This article has spoilers about the entire season of Godless.
I’m trying to remember the last time I felt insulted by media I watched. Maybe Jack Reacher: Never Look Back? Maybe Age of Ultron? Or, actually, maybe it was The Defenders? It’s a tough question. Something can be stupid, deeply stupid, without actually feeling insulting. In order for me to feel insulted I have to feel like the piece was really banking on me having no standards, no artistic eye, no autonomy. Godless fits that bill.
To be fair, Godless warned me at every step of the way. It started stupid, the middle was stupid, and gosh darn the end was stupid too. I’m partially to blame too. Like in the case of The Defenders, I had every opportunity to simply stop and walk away. I hadn’t bought a ticket to a film. I wouldn’t be out of any money, and no one would know I had given up. They even offered me outs every fifty-something minutes. An episode would end and I had the opportunity to close my laptop, walk away, and never look back. But I didn’t. I got to the end of the show and I texted Sam that I had just been suckered into watching a show so bad I felt I had to maybe cancel my Netflix account. I watched 13 Assassins to get the bad taste out of my mouth.
Godless isn’t totally blameless. It lied to me too, starting with its advertisement. A town of all women in the wild west? I thought to myself, wow, sounds novel, sounds interesting, sounds like we’re going to have some good representation, and it’s going to be a twist on this male dominated genre that I love. But, don’t you worry. The first few scenes of the first episode assure you that, wait a minute, actually the town isn’t fully without men. And there are outside men coming too. And, don’t you worry, these men are the main characters. So… I had been lied to. The villain is a man. The hero is a man. The town sheriff is a man. The deputy is a man.
And Godless does the same things a lot of shows that string me along do. It is just good enough. It looks like a western. It has some solid performances (Merritt Wever, Jeff Daniels, Scott McNairy, looking at you guys). In truth, it has a decent plot, but only if it’s going to be a movie. Like a lot of Netflix shows (again, thinking of The Defenders here) it feels like Netflix didn’t quite have enough story to fill in its tall episode order. Westerns flourish in archetypes, and in laser focused plot, and Godless fails to deliver on this, but it also fails to blossom into a fully formed television show. The characters and plot remain thin, but are watered down to fill an enormous amount of time. A hilarious miscommunication between Mary Agnes (Wever) and her lover Callie (Tess Frazar) takes… what, three episodes to resolve? It’s over a painting, and could be resolved with a single sentence. It might be a funny two scene plot in a movie. It definitely doesn’t warrant the time it takes up in the show.
The show is filled with similar examples. Sheriff McNue (McNairy) spends the entire series wandering around “looking for his shadow” and then at the end, he gets it back. Why? How? The answer might be in there (if I’m being generous) but it’s bogged down with so much nothing in between it’s nearly impossible to dredge up. Each episode hurled something insulting and nonsensical at the audience. Take for example miner John Doe, a man who survived the fire in the mines of La Belle, but lost his mind in the disaster. Does he serve any purpose? No. But the show keeps drawing attention to him for some reason, at the expense of what could have been a tighter story.
But I kept hoping that maybe something would change. That, I guess, is my fault. I am left once again with the same questions I ask when faced with Marvel Movies. 1) what am I missing (because critics and audiences both seem to gobble this garbage up) and 2) why do I suffer through them? I’m not sure I have good answers for those questions yet.
The comparison to candy has been made before, that they’re sweet but empty and you keep eating them because you’re addicted to treats. Godless has some of those things. It does promise spectacle throughout, and while it only occasionally delivers (and then… poorly) it does keep you waiting for it.
Again, the burden of blame doesn’t fall too squarely on Netflix and Godless. I am a binge watcher, hardcore, and probably watched all of Godless over three or four days. Maybe anyone eating that much emptiness in such a short time is going to feel bad. If you eat a cookie a day you like cookies. If you eat a whole sleeve you might feel sick. At that point the cookie is doing what it should be doing and the fault is exclusively yours. Even when I gorge myself on a good show I tend to feel a little depressed afterward, because I can measure easily how much of my life I just committed to sitting and staring. The difference is, of course, that good shows have merit, that I can justify my wasted time with having learned something, with having had a worthwhile conversation with media. Godless doesn’t offer me that out.
Let’s break down just a bit of the final episode. Frank shows up in Blackton, massacres everyone (really whittling down the diversity here), then goes onto to La Belle. Whitey (performed ably by Thomas Brodie-Sangster up to this point) is killed the second the battle begins, because… I don’t know. He’s alone in the Sheriff’s office when every other character is in the hotel. Why is he there? Was there a plan behind that? No? (It’s a moment so stupid friend and fellow writer Brandon cited it as an example of a moment when a character makes a choice so idiotic it totally removes you from the show).
Then the women beat Frank’s men even though the Civil War vets couldn’t. Then Roy and McNue show up and without any cover massacre the remaining outlaws – this is where McNue regains his shadow, even though we’ve already seen him willing to face down this same exact gang. After that, Roy tracks down Frank, and shoots him, and Frank says something about how he’s seen his death and then Roy kills him. Then we have a funeral for Whitey where Sheriff McNue insists Mary Agnes knew him better than anybody (because… she brought him soup once?) and then Sheriff McNue goes out to probably marry Alice even though I think they’ve had one scene together before.
Which is to say… what a mess. Why? And more importantly: what? What am I supposed to take away from all of that? I get treats are about nothing, but at least Captain America: Civil War (yes, my perennial Marvel golden child) raises some questions about personally responsibility and accountability. It doesn’t go deep into them, because it’s a treat, but it at least raises them and offers some viable alternate approaches. Godless, which is a good six hours longer than Civil War, doesn’t even get as far as raising simple questions. Westerns in the past, with much more limited run times, were able to at least say something (High Noon, for example, in all less than 90 minutes asks us about what you should do if you think you’re right when everyone else says you’re wrong). Not that media even needs to tackle big societal questions. If it went so far as dissecting real human moments, that’d be fine, but Godless offers us only farcical fights over nude paintings. It’s in that, in the wasting my time and offering me nothing in return, that I find Godless truly insulting. “Here’s a super long western,” it says, but it fails to deliver even the most basic things westerns offer.
Who the hell knows. Maybe the message is “stop binging television you hate, Chris”. In which case, thanks, Scott Frank. I’ll try.