Godless is a classical Western short series that recently debuted on Netflix back in November. The series is spread over seven episodes and tells a pretty familiar genre tale: Local farm family stumbles upon a lone gunslinger with a dark past that is unfortunately blazing a trail of murder and robbery across the country to catch up with him. The advertised conceit of Godless is the focus on a female-driven ensemble of characters in an environment where they are often underestimated, which admittedly is a conceit that initially drew me in. Westerns are, historically, very male-dominant as a genre, so a female-driven story would allow the extraction of a storytelling goldmine, and initial reception seemed to praise the show’s focus on a largely female cast, so I was very hopeful.
After watching it, I’m really left wondering what on earth the reviewers were viewing. Yes, Godless is a majority female cast, but sadly it’s still a story largely in service to the men, and without much to show for it.
We’ve hit a certain threshold with Westerns: they can no longer exist in a traditional form. The stories that illuminated the genre still hold value (Films like High Noon, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Shane), but the standard formula doesn’t satisfy on its own in the 21st century. By this point, the story of the gunslinger has become a common myth, and any attempt to retell it needs to recognize that and act accordingly. A Western cannot be simply a Western anymore. It needs to say something bigger about the genre, about itself. Arguably, this approach has led to some of the strongest entries in the genre. No Country for Old Men provided a strong deconstruction of the myth by showing how badly it holds up in a modern setting. Films like Django Unchained and There Will be Blood show the power of the western when repurposed to fit a different goal. Godless should be able to stand among the best in its category by swapping the gender standards and in turn offering a harsh but powerful commentary on the Western. If it had followed through more thoroughly, we’d be having a very different conversation, but instead we have a series that presents a strong female presence at the forefront and retreats into its couple of male characters all too often for the sake of keeping things familiar. Nothing about Godless is especially challenging, but everything about it should be.
Missed opportunities aside, is Godless a good series on its own merits? Sure, it’s not the worst thing ever. Most of the characters are reasonably effective, driven mainly by a few knockout performances from Merritt Wever as the sheriff’s sister “Mary Agnes McNue,” Michelle Dockery as tough-as-nails farm owner “Alice Fletcher,” and Jeff Daniels as probably one of the most enticing villains of the year: “Frank Griffin.” If there’s one thing this show does well, it delivers a top notch performance in the places it needs most. Outside of a few solid character performances, the story direction is a bit predictable (likely a symptom of an unchallenged genre); however, the setup itself is fantastic and fairly refreshing. The music is definitely serviceable, namely in that it failed to stand out but also didn’t need to. The setting and worldbuilding are pretty much exactly what you’d expect, but they aren’t without effort. The show works, often putting in a hard day’s labor, but there’s literally nothing new to see here outside of performance, and that’s a severe shame given where everything started. A more fitting title would’ve been “Aimless.”