The Western is a genre unusually weighted with symbolism. As the telling (and retelling, and retelling) of a national origin story, the Western is tied up in America’s mythology of itself. The American frontier in the 19th century—before Manifest Destiny had been fulfilled and the rule of law fully established—is a fixed time and place, but it’s also an ever-flexible piece of evidence in arguments about what this nation really is. In a recent piece for the New Republic, writer and critic Vivian Gornick illustrated this dynamic by contrasting two drastically different portrayals of the homesteading experience: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House on the Prairie novels and Agnes Smedley’s 1929 autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth. In the former, the plains are a wide-open field on which individuals can make their fortunes on their own merits; in the latter, these romantic notions of self-starting homesteaders are a lie that drove millions to financial ruin, including Smedley’s own family. The West is an idea, and like all ideas, it can be weaponized to suit its framer’s own ends.
Yet Godless, the Netflix miniseries cocreated by Steven Soderbergh and written and directed by veteran screenwriter Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and most recently Logan), seems almost uncomfortable with its own ideological implications. Godless certainly has the potential to push the Western in a new direction, one that reflects the contemporary lens the audience brings; think of how McCabe & Mrs. Miller updated the template for the moral ambiguity of New Hollywood, or how the work of Taylor Sheridan translates Western conventions into a post-recession setting. But that potential is not met in Godless; the seven-part miniseries shunts its most intriguing elements to the back burner, including the all-female town that serves as its supposed hook. Instead, Godless foregrounds by-the-book gunslingers and manhunts that take a promising concept and translate it into familiar, if handsomely presented, cliché.
Godless centers on the town of La Belle, a New Mexico mining encampment transformed by tragedy into an inadvertent social experiment. An accident has killed the site’s entire workforce, and therefore the vast majority of La Belle’s male population, in one fell swoop. La Belle has become a town populated and administered almost entirely by women—a demographic quirk that leaves its citizens vulnerable to the relative anarchy of the West and yet also strangely empowered by it. Only in this new land, with its arbitrary twists of fate and freedom from the prying eyes of the (male) establishment, could the women of La Belle achieve this degree of autonomy. Some have grown to enjoy that autonomy, and protect it fiercely: Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), who arrived in La Belle as the wife of a miner, has reinvented herself as an independent woman more or less openly engaged in a lesbian relationship with a former prostitute. (In the absence of a regular clientele, the one-time sex worker has reinvented herself as the town schoolmarm.) When a major mining company threatens to restore a more traditional balance of power, Mary Agnes is understandably on guard.
Onto this fascinating setup, however, Godless overlays a far more traditional cops-and-outlaws story, reducing La Belle and its problems to a mere backdrop. Our villain is Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a gang leader Mormon zealot who gives the show its name by proclaiming the West “godless country” in the middle of a textbook bad-guy monologue. Griffin is fond of coining gruff, macho aphorisms—“Ain’t nothin’ scarier than a man with a gun, and ain’t nothin’ so helpless as a man without one”—and he’s currently on the warpath because his adopted son Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) has seen the light and opted to leave his life of crime. Roy takes shelter at the home of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a widow with a traumatic past of her own. You already know the slow rapprochement between two damaged souls that happens next.
To be fair, Godless announces its intentions early. Its very first scene depicts a nameless girl singing plaintively over a misty, mood-lit scene of violent devastation; the tropes only pile up from there. Roy’s affinity for horses is repeatedly used to emphasize his gentle soul, despite an adolescence spent murdering and pillaging the innocent. When Roy first makes an appearance, Alice’s Native American mother-in-law ominously intones that he “smells of death,” the first of several instances where a Native character’s dialogue consists solely of pat mysticism. (Another character is repeatedly informed he’s “lost his shadow.”) Griffin continues to be an ostentatious wild card whose cracked theology isn’t nearly as interesting a motivation as Godless thinks it is.
The saving grace of the push-and-pull between Roy and Griffin is the presence of Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), the ineffectual La Belle sheriff who commits himself to the fight in a frantic grasp for a sense of purpose. A widower slowly losing his eyesight, Bill is little more than a joke to the women of La Belle, a supposed ambassador of order who has to be bailed out by his young deputy in an armed confrontation. But McNairy imbues Bill with a poignant vulnerability, a rare alternative to the Western’s typical gun-toting maverick. (Between Bill and Gordon Clark of Halt and Catch Fire, McNairy has become our leading portrayer of beta masculinity.) One of the series’ best scenes depicts a pointedly anticlimactic face-off between Bill and Griffin in which Griffin simply continues on his way, knowing Bill doesn’t present a threat and refusing to grant him the dignity of becoming a martyr. Unfortunately, Godless doesn’t appear to recognize what it has in Bill; Frank consistently prioritizes both Roy’s story and Griffin’s above his, despite Bill being a more nuanced and novel character than either.
Across the board, Godless pursues the qualities that make it just like countless other Westerns, rather than the qualities that could hopefully set it apart. An even more peripheral presence in the larger plot than La Belle is an all-black settlement so small it hasn’t even earned a name yet, made up of former Buffalo Soldiers and their families. A resident makes passing reference to a poor relationship with La Belle, whose mine once poisoned their water supply. But the outpost’s connection to the main plot turns out to be a star-crossed teen romance.
Godless’s reluctance to filter America’s past through the sensibilities of its present comes into even sharper focus when held up against its neo-Western contemporaries. On USA, the new drama Damnation, a pulpy basic-cable romp, fast-forwards to the Great Depression and infuses every twangy pronouncement with explicit, anti-industrial populism. There is, of course, Deadwood, the Golden Age grandfather that looms over every frontier drama since—a comparison that might be unfair if Godless didn’t repeatedly raise identical questions about the imminent onset of statehood and whose interests that development might or might not serve. And even Westworld, for all its flaws, uses the iconography of a Western to raise questions about exploitation and progress. Godless may be obsessed with replicating the look and feel of classic Westerns, but other shows do a far better job of capturing their spirit.
The poster for Godless advertises a very different end product than the one Frank and Soderbergh ultimately deliver. “Welcome to No Man’s Land,” the logline reads, next to an image of three women facing down a gang of faceless outlaws. Roy Goode is nowhere to be seen; Frank Griffin is only there to bring into relief the defiance and novelty of the group he threatens. Given current events, there’s plenty of resonance to women trying to envision and protect an enclave outside a masculine power structure. I’d love to see the show that poster tries to sell, but Godless isn’t it.