What Godless Says About America

Netflix’s gorgeous, subversive new series exposes the dark mythology embedded in the Western genre.

Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) in 'Godless'

In the opening scene of Godless, Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston) rides into the town of Creede, Colorado, as a dust storm swirls around him. The marshal lowers his bandana and squints into the distance, surveying the scene impassively as the landscape slowly comes into focus. He takes in the carnage of a firefight, a wrecked train, and countless bodies who seem to have all been shot in the head. Then one of his men directs him to the sight of something so awful that it makes the steely old-timer stagger a little, and fall to his knees in the dirt: the sight of a small boy, maybe 5 years old, who’s been lynched from a post.

What can the Western, that hoary, craggy old relic, a staple of TCM movie marathons and Disneyland saloon experiences, say about life in contemporary America? Godless, written and directed by Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Minority Report) for Netflix, and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, is a gorgeous, slyly subversive affirmation of the genre’s power, even if it isn’t quite the “feminist Western” it was marketed as. The seven-episode series has all the tropes of classic models: outlaws, train heists, brooding heroes, disillusioned lawmen, boundless scenery. But it also has the weight of a world in which something is out of balance. The tension between freedom and order, between outlaw individualism and functioning communities, has come to a breaking point.

In that, Godless is doing something quietly revolutionary. Westerns have long played a part in building the lore of American history. “No other nation,” the historian David Hamilton Murdoch writes in The American West: The Invention of a Myth, “has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.” Westerns celebrate the heroic individual rather than the well-ordered—but inevitably vulnerable—community. They glorify domination, whether over Native Americans or the treacherous terrain of the frontier. And they fetishize guns, which unfailingly allow heroes to safeguard democracy—never mind the collateral damage of bodies littered in the streets after each epic confrontation.

Rather than endorse these motifs, though, Godless leads viewers to interrogate them. The series is built around an inevitable showdown between Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell)—a battle between Goode and evil. Frank is a wickedly charismatic outlaw who dresses like a preacher and bestows biblical fury upon anyone in his path. Roy is his protegé turned mortal enemy, an orphan whom Frank unofficially adopted as his favorite son, and whose desertion precipitated Frank’s most heinous act yet: the murder of an entire town, the wreckage of which is detailed in the opening scene. “Roy Goode betrayed me, and I will kill any man, woman, or child who harbors him,” Frank tells a terrified newspaper editor in the second episode. “The good people of Creede let him walk their streets. And now they don’t have any streets. Or people.”

Roy seeks sanctuary at the home of a stranger, a widow named Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), who shoots him off his horse before she allows him into her barn to recover. Alice and her half-Native son are shunned by the local town of La Belle, New Mexico, which lost 83 of its male citizens in a mining accident a few years ago—almost all of the male population. The tragedy has tainted La Belle’s reputation, and yet the women have managed to establish a functioning society largely by themselves. Maggie McNue (Merritt Wever), the wife of the late mayor, acts as de facto leader. The women are working together to build a church, and—in one of the show’s slyer winks—Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer) has established a school in the now-customerless brothel, Magdalena’s House of Rapture.

The concept of a frontier town without men is a captivating one, and so the biggest immediate disappointment within Godless is that it spends much less time with the women of La Belle than trailers had suggested it might. But to be fair to its creators, the idea of the series being a feminist Western seems to have been amped up in the marketing of the show, while their primary concerns were slightly different. Godless wants to unpack the layered mythology of the American frontier, and to do that it requires confrontations between law and outlaw. Frank is the dark core of the story, pitted against Roy, against Marshal Cook, and against Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), La Belle’s sheriff, whose deputy is a gangly kid named Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster).

Also central to the story—and emphasized in the name of the show itself—is the supposed absence of a higher power in the wild West. The church in La Belle is a construction site; the priest is supposedly en route from Pennsylvania but is several months late. When Frank happens across a small group of Norwegian settlers, he demands one of the women join him at night so he doesn’t kill them all. “You are no man of God!” her husband cries out, observing Frank’s dog collar. “God?” Frank hisses. “What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the bleeding and the wrathful. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you all are gonna live.”

