In my endless pursuit of the perfect TV show, one of the long lost brothers I search for is a successor to Deadwood. Twice this year I thought I might have found it, first in Damnation and soon after, in Godless.
The seven-part, revisionist western began life as a movie in writer/director Scott Franks mind, until friend and exec producer, James Mangold (the man behind Logan) suggested he adapted Godless into a TV show.
The story sees Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) flee his outlaw gang, led by one-armed, ultra-violent, psychopathic father-figure Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, channeling namesake Jeff Bridges) after the gang go too far and kill a whole town.
Roy takes refuge with Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) in La Belle; a New Mexico town mysteriously made up of women after a mining disaster killed all of their men.
And so begins an intriguing manhunt for both Roy and Griffin which, of course, ends up in a rootin’ tootin’ guns-a-blazin’ shootout, ethereally shot through a constant haze of sand, gunsmoke and New Mexican sunlight.
The scripts are great in the mouths of almost everyone present; especially Brits O’Connell and Dockery, while bone fide Americans Jeff Daniels, Scoot McNairy and The Walking Dead’s Merritt Wever add some yankee authenticity.
At eight-plus hours, Godless had time to breathe – there’s a beautiful ten minute section in which Roy teaches Alice’s half-Indian son to ride a horse, and the New Mexico landscapes (doubling for Colorado) honestly make me think about how I can become a cowboy and live on a ranch.
The pacing of Godless does sometimes flag and characters are often not properly introduced or underused. A German woman, instrumental in the final episode is introduced only in the previous episode and veteran actor, Sam Waterstone (another fellow The Newsroom alum, alongside Jeff Daniels) is completely wasted.
The trailer is a little misleading, while the town of La Belle is populated predominantly by women, and they feature more heavily than in previous westerns, the protagonist and antagonist are both male, as is Scoot McNairy’s myopic sheriff B-Story.
Godless promised to rip-up the rule book but failed to become the proto-feminist western for 2017 that I was hoping for.
AND THE UGLY:
Writer Scott Frank struggles again and again to convey time and location. As I write so often, one of the most basic jobs of a director (and writer and editor) is to convey to an audience WHERE we are and WHEN we are. With a narrative which sometimes sprawls across several states and timelines, this is paramount. All it needs is a finger pointing at a map and some ADR and we’d have felt much less disorientated.
That said, the almost monochrome, sepia feel to the flashbacks was always a marvel to behold.
While I’d love to see a second season of Godless, I think it was a one-off limited series.