When Netflix premiered Godless over Thanksgiving, I was interested, as I am about anything new that’s got buzz. But it wasn’t until I realized the storyline pitted a town of widows against a ruthless gang of outlaws that I knew I was obviously, the show’s target demo.
Godless is Netflix’s foray into the great Western genre and it was really an epic tale. It just wasn’t a necessarily progressive one, no matter how hard it tried to be. Initially, when I heard about the series, I was captivated by the idea of a town of widows in the wild west, who have to fight a ruthless gang of outlaws. I should have been Godless’ biggest supporter, but instead, I’m about to point out the flaws in a storyline that’s peddled as progressive.
Although, the show is presented in a way that sells a story about a town of widows when it’s really about a feud between two male outlaws. The merciless Frank Griffith (Jeff Daniels) and the man he raised as his son, the former bad boy, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). Roy breaks off from Griffith’s posse, but decides to stalk his old gang because men just can’t leave well enough alone I guess. Roy’s fatal flaw is his intense sense of justice, so he starts stealing the spoils from Griffith’s robberies.
The residents of Creed, Colorado get caught in the crossfire of Frank and Roy’s bad blood when Frank explodes into violent anger and has the entire town executed, right down to the young boy left hanging on the gallows. In the exchange, Frank loses an arm and vows to hunt down Roy and says he will kill anyone who aids his progeny, in any way. Roy, meanwhile, lands in the outskirts of La Belle, a tiny mining town where almost all the men were killed in a horrible mining accident a couple years prior. His lifeless body is found (and shot by) by Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) who nurses him back to health. She’s also a widow with a cool backstory and has suffered a ton of abuses at the hands of men. In addition to being smart, she’s a tough, brave, and captivating single mother that the town sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) is madly in love with.
Alice rehabilitates Roy and even teaches him to read, because a fixing a man is obviously a burden must women bare for eternity. During this time, Alice also realizes Roy has the mystical ability to tame wild horses just like her, and she just happens to have a bunch of horses that arrived and must be broken in before they can be sold. So she puts Roy to work, even dragging him into town with her as her equal.
Meanwhile, the women of La Belle are working to sell their mine so they can make enough money to support themselves. Sheriff Bill’s sister Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) is at odds with the other women who are all desperate for men and money. Mary Agnes is the widowed sister of the Sheriff. She doesn’t wear dresses, she dresses for comfort and is as good, if not better with a gun, as any man on the show. But instead of developing who Mary Agnes is and how she can grow as a woman up against the odds, she’s reduced to the sister of the Sheriff and the lover of La Belle’s richest woman, the former prostitute Callie Dunn (Tess Frazer). I don’t even know if any of the other ladies of La Belle had a job. The storyline really seemed to revolve around a bunch of widows desperately trying to get husbands.
While Roy and Alice are visiting La Belle, a newspaper publisher looking to sell papers spots the sexy outlaw and writes a big article that says the women of La Belle are protecting Roy from Frank. Naturally, Frank heads right for the town and the ensuing massacre that occurs is as gripping and bloody as any western I have ever seen with an all-male cast, but somehow it just doesn’t seem to fit. It’s apparent that writer and director Scott Frank wants to tell the story of a town of women strong enough to defend themselves. But putting Frank and Roy’s feud front and center to drive the plot, only makes the women of La Belle whole purpose to help tell Roy and Frank’s story.
In a way, the climax force plays the viewer’s hand as a sort of sleight of hand trick making us believe these women played a bigger role in the series than they did. I suppose it is totally believable. There are women in lots of scenes, but most of the time they’re talking to or about men and even when they aren’t they’re used as props. In this way, it really isn’t your typical Western. The women of La Belle aren’t completely developed characters, but they’re also not running around screaming while men gunfight in the background. I guess this is one of those “progress not perfection” situations.
Maybe if the character of Roy had been written as a female role it would have provided an easy solution by creating an interesting female lead who is driving the overarching series storyline. But even without that a female driving things as the marketing sells the show, I still thought Godless was really pretty great. It may not have been exactly what I was looking for, but it didn’t make it any less exciting to see a variety of women in a western who weren’t screaming for help or prostitutes. However, I was still disappointed by the fact that the women were predominantly white, straight, and basically the same old boring archetypes of the time period.
In a lot of ways, it took some huge leaps forward in terms of female characters and character development, even if it wasn’t everything I needed it to be they were still necessary and wonderful steps forward. The relationship between Mary Agnes and Callie is a good example of progressive storytelling, even though most of their storyline is dependant on a completely tired and irrelevant lovers quarrel. It would have been nice to drop that issue and explored what it would have been like to actually be gay in the Wild West and not a gimmick. There is a lot they could have done there.
The same goes for the relationship between Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula). It’s cool to see an interracial relationship on TV during a time period when it was super dangerous to engage in such a thing. But it also feels like Scott Frank is just trying to force progressivism into his storyline without really considering that these characters deserve the time needed to really flesh out their characters.
Frank Scott makes the same mistake David Milch did with Deadwood, he’s presenting the women of La Belle as though they are anything other than women waiting for men to come along and spruce up their storyline. In both cases, they had the ability to give their female characters interesting jobs and backstories, but they didn’t. Not only that, but women in the Wild West had to be able to do the same things as men. The idea that there were jobs for men and women is nonsense. Women on the frontier had to be able to shoot, kill, and clean animals in order to survive.
The women of La Belle would have been hardened women who were prepared to defend themselves, not bubbly widows trying to fill the empty space in their beds. This rings doubly true for Scott, who had an entire town of women to play with, but somehow, the only woman in La Belle who has a job I can think of is Callie. And her backstory reads like something out of an allegory about loose women, where once the men all died she could abandon her life as a whore and emerge as a school teacher. It just seems like Scott made narrow-minded choices for his female characters that were based on how they could push forward the plot for Frank and Roy’s storyline.
I love Westerns and I really enjoyed Godless, I just think it’s less progressive than it seems. It sacrifices originality to tell the story of two bored white men who would rather destroy everything in their path than let go of their quarrel. I just am so tired of having to see that play out in my real life and in the government and in Hollywood at large that I really would have liked the main storyline be about the women and the feud be secondary. It is just such a rarity to really let women be hard and strong and brave when they’re not being oppressed by men, and Godless is just another example of women evolving only because of the oppressive nature of men.
Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.