There’s no higher power to be found in Godless, only men and women searching desperately for all the things they covet—justice, vengeance, love, family, and identity—in an 1880s Western landscape that offers little comfort and even less forgiveness. In this harsh environment, the mistreated and unloved are on their own, left to fend for themselves against brutal forces seemingly out of their control. What prayers are uttered in Netflix’s latest stellar show are of little practical use, with individuals earning what they have, and what they want, through blood, sweat, and suffering. No wonder, then, that in this barren place, the only sign of the supernatural comes in the form of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a desperado in a pastor’s collar who murders without remorse and rampages without fear, compelled by the confidence of knowing—or so he says—the precise way in which he’ll die.
Godless has the air of a revisionist Western, but its heart is, by and large, true to tradition, and as a self-contained limited series—one whose lengthier-than-usual episodes tell a complete tale—it plays like a satisfying long-form novel. Neither racing toward cliffhangers nor dilly-dallying with filler material, its laconic pace feels purposeful, immersing one in the genre’s familiar rhythms and mood. Where it provides modern angles on conventional material, it does so gracefully, and without awkward calling-attention-to-itself gestures, allowing those perspectives to emerge organically from the show’s conception of the West—and life—as driven by mortal urges and actions rather than any divine plan. Its bleakness is cold and matter-of-fact, which makes any triumphs feel deeply deserved.
Written and directed by Scott Frank, whose big-screen credits include Get Shorty, Minority Report, and Logan—as well as The Lookout and A Walk Among the Tombstones, which he also directed—and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh (whose Out of Sight Frank penned), Godless is a work of confident artistry, casting well-worn clichés and archetypes in a fresh, illuminating light. Its focus is Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), a gunslinger who shows up one night at the ranch of widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) and, for his unexpected arrival, receives a bullet in the neck. He lives, nursed back to help by Alice’s Native American mother-in-law, and shortly thereafter is befriended by her son Truckee (Samuel Marty). However, that doesn’t mean he’s out of danger, considering he’s being hunted by Griffin, a bandit leader with a twisted Mormon past who years earlier took Roy under his wing as a surrogate son, and who now seeks revenge against the boy for having betrayed him, stolen his money, and shot off his left arm—an injury that makes Griffin’s malevolence all the more terrifying.
Just as Roy was deserted by his brother (seen in one of many ashen-colored flashbacks) and Griffin was forsaken by Roy, Alice too has been left by loved ones—namely, two husbands. Their lonely, outcast condition is shared by the rest of Godless’ characters, most of whom reside in the nearby town of La Belle, where the population is primarily young women thanks to a mining accident that killed all but a few of the outpost’s men. There, Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) tries to carve out a romance with resilient prostitute-turned-schoolteacher Callie (Tess Frazer), as well as struggles to protect the town’s few resources from the predatory Quicksilver Limited, which promises money and men—the latter of particular interest to the lonely ladies of La Belle—in exchange for control of the mine. And amidst those efforts, Mary Agnes’ brother, sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), copes with the disrespect of his citizens, who think him a coward even though his reticence with a firearm is the byproduct of his deteriorating eyesight.
There are more sharply delineated characters populating Godless, including cocky young deputy Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), his would-be African-American sweetheart Louise (Jessica Sula), dastardly reporter A.T. Grigg (The Knick’s Jeremy Bobb), Quicksilver’s nasty head of security Ed Logan (Kim Coates), and a heroic—and exceedingly well-mustached—Marshall (Sam Waterston) on Griffin’s trail for a massacre that directly followed his fateful shootout with Roy. Frank intertwines these strands with aplomb, allowing each to amble forward on their own until they invariably intersect. His dialogue is hard-bitten and free from affectation, and his imagery boasts a classicism that’s enlivening: men breaking horses on ranches, committing violent acts under expansive skies, and riding on horseback across the vast open plains, the dust swirling around them and the brilliant sun beating on their backs so they appear as silhouettes.
The writer/director doesn’t indulge in underlined shout-outs to hallowed Western predecessors, and even his most direct allusion—a series of The Searchers-inspired shots from inside dark dwellings gazing out onto bright frontiers—are apt, visualizing the fact that his characters are boxed in by fate, circumstance and their own impulses. Such subtlety extends to the show’s feminism, which here comes via Mary Agnes’ rugged individuality and La Belle’s eventual stand against male invaders (of both a capitalist and violent nature), and which infuses the distinctly 19th century action with some 21st century progressiveness. That outlook, which also relates to Alice’s shunned-for-her-independence condition, is a natural outgrowth of the show’s overarching belief that happiness, security and domestic unity and stability are attained not through intervention from on high—or from saintly saviors of any particular race/gender/class—but through one’s own choices and behavior.
Much of Godless’ understated power is the byproduct of Frank’s own shrewd casting. Even if he never quite registers as a man who might have ruthlessly killed at Griffin’s side, O’Connell’s Roy is a compellingly redemptive protagonist, and he’s complemented by Dockery’s tough-but-tender turn as the trauma-scarred Alice. Better still is Wever, who laces Mary Agnes’ fierce self-sufficiency with layers of hurt, desire and anger—not to mention the courage of a true leader—and the equally great McNairy, whose Bill McNue is a beaten-down pariah clawing his way back toward heroism; he’s a character so richly drawn, he could carry his own stand-alone saga.
Ultimately, though, the proceedings rest on the shoulders of the titanically great Daniels, whose bearded, one-armed Griffin is a sweet-talking corruptor of youth who’s all the more dangerous when engaging others as an apparent friend. Righteous and ruinous, ferocious and feeble, he’s a paterfamilias of holier-than-thou villainy; one who indulges in the ultimate sins because he imagines his evils blessed by the Lord—and, as such, proves a timeless breed of monster.