And yet Frank is a kind of god. Running roughshod through a region that offers little protection from thieves, rapists, and murderers, he’s forged an autocracy around his definitive (if twisted) code. The West of Godless is full of strange mini-cults. There are groups of men wearing buffalo heads who traffic children and violate women, and Mormons dressed as Native Americans who killed Frank’s parents, raped his sister, and then adopted young Frank, teaching him that “things were purified with blood.” Frank’s own band of brothers is made up of misfits whom he’s saved from horrific situations and taken up as family. In one scene, Frank even steps into a house that a town has abandoned, helping the residents, who’ve been struck by an infectious fever. These moments of kindness from a brutal murderer add complexity to a fascinating character, but they also indict the idea that the culture of the Old West should ever be lionized. That the fearsome Frank Griffin—a killer of children—is often the most compassionate person around is a sign of a society gone very wrong.

Where Godless is most intriguing though, is in its treatment of guns. In terms of structure and style, it’s a deeply conventional Western—all eight hours or so seem to be building toward a climactic battle in La Belle, and there are gunfights and heists and altercations throughout. But Roy, who acts as a father figure to Alice’s son Truckee (Samuel Marty), has a more measured attitude toward guns than his own skill with them might attest. After a newcomer spits on Truckee, Truckee tells Roy that he could tell Roy wanted to pull his gun. “Say we all commence shooting at each other at the same time,” Roy says. “Then what? … Then you could be dead, and if other people were standing in the street, they might be dead, too.” It’s a nod to the fact that, in reality, a good guy with a gun rarely bests a bad guy with a gun as simply as it looks in the movies. Even in the Old West.

This doesn’t mean that Godless’s gunfights aren’t thrilling. But they’re also terrifying. The camera pays attention to the violence of it all, to the impact of bullet hitting flesh, and to the needless waste of life. In For a Few Dollars More, Sergio Leone characterized the Old West as a place where “life has no value.” Godless refutes that assertion. One of the virtues of it being essentially an eight-hour movie is that it spends enough time with ancillary characters that every single death feels like a powerful loss. While the show could have simply used the mining accident as a device to set up a town dominated by women, it instead takes time in one episode to recreate not the catastrophe itself, but the moments before—the slow, peaceful walk to work as the women kissed their husbands goodbye. It’s somehow sadder and more moving seeing the preceding moments than the chaos of the explosion.

In choosing emotion over action in this instance, Godless asserts its priorities. In its worldview, there should be things that matter more than money or power. (Remember that the school in La Belle was only established after the brothel ran out of customers.) After Alice teaches Roy to read, he finally opens a letter his brother wrote him many years ago. “I’ve learned that life is a gift we are given, and we should live it with honor, and, God willing, leave something of our best selves behind,” his brother writes. “I know now that money matters only to the man with the small mind. The harder thing is to do the best one can with what one has. I learned these words and thoughts from reading, something I should have learned how to do a long time ago. … The truth is, books have taught me that I am not at all the man I could have been. But I want to try.” The true battle, Godless argues, isn’t for wealth. It’s education and self-improvement that can change the world, and leave the deepest impact.

If it were just a stylish, cinematic revival of a Western, Godless would be worthwhile. Its production values are extraordinary, and the camera’s epic sweeps along vast vistas capture the beauty of the American landscape like nothing else on television. It recalls the fear and heartbreak embedded in the frontier, as well as the bravery of many of the men and women who ventured there. But it does all this while challenging the notion of the Old West as an embodiment of American values. The conquest of the wilderness, it argues, was built on blood and cruelty. The mythologizing of the rugged individualists and gun-toting outlaws in the genre has led to darker stains on the American psyche that still persist. But it proves that truer stories can be told—ones that capture the allure of what brought so many westward in the the first place, while more honestly portraying history.