After playing too much Red Dead Redemption 2 and doing a marathon re-watching of Deadwood over the Christmas and New Year period, observing the frontier west’s predilection for nihilism, a specific mania often induced by solitude, remains enticing. Surely this binge is subliminally linked to me recommending Godless to a work colleague recently. However, Godless was released just over two years ago. With nothing else remotely interesting to write about – nobody cares about Coronavirus or the media’s attempts to scare us with it, and discussing the Kobe Bryant thing (both the event and the odd forms with which people process the shock death of celebrities) is bad taste and decidedly morose – I decided to rewatch Godless to see if it was as good as I remembered.
Many of us in the first world live a mundane existence, our lives are almost entirely couched by routine and safety. So unless you’re in SAS black-ops, or some drug-dealer incurring on another crew’s turf, threats to your mortality are few. Most of us feel safe. Godless is appealing because it glorifies the skill and fearlessness of its main protagonists; a lone gunman in Roy Goode and a psycho outlaw in Frank Griffin. Throw in a bunch of sisters equally unafraid to do it for themselves and practically everyone in Godless seems impressive when compared to snowflakes arguing over Brexit, self-ID and how best to silence folk on social media. Watching Godless makes our fashionable, self-congratulatory, excessively vain modes of ‘living free’ from the capitalist trap; by downsizing, living off grid, or all of the aforementioned in a log cabin in the Canadian wilderness, seem utterly fraudulent. That’s if we even have a go. Modernity’s mission statement should be it’s easier to romanticise than do. The physical toil required cannot accord with lives irrevocably shaped by modernity’s efficiency and materialistic decadence. We, which include me, enjoy creature comforts too much; having a bath and or shower every day, owning a 77 inch OLED TV, and yeah, washing machines, gosh they’re handy. Sadly, all of aforementioned use up loads of electricity and water, and collecting firewood in the freezing fucking cold, man, it’s just too hard, and you know it.
Like Deadwood, Godless is blood-thirsty, but its caricatures are not as granular or idiosyncratic, instead it offers a different iteration on the genre by employing a counter-intuitive premise. The frontier was, for better or worse, authored by men. Godless limits this influence in the town of La Belle. Aside from the odd passer through, La Belle is a forgotten town ghosted by a mining disaster which crippled its industrial lifeblood, and wiped out the town’s entire population of twenty and thirty something men. As such, the women of La Belle exist, in the 1880’s frontier, with an almost twenty-first century sensibility. To an extent they’re insulated, so don’t feel as threatened, except by boredom and loneliness. As with us today, in Godless everyone is looking for a distraction, be it someone else or something. For the women of La Belle it’s to sell a significant stake in the mines to a mining company in the promise they’ll reopen the mine, bringing an influx of suitors to work it and restore the companionship of their lost husbands. This is one of several plot strands that converge around the town, assumed to be the epicentre of an inevitable showdown between Frank Griffin and Roy Goode.
The law are hunting legendary outlaw Frank Griffin, played superbly by Jeff Daniels (you know an actor’s nailed the part when you can’t envision anyone else in their place) for the massacres he and his horde lay in their wake as they chase Roy Goode. Goode not only betrays their brotherhood by relieving them of a train robbery take, but maims Griffin in the eschewing chase. Goode ties all of the strands together by randomly arriving almost dead on Alice Fletcher’s ranch on La Belle’s outskirts after said shootout. Upon bringing Goode back to health Fletcher uses his considerable skill as a horseman for her and her son’s benefit.
The Sherriff of La Belle is trying to forge a lasting redemptive mythology by hunting down Frank Griffin, to replace his current diminished status. He’s presented as a comically inept figure, loathed by the La Belle women for his absentee authority. Unknown to them, he refuses to use his gun because his eyesight has started to fail since the death of his wife. We’re treated to plenty satisfying Western idioms, the best being the Sherriff’s ‘lost his shadow’, a euphemism for lost confidence that manages to be just as cutting as an outright insult.
The frontier holds a mystique of the forgotten, unexplained and inexplicable, and Godless leans on this well for most of the series. For the first four episodes we’re left to question exactly what causes Goode to betray Griffin. Episodes five and six, rush to add this backstory and context, dispelling with the intrigue around Goode built in the first four episodes in favour of more exposition.
No one character is given central billing, but Griffin, as most antagonists are, is the most interesting one, chiefly, because unlike Goode, he retains an enigmatic quality. Like the Joker, he’s capable of anything. People he happens upon are pardoned when you least expect it. Thankfully a significant percentage of the show’s dialogue is funnelled into his philosophical elaborations which seldom fail to bring tension to each sequence. Initially, he’s presented to us as he appears to his posse, authoritative. By being erudite and utterly convinced he can prophesize the future, including his own demise, his horde are loyal, partly through the purpose of Griffin’s mission. And just what is that? Revenge? Survival? Freedom? ‘This is Godless country’, as Griffin puts it, is his justification, but it’s also used to conveniently spare the motivations of psychopaths from analysis.
Speaking of motivation, the five minute sequence at the end of the final episode almost made me want to discover the American west on horseback. It emphasised the show’s immense cinematography and diversity of America’s geography, but then, whilst sitting comfortably in a centrally heated room, I remembered how crap camping is; the chafing, blisters, body odour, how unforgiving the elements are and yeah, what happened to Christopher Reeve. Still, it also made me appreciate Godless’s immense capacity for vicariousness, as well as modernity, even more.