I reviewed Netflix’s Western limited series Godless before it debuted last week, and now I have some additional thoughts — with full spoilers for the whole series — coming up just as soon as a bee tells me where you’re headed…
As discussed last week, Godless is a beautiful-looking saga with a terrific cast and a lot of fun moments, but it’s not without flaws even in seven-odd hours, and it left me with a bunch of questions, starting with:
What happens to La Belle?
Scott Frank has said that Godless began life as a feature film script that he couldn’t sell, and he expanded it for Netflix’s purposes. And it plays that way. All the Frank Griffin/Roy Goode stuff feels like the movie, albeit filled with more incident (a film wouldn’t have had as much time to spend on Roy teaching Truckee how to tame horses, or on Frank staying at the plague house). La Belle, meanwhile, feels like something that would have been a notable background detail in the revenge movie Scott Frank originally planned to make, but that got fleshed out the most in the move to TV.
The problem is that the idea of a Western town without men winds up being a lot more compelling than Frank vs Roy (even though Jack O’Connell and, especially, Jeff Daniels are very good), yet still ends up taking a backseat to the showdown between evil father figure and prodigal son. The women acquit themselves remarkably well in the showdown with the Griffin gang (especially since only a few of them have been established as knowing how to handle a gun), but their heroics are still presented as a delaying tactic until Bill and Roy can arrive to show both the bad guys and the womenfolk how it’s actually done.
Even Netflix seemed to recognize that the town is a better hook. Most of the marketing is centered around the No Man’s Land idea, which has led many people to treat the finished product as a bait-and-switch:
Much of the season is devoted to the question of whether the women will sell the mining claim to the Quicksilver company, and whether Quicksilver will live up to its promises, which culminates in Mr. Logan and his security goons stealing the town’s horses to encourage a massacre of the population that would ease their access to the claim. But despite that behavior, the epilogue’s only real nod to the issue is news that Mary Agnes stole the clothes of Logan and his men. Will Quicksilver still be allowed to come in and run things for that absurdly cheap price, or would the town’s ability to repel the Griffin gang, in turn, inspire them to fight back against the forces of big business? We don’t get to find out because the series’ closing minutes are all about Roy Goode.
And speaking of which…
So, is Alice Fletcher just happy being assigned to whichever man is sticking around?
Michelle Dockery gives the best performance of the whole damn story — her episode four flashback breakdown after Bill and his wife save Alice from her rapist captors is astonishing — and there are times when it feels like Godless is becoming as much Alice’s story as Roy’s. (It’s another benefit of the expansion to TV, where a movie version of Alice might have been tough but still largely peripheral.) And then Roy announces he’s going to California to find his brother, while Bill (who’s held a torch for Alice for years, to little response from her) comes back to town for good, and suddenly she’s walking arm in arm with Bill and presenting him to her mother-in-law?
Now, things could be more complicated than that, and our final glimpse of Alice is of her finding the fortune Roy buried for her by the fence post and thinking of Roy. But the staging of Roy’s farewell scene sure makes it look like she just went along with being passed from one guy to the other.
Will Bill keep going blind?
The Paiute wise man keeps telling Bill that he needs to find his shadow in order to regain his vision, and sure enough, we see a very long and prominent shadow behind him while he’s back to his sharpshooting ways in the climactic battle. Was that meant to be one last hurrah for the town’s ailing lawman, or a sign that his quest for redemption — and perhaps his time spent with the Shoshone man who turned out to be a ghost? — had somehow returned him to peak form for good?
Where has Martha Bischoff been all our lives?
For much of the series, Mrs. Bischoff is simply local color in La Belle: the woman who walks around naked because that’s the sort of thing you can do in a town without men. Then there’s the brief suggestion that she’s been sleeping with Mary Agnes’ girlfriend. But the final episodes reveal she has hidden depths and skills, as she becomes one of the fiercest and most capable warriors of all the women.
Martha turns out to be so much larger than life by the end that perhaps less was more with her, and spending additional time with her throughout the story would have siphoned away the magic of seeing her strut up to the final battle in a stunning white dress accessorized with a two-gun rig and repeating rifle. But she wound up being the symbol of all the potential that Godless only occasionally managed to tap from La Belle.
Could things have gone differently in Blackdom?
If La Belle’s potential isn’t entirely explored, Godless barely even scratches the surface of the community of former Buffalo Soldiers on the outskirts of town. It’s an idea deserving of lengthier treatment, whether in a separate story or a more traditional TV series set in and around La Belle. (In that version, Frank would be the big bad of season one, Quicksilver of season two, etc.) Here, they’re around just long enough to be clearly deserving of so much more than this version of the story has room for, and are one last warmup for Frank’s gang before the final fight.
Killing off Mr. Hobbs and everyone else also illustrates the no-win scenario of introducing this formidable fighting force to the narrative. Massacring them without a real chance to see what they can do in a fight feels like violating Chekhov’s Gun — if you keep telling everyone what badasses the folks in Blackdom are, you need to show them in action at greater length than we got here — while having them ride to the town’s rescue would have only exacerbated the problem of having Bill and Roy do the same.