Look, there’s nothing wrong with making a Western. It’s gorgeous out there, and if you have a Netflix budget and Netflix runtime, why not put Scoot McNairy and Michelle Dockery out in the middle of New Mexico and film horses galloping to an endless horizon? There’s any number of ways to make that beautiful, and if nothing else, “Godless” is beautiful. The seven-part miniseries is a sprawling one, built to showcase the stunning landscape of the West; every character is a cipher, compared to the complexity offered to the pitiless land.
The Western is kind of the American creation myth. It’s one of film’s classic genres, and deeply rooted in the American sense of self; it is hard to argue with the beauty of the rugged landscape that makes up the bulk of this country’s open spaces. Those early settlers, it is imagined, lived the first version of the American dream — a lawless freedom to be or do whatever that came with horribly stark hardships.
“Godless,” which debuted on Netflix Nov. 22, features many of those hardships. One of the more surprising elements of the show, written and directed by Scott Frank, is just how much carnage occurs. Several entire towns are winked out of existence by the hands of fate; one town is blighted twice, first by a mine accident and then by marauding gunmen. Smallpox makes communities into ghost towns. A band of riders comes upon a house where the only surviving family members are twins covered in blood and signing each other in a strange language. Around them are littered the corpses of their family, including a dead infant. The characters tell stories of a merciless earth: Floods that appear out of nowhere, masked “savages,” pitiless bandits. Several of the characters of “Godless” inflict this damage upon others even as it is inflicted upon them; easily a couple hundred depicted characters are afflicted by a gunshot wound at some point or another, with a frightening ease that underscores how cheaply held human life is on the frontier.
But “Godless” is so swept up in the romance of the West that it shortchanges practically everything else — character, context, story. For all of the ad copy about the show that touts its all-woman town, the women of La Belle — led, more or less, by Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) — are entirely secondary to the real action of “Godless,” which in true Western tradition triangulates between a cowboy, a sheriff, and a bandit. The cowboy is the mysterious loner Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), who has a gentle way with horses; the sheriff is the set-upon Bill McNue (McNairy); and the bandit is the fearsome embodiment of daddy issues named Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, chewing the scenery with enthusiasm). It takes hours before the show fully explains why the audience ought to care about these men, and even that reasoning falls short of the mark. Meanwhile the most interesting characters in the story are primarily silent — whether that is Dockery’s Alice Fletcher, a hardbitten woman who has survived ranch life despite being widowed twice, or Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal) and Chief Narrienta (Michael Horse), the Paiute elders who have to make their peace with a white daughter-in-law and a mixed-race grandson. It’s fantastic that these characters exist, but “Godless” fumbles through telling stories about them, to settle on the white men in the narrative instead.
Even Alice, who is given the most perspective of any of the women, seems to view herself as she is viewed by the men around her, whether that is Bill (who loves her) or Roy (who is falling in love with her). Her primary story function is to be emoted at by the men around her; in one exceptionally frustrating flashback, she is widowed, nearly raped or raped, rescued by one prospective lover, and taken in by another — in the space of (I timed it) six minutes. The tension of the story, like all Westerns, is about men trying to locate their honor in a lawless and even, yes, godless place. But what about everyone else? “Godless” is so taken with its own romance that it fails to be aware of what its romance implies. What does it mean, that every man in Alice’s life gets a story except for the Paiute father of her child? What does it mean, that during a scene where an entire black family is massacred, “Godless’” interest appears to lie in how snappy they can unfurl the action sequence? What does it mean, that Alice’s ranch doesn’t function — that her son doesn’t mature into manhood — until a white man comes and works the land with them?
“Godless” might know, but it doesn’t care to share its thoughts with the audience. And that makes for a long, pretty, but ultimately rather trite story. The secret of the Western is that underneath all the gunplay, it’s a schmaltzy genre about the lone man’s desperate desire to belong (and his inherent unfitness to belong), and in between communing with horses and riding into the sunset the show’s original score gets several opportunities to fall back on sweeping strings. The last episode, like “Return of the King,” ends about 12 times, staggering from one barely tied-off plot thread to another. The last few minutes are essentially just a music video of a guy on a horse — which makes a nice screensaver, if that’s your thing.
To the production’s credit, the performers are all putting in real work, the ravaged settlements of New Mexico look their squalid part, and the story offers a moving cross-section of the ills of the frontier — Pinkertons, mining conglomerates, missionaries, train robbers. But with a purposeful romanticism, “Godless” stops there. The flashbacks are especially corny — all filtered with a faded-out black-and-white, except for red, which is hyper-saturated like the little girl’s dress in “Schindler’s List.” It’s an undeniably moving show — with so much death and destruction, it would be hard to not be moved — but “Godless” doesn’t seem to have more up its sleeve than gussied-up nostalgia for an era when the land was freshly stolen, not stale with understanding history.
Maybe this is most frustrating of all because this is TV, and “Godless” cannot pretend that it has never seen “Deadwood.” We have all seen “Deadwood.” We know well enough to ask why certain characters get flashbacks or points of view and others don’t. We’ve revisited the West already. It’s disappointing that such a beautiful show, with such fine performers, could not have offered more than an outdated fairy tale.