From writer A. Scott Frank (‘Logan’, ‘Out Of Sight’) comes Godless. A western drama that swirls with all the gorgeous visuals of a carefully crafted period piece, much like BBC’s recent Poldark adaptation. Starring Jeff Daniels as Frank Griffin, the leader of a murderous posse, the series opens with the harrowing aftermath of their destruction of the town of Creede. Children hanged, bodies burnt. A train derailed. And the promise to do the same to any town that harbours former cohort and son-like figure to Frank, Roy Goode.
We learn as the series progresses that Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell from '71) was abandoned by his brother as a child and taken in by Frank who raised him as kin. But the series opens with the murderous results of betraying Frank. Roy has stolen their latest haul and fled, gunning down several of his past accomplices in the process. Barely escaping, he winds up at the ranch of hardened woman, Alice, who shoots him in the neck for good measure.
Whilst Roy’s journey (and Frank’s searching for him) forms the core narrative of Godless, there are several other plots that revolve around the town of La Belle. La Belle is a mining community that was devastated when virtually all the men were killed in a mine explosion. The Poldark comparison comes back again. Although Godless has more mature and darker content. Whilst some plot lines link nicely with the central story (reluctantly allowing a mining company to ship in men to work the mine, fear of Alice’s closeness with Paiute Native Americans) there are several other plots that serve little other than seek to flesh out the wider characters, with mostly good results.
Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), the brash widow of La Belle’s Mayor, adds plenty of grit throughout. But also displays a tender side in caring for the childish but warm hearted deputy, Whitey. Whitey (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) isn’t afraid of anyone, but his visits to the tiny village of Blackdom due to his romantic interest in a pretty young black girl causes racial tensions. Life in the old west this may be, but there is still time for every day drama.
It’s immediately obvious that great effort has been expanded on the cinematography for ‘Godless’. The ever present western dustbowl churns in hoof-pounded clouds. Whether we are at a remote ranch digging a well, or the small hand-built town of La Belle fighting for custom, the effort of the people to keep their tenuous grip on life is portrayed well. Wide, sweeping shots emphasise how La Belle is surrounded by the dusty plains in all directions, helpless to the whims of whatever blows into town.
Whilst the quality of acting is high and the show looks gorgeous, even with the show’s limited run of seven (albeit long) episodes there doesn’t seem to have been enough room to do all the elements justice. Some parts of the story are just plain left unfinished or unexplained. We spend a lot of time seeing Roy and his backstory with Frank, but what actually causes him to turn his back on his father figure? It’s never really said. Whitey’s love story never really goes anywhere to the point of wondering what was the point?
Mary Agnes’ leaping to assumptions about her lover, ex-whore turned school teacher Callie, causes her to lash out in disdain. But shortly after everything is fine again without us seeing them come to a resolution. The slowly going blind sheriff of La Belle (Bill McNue) is set up to show the town despises him, thinking him a coward. But then he spends virtually the whole show tracking down Frank and barely interacts with any of the main cast, which is a real waste. Despite most episodes running over an hour, the show does leapfrog over logical parts you’d expect to see in order to get to the drama it wants to show you.
But what Godless does show is still superb. Regardless of a variety of plot irritants, Jeff Daniels pretty much steals the show. From when we first meet him as he gets his arm amputated through to every loaded conversation, his screen presence is utterly enthralling. “This ain’t my death. I’ve seen my death and this ‘ain’t it,” he says to any threat, with such certainty that you can see why a gang of 30 men would follow him. His weather-beaten features may be hidden behind a large grey beard, but there is fury and pain in his eyes at Roy’s betrayal.
Similarly, Roy’s quiet humbleness is genuinely engaging. “You just need to get the gun out of your holster fast, everything else is fancy nonsense,” he explains to Truckee, Alice’s mixed-race son to whom he quickly becomes father figure himself. And lastly, praise must also go to Michelle Dockery as Alice. Her strength and grace are immediately apparent but as the show goes on she slowly lets down her defences, coupled with a flashback that shows her in a traumatically savage ordeal. There is a huge range of suppressed emotions going on under the face, which Dockery performs with admirable skill.
Godless is getting a lot of praise and it is easy to see why. It is flawed though, with mostly unsatisfactory conclusions to the character arcs. Yes, the finale may be an explosively entertaining shoot out with horses and bullets pounding everything in sight. And yes, the show is filled with wall to wall superb acting. And yes, it’s sprawling panning shots of the vast American wilderness is awe inspiring. But it just forgets to properly round off the human element. “Ain’t nothing as fragile as a young man,” is the line that reveals the heart of the show.
Despite all the western cowboy trappings the core story is supposed to be the relationship between father and son (or father-figure and son-figure). Whilst there is plenty of good substance to this in various elements, the lack of anyone really hammering matters out in the dialogue means that, disappointingly, the ending descends into spectacle rather than soul.
Words by Michael Record