What would your favorite westerns look like if all the men in the town disappeared? This is the essential longline for Netflix’s latest western drama, “Godless.” The town of La Belle in rocked with a tragic mining accident that kills a majority of the men in the town. This leaves the women to run the town, as well as negotiate all their dealings with the other towns in the area. For a show that promises plenty of badass women gunslingers, the show offers the same archetypal male drama we’ve seen before. There are terrific performances and outstanding craft elements, but more than a few missteps.
After a robbery gone wrong, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) goes on the run from his outlaw boss and surrogate father figure, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). This puts him in La Belle, still reeling from the loss of the men in their town. Led by Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever), the women in the town contemplate whether or not to harbor fugitive, Roy. However, under the supervision of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), Roy begins to break the horses for the women and proves himself very useful. Still, as the women employ Roy’s skills in return for his safety, La Belle must stave off inquiring visitors as Frank hunts Roy down and Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston), aging sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) and hothead company man Ed Logan (Kim Coates) try and restore peace.
Emmy Winner Merritt Wever handily stomps away with the MVP honors. As Mary Agnes McNue, Wever commands the screen with as much force as Mary Agnes commands the town of La Belle. Upon the death of the men in the town, Mary Agnes rises to power. She strips herself of her married name, dons men’s clothing and totes a gun around town, ready to dole out justice. However, some of the best scenes from the show involve Mary Agnes’ courtship of Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer), a prostitute turned teacher. Mary Agnes is as tender as she is tough. Wever became famous for her cheerful nurse Zoey on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.” Mary Agnes represents an intense departure that somehow fits like a glove for Wever. Here’s hoping Wever returns to the Emmys for this role next year. However, this time she should make sure to prepare a speech.
Creators Steven Soderbergh and Scott Frank have devised a dynamic look and feel for the series. Every scene looks well crafted and beautiful. The mountain vistas add depth, texture, and majesty to the series. Certain shots, such as the aftermath of the mining accident, find beauty in the darkest and most tragic of moments. As a writer and director of all the episodes, Frank shows tremendous skill in telling stories in visually arresting ways. One elongated scene shows Roy breaking a horse for Alice for the first time. It brims with energy and suspense. However, the final episode houses an epic shootout that is one for the ages.
For all the quality acting and production value of “Godless,” the show stops short of fulfilling the promise of its gratifying premise. Yes, we do get plenty of badass moments of a town full of strong women facing off against male aggressors. However, the show still feels the need to frame itself around a man’s journey of self-discovery.
One only needs to look at this year’s “The Beguiled” to see a better version of this story. A man on the run takes refuge in a town/home comprised solely of women. That film focuses on the women’s reaction towards the new male visitor. “Godless,” at its core, is about how men react to the newfound news of a town made up of mostly women. The story frames itself around Roy’s struggle for freedom and redemption arc. The finale hinges on his relationship with his corrupt former boss and father figure, Frank Griffin. O’Connell and Daniels are strong performers in this regard and they do give their central story the emotional punch it needs. Yet, it’s a dynamic we’ve seen before.
“Godless” features many stunning set pieces and performances that should be remembered come Emmy time. It’s a show of impeccable craft that excels at both thrilling during its shootouts and moving during the quiet moments. Yet, it’s unmistakable that the central point of view is not from the women, who are the most interesting elements of the show. For all its visual panache and engrossing story elements, “Godless” illustrates what happens when one devises a feminist show that’s not about the women at the core of the logline.