You can, in my humble opinion, judge a western by how the characters react to getting shot in the gut. A slight grimace before they carry on shooting, perhaps with their hand over the blood, and we know we are in make believe land. Most Westerns are like this. Nobody simply winces in Godless even though a lot of people end up shot. Godless is perhaps the most Western Western of recent times – and that is mostly a very good thing.
Mis-sold as the story of a town where the men have all gone and the women are in control, Godless has a remarkably simple central narrative. Disappointingly for some, the main story is as male as they come. Peter Griffin, a slaughtering outlaw who pauses for occasional acts of kindness and charity, has sworn revenge not only on Roy Goode for leaving his gang of bandits but also any town and community that harbours him. In the opening episode we see the aftermath of such an event as the town of Crede smoulders and its residents swing from gallows.
It is in the context for this drama that our town almost without men – La Belle – comes to life. Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) out on her ranch, trying to break in the horses and get the well to reach water; Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Weaver), who now wears trousers and lives as liberated as she dare; and her brother Bill (Scott McNairy) as the sight-failing sheriff determined for one more shot at bravery. The other widows and survivors get their own depth and story, which they should over a series that runs to around eight hours, but it does sometimes feel that it would be nice to see more about this strange little world, so at odds with the violence and dirt that surrounds it, and a little less of two conflicted men heading towards their destiny. Godless does it a lot better than most have ever done but it’s still a story we’ve seen many times before.
Jeff Daniels as Peter Griffin and Jack O’Connell as Roy Goode carry the burden of the story with ease. Daniels will almost certainly win whatever awards are going. Godless homages pretty much every great Western there has ever been in terms of look and feel – even part-time cineastes like me will recognise the use of the internal door framing the outside world from The Searchers. There’s a good script too and some unexpectedly affecting moments.
Some might feel the story takes a long time to get anywhere. The majority of the episodes clock in at 70 minutes; 50 minutes feels like a breeze. There are a lot of digressions, some of which engage more than others, and as well as the women of La Belle, there are other towns, characters and episodes to chart. Godless gives us a world which may, at times, test your patience. It still moves quicker than Westworld though.
The promise on Netflix is that this is a limited season. There are no arcs needing a second, third, ninth series to complete. I hope so with one caveat. The story of Goode and Griffin is done and dusted in this season but there are characters in that hinterland I would want to see more of if such a thing could be done well – and perhaps with a touch more brevity.