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By Focusing on Women, Godless Breathes New Life Into the Western

This isn't your typical outlaw revenge story

Kaitlin Thomas

Netflix's new limited series Godless is a traditional Western with a relevant twist that allows the show to carve out a special place in the once booming genre. Although the series is ostensibly about the orphan Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), a young man on the run from Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), his outlaw father figure whom he's betrayed in the wake of the latter crossing a moral line, Godless sets itself apart from other Westerns by putting a major storytelling focus on women.

The seven-episode drama from creator and director Scott Frank (Out of Sight) is set in the frontier mining town of La Belle, N.M., where nearly all the men perished in a mining accident two years prior to the start of the series. In the aftermath, La Belle has seen women step into positions of authority, partly as a necessity but also because they finally have the ability to do so. The town is currently run by the fiercely competent and self-confident widow of its former mayor, Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever), who takes to her new role with great fervor while losing none of the compassion that makes her a sympathetic human being. The few men left are either not able to work or serve the town in some other capacity, like Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), the brother of Mary Agnes who's slowly losing his eyesight, and his young and earnest, if not always too bright, deputy Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster).

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While the series features many of the hallmarks of the Western genre -- sweeping, cinematic expanses of open landscapes; a storyline set at a ranch outside town; a persistent sheriff tracking a menacing outlaw; and a climactic final gunfight in the center of town -- they're bent through the lens of the town's unique circumstances. By the end of the series, viewers shouldn't be surprised to find themselves far more invested in the stories of the women of La Belle than the fairly typical outlaws who ride into town.

The ranch that serves as one of the main settings of the series is owned by one of those women, widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, shedding the last remains of her Downton Abbey image). An excellent shot who's seen her fair share of tragedy, Alice is shunned by most of the population of La Belle and lives with her Native American son and mother-in-law. The quiet and observational Goode takes refuge at the ranch when he's wounded and offers his hand at breaking the horses and mending fences in return.

Elsewhere, Sheriff McNue spends a great deal of the series tracking Griffin and his men through the uninhabited lands of New Mexico, which leaves the town more or less exposed to outside influence but also offers him the opportunity to do something good before losing his eyesight completely. Meanwhile, the dusty gunfight in the finale, a thrilling action set piece, involves a hotel full of armed, resilient women who have no desire to carry the burden of men's mistakes but must persist anyway.


Merritt Wever and Michelle Dockery, Godless

James Minchin/Netflix

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The inner workings of La Belle itself are also dramatically different from most frontier towns, where the actions of brash and violent men often dictate the narrative. The biggest change might not actually be that the women have to defend themselves when Griffin rides into town looking for Goode, but that without men to patronize it, there's no longer a use for the local brothel, a frequent location depicted in the Western genre. The building is instead turned into a school and run by a former prostitute, who's the richest person in town and also involved in a same-sex relationship. In both La Belle and Godless, women don't exist merely to serve the stories or desires of men, they exist to prove women are human beings who are just as capable as their male counterparts.

Now, a Western set in a town run by women is altogether an intriguing set up, especially when a group of men who want to reopen the mine make the women an offer that everyone but Mary Agnes seems unable to refuse. But how does Godless actually stack up in comparison to the other modern entrants to the Western genre? The series, which is relatively well paced for a Netflix series -- something that stands out even more when one considers the series was initially written to be a feature film -- might be one of the most traditional Westerns TV has seen in quite some time. Still, it manages to carve out its own unique place in a growing TV landscape.

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While the series might lack the well-placed humor that frequently made FX's contemporary Western Justified go down like smooth whiskey, there's a humorous running gag involving a judgmental grandmother who's completely unimpressed by Goode. Although the town is missing its own version of Deadwood's vulgar but charismatic saloon owner Al Swearengen, it also doesn't need one; Weaver works the same magic that made her stand out on Showtime's Nurse Jackie, portraying Mary Agnes as a brash but likable multi-dimensional leader, complete with her own set of well placed barbs. And like AMC's railroad-driven Hell on Wheels, the series attempts to tell an inclusive story by devoting time to the Black men and women and Native Americans who live near the town. It might not be as much as some viewers would like, but it's also not insignificant considering the history of the genre.

The Western genre was once a gold mine for film and television, but it seems the further America gets from the events of the legendary Old West, the further Hollywood gets from telling the stories of the wild frontier and the hardened gunslingers and prospectors it birthed. But Godless is a reminder that in the wake of shows like HBO's Westworld, which mixes Western themes with science fiction, there's still room for the traditional narratives of the Western genre. It proves that it can stand next to shows like Syfy's Wynonna Earp, a wholly entertaining supernatural/Western hybrid, and deliver equally complex heroines without supernatural curses that lead them to those heroics. But perhaps most importantly, Godless reveals there are still plenty of ways to make the Western seem fresh and exciting, and that's more than enough reason to watch.

Godless is now streaming on Netflix.