Godless

TV Netflix miniseries

The cowboy western is the quintessential American movie form. These films can function as a mythic telling of American history, how to solve problems, and what the nature of evil is. I paid attention when Netflix released a new western miniseries, to see if they disrupted this myth in the same way that they and several of the premium cable networks have disrupted the delivery of entertainment. These binge-inducing shows often have the aesthetic properties of cinema while enjoying the more serial nature of television.

Godless breaks less ground then I would hope, since in the end violence is presented as the only choice. Most men are presented as weak, untrustworthy, or violent.

Godless seeks to tell a different story, that of a silver mining town, La Belle, New Mexico. In one traumatic moment, all of the men are killed in a mine accident, leaving the town with only women and children to manage life. They choose to stay and struggle for survival.

Alice, who has survived two husbands, lives outside of town with her son and Paiute mother-in-law. She doesn’t want to be controlled by a man or circumstances. She has become self-sufficient with a gun and trying to run the farm, which was her first husband’s.

Roaming through these small towns is Frank Griffin and his band of violent killers, who manage to kill anyone who gets in their way. Inevitably there will be a showdown in La Belle. How will this be resolved? Will the women seek to be rescued by men, will they find their own resources to protect themselves, or will the writer offer an alternative to a massive shootout to resolve the issue?

Late one night, Roy Goode rides onto Alice’s farm. Because it is too dark for her to see clearly, her bullet nicks his neck, rather than taking his life. Roy is on the quest to find out where he fits; he was raised by Frank and has been part of his band for years. But he has buried his guns, to see if he can live as a different man.

Meanwhile, the women of La Belle struggle between those, like Mary Agnes, who want to remain independent and those, most of the others, who sign a contract with a new company that will manage the mine and supply a band of tough guys to protect them. A powerful eastern company uses this split to negotiate a deal that takes advantage of these “pretty” women, and offers them in exchange the illusion of protection and the promise of more men coming to their town. As a woman, if you want to amass wealth, marrying well or being a prostitute seem to be the paths presented.

These narrative choices are set in a West that is full of dust and lens flares, of women standing in open doorways silhouetted against the strong outside light showing the open untamed spaces while they remain trapped by the frame of culture. Godless breaks less ground then I would hope, since in the end, violence is presented as the only choice. Most men are presented as weak, untrustworthy, or violent.

Given the revelations of the last months here in the U.S. media, watching Frank groom young orphaned boys to join his band is unnerving. His endless quotes from philosophers and the Bible remind viewers of how deeply this vision of taking care of oneself with a gun is entrenched in American mythology and religious language. Two of his men even suggest that with each murder they are saving another person. To this gun violence, Frank adds the rape of the women both to dominate them and to humiliate their family. He suggests that it is the victims’ fault that he must kill them. If you just hadn’t been in my way, or disagreed with me, or been alive at this moment, then I wouldn’t have to shoot you. How dare you do this to me?

The visually haunting flashbacks offer insight into how each of these characters arrived at this stage in life. It humanizes even those who are described as evil in the context of the main narrative. We get tantalized with possible heroes, journeys of self-discovery, and finding love in unusual places.

The cinematography is wonderful, the actors, including Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels, are superb, but be prepared for visceral violence. The love affair with wide open space, horses, and guns is constantly evident. Godless does offer a feminist take on the western myth, but much like the village waits for a new preacher to arrive, I waited for a truly revolutionary retelling of the western myth. It never arrived.

 

All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.

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