Heralded as the best Western since Deadwood, Godless piqued my interest. The seven-episode series stars Jeff Daniels. Must be good.
I was not disappointed. The episodes weave present time with flashbacks. Through the interplay of them and dialogue among the characters, the full story and individual characters’ back stories come into view.
The West is still a male-dominated venue, and Godless has its share of male characters—the central story focuses on outlaw Frank Griffith (Jeff Daniels), his motley crew, and the split with his adopted son Roy Goode. Griffith, a religious zealot, brings danger wherever he goes. Roy, who grew up under his tutelage, splits from him and steals the bootie from a robbery. In retaliation, Griffith and crew destroys a town and all its inhabitants who shielded Roy. Lawmen seek out Griffith to varying degrees of failure (some culminating in death). Roy gets away but faces Griffith at the end.
This male tale plays out in La Belle, a mining town like every other one except for the fact that the inhabitants are almost entirely women. A mining accident took eighty-some odd miners in a single swoop. The only men left were the non-miners—the sheriff, the deputy, the storekeeper, the saloonkeeper, and a few other random older men. The women were left to fend for themselves and run the town.
The women react to the lack of men in various ways. Some don the clothes of their deceased husbands, freed from the long skirts of traditional female garb. A former prostitute becomes the schoolmarm. A German woman running from her husband calls town home and sets up an artist studio. (She later shoots, ties up, and then initiates a relationship with the Pinkerton agent that her husband hired to find her.) The hardened types thrown themselves into work that needs to be done. The more genteel types seem to tread water until other men enter the town. None approach the mine to work it.
Men enter the town in the form of a mining company seeking to make a deal with the women of the town to work their silver mine. Mary Agnes, the sister of the sheriff, sees through the men, their ploys, and the danger they represent. But she is outvoted by other women who want the mine worked, some income, and frankly, men in their lives again.
In the end, these men will prove worthless. The women band together to protect themselves, their children, and the town itself in what is a classic Western gunfight. Godless is a testament to the power of women, their strength, and their resilience. All of the women arm themselves and hole up in single building waiting for the inevitable attack by Griffith and his gang. Some women had the strength all along. Others discover it in the firefight. Those who survived might have felt emboldened, as though they could control their own destiny and take on whatever the West could throw their way by banding together.
In addition to the Griffith/Moore and La Belle stories were a couple other stories that threaded through them. The nearby town of Blackdom was home to many families of freed slaves, not just any slaves but fierce warriors. Blackdom is a town apart, intentionally separate from other communities and famous for their brutality in war. Many groups try to court them: the deputy who was interested in a daughter, the men from the mining company who wanted to make sure that the inhabitants of Blackdom do not side with the women of La Belle, and finally Griffith who wants them not to come to La Belle’s aid. In the end, Griffith does what he does with all towns that cross him—he razes it to the ground.
And then there is Alice Fletcher who lives outside of La Belle and is not welcome there. She lives on a ranch with her Native American mother-in-law and son. She shoots Roy one night when he approaches the house, allows him to heal from gunshot wounds (hers and others), and then hires him to tame wild horses that she has. Any romance is doomed—and the sheriff is trying to court Alice, though she is clearly less than enthused.
Godless is an engaging story with good acting and beautiful scenery. I wonder about some loose story lines. (What happened to that woman that the deputy was interested in? And what about the German artist and the Pinkerton agent that she tied up?) My favorite is Mary Agnes (though the German artist is a close second)—a straight talking strong woman who isn’t afraid to be herself. She cares for her brother’s children (the sheriff’s) and brings food to the scrawny deputy yet wears pants and gun belts and takes up with the former prostitute/schoolmarm.
Like Deadwood, I would love for more episodes. A coworker asked if they ended the series in a way that could lead to additional episodes. Well, maybe. But in reality, Roy rode off into the sunset (OK, not really, but he did go west to California) and it doesn’t look like he is coming back.