AS a boy, we were fond of Westerns, then called cowboy movies. The most memorable for us are “The Searchers”, “The Hellions”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “Shane”, “High Noon” (with its unforgettable theme music), “Gunfight at OK Corral”, “Vera Cruz” and many more. Later on, Clint Eastwood would do the so-called spaghetti westerns in Italy like “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (with a great score by Ennio Morricone) and eventually did his own take in Hollywood with “Unforgiven”.
We haven’t seen a Western for quite a while so we thoroughly enjoyed the Netflix 7-episode miniseries, “Godless”, giving the genre a deliberate feminist slant while still honoring the usual conventions that Western fans expect from the genre, like the hero riding out into the sunset, with “Shane” having this most memorable kind of ending while the boy Brandon de Wilde is shouting to Alan Ladd: “Shane, come back!”
We also like “Godless” as it stars one of our fave actresses today, Michelle Dockery, the English actress we first saw in “Downtown Abbey” as Lady Mary Crawley. We have since appreciated her in “Good Behavior”, “The Gentlemen” and “Defending Jacob”. In “Godless”, she plays the female lead, Alice Fletcher, a widow living in her own ranch in sprawling New Mexico. Actually, she’s been widowed twice. Her last husband is a Paiute Indian.
She lives in the ranch with her Paiute mother-in-law, Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal, very good), and her teenage son, Truckee (Samuel Marty). One night, she sees a stranger on a horse straying into their ranch and shoots him on the neck. This is Roy Goode (Brit actor Jack O’Connell), who’s already wounded after an encounter with his former mentor, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a real badass who pretends to be a pastor but is actually a ruthless sociopath.
Roy rebels when he sees Frank massacre all the people in the town of Creed, Colorado. He later figures in a shootout with Frank and his men. A sharpshooting gunslinger, he manages to hit Frank on his left arm, causing it to be amputated. Roy is now on the run and Frank is deadset on exacting revenge on him.
This is how Roy forays into Alice’s ranch in the mining town of La Belle, where Alice is considered a curse to the town. The town is now populated mostly by women and children since all its men died in a mining accident two years ago. A flashback showing this tragedy is truly quite affecting.
The town’s sheriff is Bill McNue (Scott McNairy, one of the busiest actors today who we’ve seen in so many recent TV series) and his sister is Mary Agnes (Merritt Weaver), the wife of the late mayor who has since dropped her husband’s name, now wears pants and has an affair with the town whore turned school teacher.
Alice nurses Roy back to health and she’s delighted to have him stay because he has a way with taming the wild horses in her stable. In return, he asks her to teach him how to read. In his back story, we learn that as a boy, he’s left behind by his older brother who went by himself to California.
Many years later, he gets a letter from his brother but he doesn’t know how to read it. Eventually, he gets to read the letter and his brother is inviting him to join his wife and son in California and also to see the beautiful Pacific Ocean.
The show is full of anticipation and the most awaited moment is for Frank, the notorious outlaw, and his men to get into La Belle to hunt down Roy and to kill all its people for harboring him. Of course, the frontier town is practically defenseless as its inhabited only by women, who eventually have to learn how to use guns to protect their town (just like the town in “Magnificent Seven” who have to learn how to fight against bandits that regularly attack them.)
And when the showdown comes, it truly packs quite a wallop, leading to the final confrontation between Roy and Frank who is so confident that Roy can’t kill him because he has seen how he died in a dream and it’s not by gunshot. In terms of production values, the camera captures stunning shots of panoramic mountain vistas and sprawling landscape with an epic sweep.
It also helps that the ensemble cast is uniformly exceptional, with Michelle and Merritt true standouts as the gun-toting heroines. But at seven episodes (most of them with a running time of more than an hour), just about every episode drags far longer than needed and some scenes go on and on even after it has made its point. Good editing can reduce this to about five episodes and make the whole narrative much faster in its pacing.
The show also adds a subplot about black people living peacefully in their own place called Blackton who were cruelly massacred by Frank and his men. And although the main conflict seems to be between Roy and Frank, no doubt the more riveting aspect of the story is watching the widows take control of their own lives and defend themselves amidst the sexist bullshit of that era.