The tropes are ingrained in all of our minds: the lone cowboy riding through a harsh yet beautiful land, the town saloon, the ever-present threat of robbery, the pure, unadulterated feeling of adventure and promise. Yet Westerns are usually just a thing of the past, a neat antiquity of a different age. Nonetheless, Netflix’s new series “Godless” revives the genre for a modern TV audience, combining gorgeous production with a brutal story.
In the first episode “An Incident at Creede,” Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, “The Newsroom”), a notorious and terrifying outlaw, searches for a former protégé Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell, “Money Monster”) after the latter betrays the group of outlaws that robs mines around Colorado and Wyoming. Goode arrives in a town called La Belle, where he is welcomed (by being shot) by Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, “Downton Abbey”), who also nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy, “War Machine”), a depressed widower, investigates the whole affair after the small town of Creede is savagely brutalized and burned to the ground.
Jeff Daniels, in what is a rather unusual role for him, provides a stunning performance as Griffin. In Griffin’s first few scenes, his arm is amputated due to a gunshot wound, but the procedure and the aftermath do not seem to faze him at all, in opposition to his consuming desire for revenge. He notes to his surgeon, “I’ve seen my death, this ain’t it.” He interrupts a church service in a memorable scene, warning terrified churchgoers that they will all suffer like their lord if they help Roy Goode. His presence throughout feels larger than life, more force of nature than petty criminal, a performance reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.”
Despite the main conflict being between Goode and Griffin, the true protagonists of the show are the women. Fletcher, and McNue’s sister Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever, “The Walking Dead”) are complex, strong and independent in their own distinct ways and don’t play into clichés of such personalities. Fletcher is calm and practical, while Agnes is confident and completely self-assured as a leader. In addition, the town of La Belle is completely populated by women. Later episodes introduce viewers to the women and explore the dynamics between them. The new characters are surprisingly all fleshed out and complex, and the show reveals an emotional and compelling backstory that explains just how this group of women came to govern La Belle.
Although long, drawn-out shots do slow down the pace at times to a languid crawl, the cinematography and visual production conveys a sense of grandeur, mystery and danger in the landscape. The land is sparse and unforgiving, and it gives the sense that man is truly alone, no matter how many prayers are recited. The production feels movie-like as opposed to what we expect from TV budgets, despite some rather amateurish CGI scattered throughout the first episode.
Right off the bat, “Godless” feels like an epic. With a large cast of well-developed, interesting characters and cinematic production, it is sure to entertain anyone, regardless of their previous affinity for the genre.