After “The Punisher,” and “Stranger Things” “Alias Grace,” and “Mindhunter,” Netflix is on a serious roll of quality programming and therefore the Bingeworthy™ Breakdown is back and busier than ever.
This week, we’re looking at Scott Frank’swestern “Godless.” Scott Frank is known for writing “Minority Report,” “Logan,” ‘Get Shorty” and for directing “The Lookout” and “A Walk Among The Tombstones.” The self-contained, seven episode mini-series stars Jeff Daniels, Jack O’Connell (“Starred Up”), Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) and Scoot McNairy (“Halt And Catch Fire”). Set in the American West of the 1880s, “Godless,” centers on the storm of revenge that’s about to rain down on a small town. Let’s jump into it.
Look, I’m not a huge fan of Westerns.
Your loss. You could just leave right now, but you’d be missing out on one of the best Netflix series of the year, and one of the best narratives on TV, period.
Why are you saying “narratives” like that? Call it a TV show.
But that would be a misnomer. “Godless” is a mini-series, and I hate to even call it that cause series suggests something that continues. It’s a one shot deal.
So, it’s like a seven hour movie?
Yes, and shut up for a second. I have a monologue. There’s this haughty disdain that comes out of TV critics for some reason anytime when a filmmaker says, “Actually, it’s an X hour long movie.” I’m not really sure why that is to be honest. It’s some insular, Twitter TV writer’s joke, but I’ll admit it irks me to no end. Mostly because I think the mini-series or the expanded movie is far greater than most TV series. The very nature of TV is to continue telling a story on and on and on again and to quote, “The Girlfriend Experience” director Lodge Kerrigan, “Ultimately if [a] shows continue to continue, they die a slow death.” I couldn’t agree more. So, for me, leveraging the long-form nature of television to tell in an expanded movie is a great way tell a story that demands more than two and a half hours, but doesn’t need to go forever. I like a beginning, middle and end; ellipsis storytelling annoys me, though of course there’s lots of great exceptions.
We’ve heard this rant before. Get on with telling us what the show is about.
On the surface it’s a story of betrayal, revenge, and redemption. And it sounds so cliché, but you know when a story uses all those fundamental ideas of the dark side of human nature, but serves it up in a totally classic and dramatically compelling way? “Godless” does that. It’s a Western set in the 1880s and the show is structured like the hellish black storm to end all storms that’s going to roll into down and rain down with a bloody retribution. It’s also told like a tributary of streams, the brook of which pools together in the town of La Belle which is nearly exclusively inhabited by women, after all the men died in a mining accident.
Linearly, the show is about Frank Griffin (a fantastic Jeff Daniels), an outlaw terrorizing the American West who is out for revenge against his adopted son Roy Goode (rising star Jack O’Connell). There are several points of view and co-starring lead characters, but the show is ultimately told from the perspective of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a mysterious woman who owns a nearby farm and is the sole female that refuses to live inside La Belle. She’s an outsider and a widow, and lives with her timid, half-Indian son Truckee (Samuel Marty) and his crusty, mistrustful grandmother.
A wounded Roy Goode takes shelter in Fletcher’s barn and after some suspicion, is taken in by Alice and her family, but they soon understand they are harboring… not a fugitive, but a wanted man. Roy essentially abandoned his father for reasons that are much more emotionally complicated that you can sum up in a sentence other than to say fathers and sons often have irrevocable conflicts with one another. So, Frank and his men are terrorizing everyone and asking if they know about the whereabouts of Roy Goode. Frank and his gang basically put out a death warrant on any town hiding Roy and when they find out he’s in La Belle — which he’s not really, no one wants to safeguard him other than Alice — they take their slow trek across New Mexico to kill him and wipe out the whole town.
So, it’s Alice and Roy against a vicious gang?
Absolutely not, and I’ll flesh that out in a minute. Also part of the mix is Scoot McNairy as Bill McNue, the aging sheriff of La Belle. He’s sweet on Alice, but hasn’t really gotten anywhere with her. He’s also known as a coward in La Belle, a sheriff who carries no respect, but he’s actually going blind and McNue would rather keep that to himself, so it informs his approach to lawmaking.
Is that it? Just a gang of black riders coming for revenge?
That’s the plot of this long-form movie. The story is the tale of all these characters, who they are and how they came to be, and how their lives collide in the middle of the slow train of death a comin’ to town. There’s a lot of the Roy Goode/Frank Griffith story told in flashback and while I normally hate character history relayed in this format — it’s often used to stretch out story, simply because you can — Frank, who wrote and directed “Godless,” is very economical in its use and the technique is actually leveraged to great effect.