a subtle and surprisingly tender performance. While the show has a strong ensemble cast, as Godless unfolds, the story centers on Roy and his fight to be free from Frank’s clutches.
However, the true star performances of the show are Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey). Wever plays Mary Agnes McNue, the de facto mayor of La Belle who is trying to lead and defend her town from all intruders and threats. Mary Agnes is tough, smart, and scrappy, and in the unluckily event of a second season of Godless, should be the protagonist. While the other women of La Belle are desperately trying to find a way to return their lives to normalcy, Mary Agnes is thriving in her newfound freedom. Meanwhile, Dockery, in stark contrast to her Downton character Lady Mary Crawley, plays Alice Fletcher, a sharpshooting widow who lives outside of La Belle. Alice is difficult to pin down as she takes on a number of Western tropes only to discard them. Without spoiling too much, before the end of the show, both Mary Agnes and Alice have a chance to show off their marksmanship, and Wever and Dockery have an opportunity to show off their range as actors.
Godless distinguishes itself from other Westerns by centering on La Belle, a town whose occupants are almost entirely women after a tragic mining accident killed all of the menfolk in one fell swoop. Two years after the accident, a runaway bandit comes to town, seeking refuge as he attempts to hide from his former mentor and boss. It seems that like Westworld, Godless wants to center unheard stories, and in particular women’s stories. Unfortunately for Godless, it is less successful than Westworld in this endeavor.
This is because Godless isn’t groundbreaking so much as entertaining. The show’s promotional material emphasized its dynamic female characters, which are few and far between in traditional Westerns. As the second trailer warned: “Welcome to No Man’s Land,” playfully subverting the term to refer to the women of La Belle. However, while Godless features some women who break the mold, the story begins, is propelled by, and ends with men. In fact, most of the major events in the series could occur without any of the female characters. While La Belle becomes a setting for the action, most of the women characters are secondary or background. Male characters dominate both the action and the spoken lines, and the final episode of Godless wraps up the stories of the male protagonists, but ultimately, leaves the women’s stories and fates largely unresolved.
Additionally, while Godless features some interesting and even complex characters of color, it also sometimes resorts to stereotypes, especially around Native Americans. For example, episode four features an especially cringe-worthy dream-sequence-memory with faceless Native Americans in buffalo headdresses violently attempting to rape a white woman. While Westworld is hardly better when it comes to stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans, the “theme park” frame narrative at least allows the show to claim that the tropes are part of the park’s design.
When compared directly with Westworld, Godless falls short. Perhaps this is unsurprising, since Westworld is innovative and genre-bending in a way that few shows are. However, many fans of Westworld will still enjoy Godless, because like Westworld, Godless boasts an excellent cast, intelligent writing, a beautiful setting, and strong visual storytelling. Despite promotional claims and headlines, Godless doesn’t reinvent the Western genre – it’s just a good old-fashioned cowboy story.
Next: Godless Review
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