Godless: good, but could’ve been great

Godless is one of the latest shows to be released by Netflix. A Western that got shopped around Hollywood as a feature film but didn’t get picked up, so writer-director Scott Frank (who penned Logan) ended up finding a home for it on the small screen, and the story went from two hours to a solid seven.

Now this could have been a writer’s dream. Think about it, you’ve got a compelling idea for a story and get to write more scenes, develop characters, flesh the whole thing out and give it room to breathe. And Frank does this well, and thus does a decent job for the most part, but more on that to come.

Story wise, the plot focuses on sharp shooting outlaw Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) who splits from a gang run by Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and, in doing so, nicks the cash from their latest heist. So they go after him.

He finds refuge at the home of tough rancher Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), who lives on the outskirts of a town called La Belle; which is populated entirely by women, due to a mining accident that wiped out most of the men. And Roy gets tentatively welcomed into her home, bit by bit, coaching Alice’s son on horses, fixing things, exchanging longing looks with her, the usual unfulfilled lusting you get in these types of stories.

So from fleeing his surrogate – and criminal – family, he finds some semblance of a real one, by chance. Meanwhile, Frank Griffin wanders the territory looking for him and generally being a very bad man to anyone that gets in his way.

Basically, the problem at the core of this show is that a town populated – and run by – women, in a Western, is a compelling concept. It feels fresh and timely, particularly in today’s ‘grab ’em by the pussy’, Trump-infused world, where not a day goes by without some public figure being outed for sexual harassment or worse – and this is something Netflix took a punt on with their marketing.

Trouble is, the women of La Belle feel less well written than the men, as the show’s more interested in Roy’s redemption and Frank’s downward spiral; than the idea of women surviving and thriving in a world that’s utterly dominated by macho blokes.

To back this up*, there’s also too much focus on other male characters that aren’t vital to the story. For starters, we’ve got the town’s almost blind Sheriff (Scoot McNairy) who’s therefore a bit of a damp squib as a lawman. He goes after Frank, presumably to satisfy his wounded masculinity.

Then there’s the Marshall of the territory (Sam Waterston) also after Frank. He has full vision but is perhaps even more useless than the Sheriff. Why these two didn’t work together was beyond me. Although they felt like filler characters, in that you could lose the Marshall and the show would be no worse off. Possibly the Sheriff too.

(*Incidentally, Wikipedia lists nine major characters and six are men.)

I suppose I wouldn’t be bothered about the misleading marketing if the show was average, but it ain’t. It’s really rather good. For one thing, it’s achingly, exquisitely shot (seldom have I seen Western landscapes look so beautiful) and the characters are all, by and large, pretty engaging, in that I wanted to learn more about them and their lives and interactions with each other.

It’s just there are too many to introduce in seven hours and none get enough time to develop, particularly the show’s women, with maybe the exception of Alice and the town’s leader Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), who’s actually one of the most complex and intriguing characters.

Plus she’s the only one who really holds her own with the men and is determined the town’s women have agency and are in charge of their own fate. The other women, rather disappointly, are just happy for some men around the place, whatever it costs them.

So the word is, this show is limited to just the single season, which is a shame considering all the world building it had done. And I feel it’s a slim pickin’ chance we’ll see it for a second go round, as it looks like a show that had a hefty budget.

I hope it does come back and focuses on La Belle and its women and perhaps the fight to save their mine. But this is all wishful thinking and we’ll have to more than likely just enjoy it for what it was, rather than what it could become. And this is no bad thing, I was just hoping for a little bit more.

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