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.