I thought about the Netflix Western Godless for weeks after it premiered in late November. Culturally, the show seems like the kind of Netflix show that comes and goes without making much of a stir. The show ended with me firmly in the enjoyed-but-not-loved camp, so I’m not sure why exactly it took hold of my thoughts. Like most Netflix dramas the season was longer than it needed to be, and its mid-section bore the weight of the stretching that took it from movie length to approximately seven hours.
Based on its initial reception, Scott Frank’s series will be remembered for the way it offered the promise of a town in New Mexico populated only by women and instead foreground the relationship between a gunslinger and his adoptive father, a murderous outlaw. This is to say, it will be remembered for sparks of potential than never caught flame.
I’m interested in Godless’s for the way it fits into the mini-comeback of the Western. (I’m thinking of films and TV Shows like Logan, Hell or High Water, Westworld, and Hateful Eight from the last couple of years.) It offers the potential of refashioning the Western setting with feminist commentary, but it veers away from that ground.
Literal incarnations are not the only descendants of Western storytelling that dominate US film and TV. The American Monomyth, a story about an outsider that defends a vulnerable town from an outside threat, has diffused throughout many of the popular genres of US films. In this sense, Godless doesn’t want to subvert the Western’s tropes, but uplift them.
It doesn’t take much to read the American monomyth elements into the story: Goode is the outsider in La Belle and his face-off with outlaw Frank Griffin caps a story that feels, after many diversions, like a connecting of the dots. The town, with a Sherriff losing his eyesight and no tough men left, is ripe for Griffin and his men to do as they please. Though the finale does deliver delightful action in self-defense from the ladies of La Belle, this belies the central conflict. The climax occurs out of town, in the wilderness — man to man, father and son.
The women of LaBelle get their moment, the Buffalo Soldiers of Blackdom are cast aside, and both are window dressing for the crisis of White masculine identity and belonging. You see, Goode is an orphan who moves from one family to the next looking for the right fit. The story is at its best when it leans into the theme of the families we are given and the families we make. Goode plays at family with Alice Fletcher and teaches her son Truckee how to be a man. Mary Agnes makes sure the young deputy Whitey Winn eats breakfast and loves a prostitute turned school teacher. The community of La Belle is a result of tragedy but also chosen, as the women try to make a way for themselves by depending on each other. These features of La Belle are placed alongside Frank Griffin’s moving orphanage. Violent though it is, Griffins offers his version of love and direction to young men looking for a place to belong.
I keep turning back to the conversations between Goode and Truckee, after the boy has been spat upon and disrespected. Goode is looking out for Truckee when he says, “there’s nothing so dangerous as a man with a gun and nothing so helpless as a man without one.” Truckee is meant to take the racist abuse he receives without retaliating because it would end badly for them. But it’s also something of the law of the land for the show. Violence is the final word in this world.
When the fatherless young man wants to learn gun tricks, Goode refuses to teach him. The famed gunman pontificates on the useless flair of those flips and twirls and goes a step further, saying, “the world doesn’t need another gunslinger.” Goode disassociates the gunslinger aesthetic from the manhood he wants Truckee to pursue, but it’s an ethos the show eventually refutes.
When the Griffin gang’s threat reaches its peak, Goode reveals the gunslinger he’s been hiding. He has his gun tricks after all. He faces off against his father and kills the man.
Then Roy Goode rides off into the sunset. That’s the image Godless ends with after seven-plus hours of teasing and telegraphing. The outsider leaves town after the threat is dealt with, a solitary figure cutting across the sublime landscapes, a distillation of the Western form.