8 March 2019

Review: Godless on Netflix

 I do not own any of these images.

Official Synopsis:

In the 1880s American West murderous outlaw gang leader Frank Griffin hunts for ex-protege Roy Goode. Frank's chase leads him to La Belle, New Mexico - a town inhabited, after a mining disaster, almost entirely by women. - IMDB

I'm a little late to the party, I know. I was intrigued by the plot: a western featuring "a town inhabited almost entirely by women"- which I assumed would mean that the main over-arching plot and story-lines would somehow be women-centric. However, I had read various reviews on the 2017 limited series when it was first released, and many expressed their disappointment that in the first episode alone the vast majority of dialogue was spoken by men. Nonetheless, I wanted to watch it for myself and form my own opinion on it.

Godless is undoubtedly a great production filled with a stellar cast : Jack O'Connell, Jeff Daniels, Michelle Dockery, Thomas-Brodie Sangster and Merritt Wever among many others. The show won 3 Emmy's (nominated for 11 in total) with Merritt Wever winning Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Limited Series Or Movie, Jeff Daniels winning Outstanding Supporting Actor and composer Carlos Rafael Rivera winning Outstanding Main Title Theme Music.

BRIEF SUMMARY

The Western-Drama brings together two plots which collide in the series finale: a revenge plot involving an infamous robber (Frank Griffin) and his turncoat adoptive protege (Roy Goode), and the town of La Belle in New Mexico which suffered a tragic mining accident, leaving the women to deal with the aftermath. After Frank and Roy's first shoot-out, an injured Roy recovers on twice-widowed Alice Fletcher's ranch, just outside of the town La Belle.

The first episode features the aftermath of a bloody massacre in which an entire town was wiped off the map by Frank's outlaws, as retribution for Roy Goode's betrayal. And so, the show sets up a showdown in which the women of La Belle stand their ground against Frank's men when they inevitably arrive to put an end to Roy Goode. 

A MALE-CENTRIC REVENGE PLOT

Yes. The main plot revolves around two men: Roy and his former-father-figure-mentor Frank. Roy was taken in by Frank and his entourage when he was a boy, disagreed with their ways and left, wounding Frank and being shot himself in the process (and taking all of the loot with him). A simplified summary perhaps, but to the point. The series begins with this revenge plot and it's not until episode 3 that we actually discover more about the town of La Belle and the women there. Because the show began with their story, unfortunately by the end of the seven episode run, this revenge plot felt a little drawn out and unfulfilling. In the middle, there are a few flash-back moments which attempt to keep the momentum of this particular storyline going. Not to say that wasn't interesting in some parts, but I don't believe it required a full seven episode arc to tell it.

Jack O'Connell however was a silver lining: he gave a great performance as Roy Goode, pulling off a flawless american accent and cowboy look to boot. For the majority of the season, Roy is recovering  at Alice Fletcher's farm. The two outcasts develop a sweet bond, as Roy teaches her son how to ride horses and she teaches him to read. 


Unfortunately, it isn't until a few episodes in that the town of La Belle is properly introduced, and we learn about it's tragic past: 83 able-bodied men died in a mining accident, leaving only the two Sheriffs and a handful of other men left in town. And so, the women are left to keep the town running, and protect it from opportunist industrialists and outlaws. They are strong-willed, perfectly capable and wonderfully written three-dimensional characters. However, this decision to only introduce La Belle several episodes in is very disappointing as it becomes more of a subplot, pushed aside in favour of the male-driven revenge storyline - already the premise of the show appears deceitful.

THE WOMEN OF LA BELLE


Among these female characters are the aforementioned Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a twice widowed mother who runs a ranch with her son Truckee (Samuel Marty), and her mother-in-law, Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal). 


Mary-Agnes McNue (Merritt Weveris the Sheriff's sister who unapologetically takes on Mayor duties after her husband's death in the mines, literally wearing the trousers and taking no nonsense from anyone. Mary-Agnes has been helmed as a queer heroine and rightfully so: she ascends into power by assigning the widowed women responsibilities to keep the town running, works with the Sheriffs and has fallen in love with former prostitute now school teacher Callie (Tess Frazer) Although the two do not advertise their relationship (which isn't without its hurdles) to the town's residents, they do not hide it either - Mary-Agnes openly tells her brother about it. 

Mary-Agnes is undoubtedly positioned as town leader; however, Callie is the one who holds the most power: she happens to be the richest woman in town. Now a retired sex-worker following the mining accident, she is the local school teacher and is very open about her former career.

Martha (Christiane Seidel) is a mysterious free-spirited German woman who ran away from her married life, but is now being hunted by a detective sent by her husband. Martha likes to paint and stroll around town naked, she knows how to handle a gun and defend herself too. Martha is one of many female characters who each have really interesting backstories, but sadly we only get a mere glimpse at their storylines compared to Roy and Franks revenge plot: we can only wonder why these fascinating female characters weren't embraced as much as they should have been - their stories are unquestionably more gripping and filled with intrigue.

The series loses its momentum in the middle - but the finale episodes deliver. The fearless women leaders of La Belle prepare themselves for a shoot-out with Frank's band of outlaws, and it all unfolds in a rather bloody spectacular manner.


A WESTERN

Although the show romanticises certain aspects of the early American settlers that we have become accustomed to with traditional Westerns (breath-taking rugged landscapes, lawless Freedom, the 'American Dream') it also presents the hardships that came with it, depicting a ruthless landscape: short-lived communities which fell to sickness, entire ghost-towns that were mercilessly butchered by outlaws, tragic mining accidents, bizarre flash-floods and more. Each character has witnessed hardships such as these: it is their normal.

"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..." - Variety

However, throughout the season, the characters retain hope and express their desires: building a new life somewhere else, making their dreams come true, leaving their past behind and moving towards a brighter, better future. This sentiment is embraced in the finale, as a character makes their way on horseback through breath-taking landscapes, composer Rivera's stunning, poetic track Atascadero (Denouement) playing in the background. 


Godless is a tale of tragedy and freedom, of unforgiveness and passion. It captures the spirit and harsh realities of the American Dream. The show would have been more gripping if it had embraced its premise: ultimately, it lets down its incredible female characters who deserved more screen time. Although the show did, to a very small degree, touch on the relationship between the settlers and Native Americans, it's a shame it didn't explore this further (especially with Alice and her mother-in-law Iyovi).

Overall, Godless is an enjoyable show: perhaps not the same level as Westworld in terms of production, it still impresses with its cinematography and music. The characters are intriguing and portrayed by talented actors who shine in their roles, from touching monologues to action sequences. Again, the Netflix format demands a binge-watch approach for the best viewing experience. 


Have you seen it yet? What were your thoughts on it?

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