Clocking in at a second shy of 51 minutes long, “Shot the Head Off a Snake” is the shortest episode of Godless so far, by nearly a 20-minute margin. For better and for worse, it feels even shorter.
Let’s start with the worse: Godless remains fascinated, to a fault, by life on Alice Fletcher’s horse ranch. Don’t believe me? Just watch the nearly six-minute montage sequence that shows all the white-hot well-digging, horse-roping, book-larnin’ you can handle. All this screentime to show that Alice is growing fonder of Roy by the day, and vice versa? That’s hardly any kind of surprise, and even if it were it’s the kind of thing that could be better revealed through conversation, or an interaction more exciting than literally digging in the dirt. Moreover, the rousing Western score attaches a faux-thrilling tone to all the hard work, eliminating any sense of the grind and strain this kind of labor requires. (Think of the long, wordless opening of There Will Be Blood for a counterexample.) The entire segment could be cut without missing a thing.
Meanwhile, another series of flashbacks reveal how Roy came to be the ward of Frank Griffin in the first place, but this too is mishandled. The episode’s cold open shows Frank and a young-adult Roy getting caught red-handed with stolen horses, nearly getting hanged before their associate Gatz Brown comes to the rescue. Frank tells Roy to finish off the angry ranch owner whom Gatz had merely wounded; this is his first kill, and Frank rewards him with a gun, indicating that both his skill with the weapon and his willingness to use it are relatively recent developments. There’s something vampiric about this induction into Frank’s bloody brotherhood.
The next flashback segment jumps us way back in time to Roy’s childhood, showing the day he departed from Sister Lucy Cole’s orphanage when it became clear his brother Jim was never coming back from his job hunt in California. From there, we follow him to a town where he steals a horse that winds up belonging to Frank, who takes a shine to the kid as a fellow orphan. When Roy first meets the rest of the Griffin gang, then a much smaller bunch, Frank describes them as one big happy family. “These are your brothers,” he tells Roy. “And I am to be your pappy. A good one, too. I won’t mistreat you, I won’t beat you, and I won’t ever lie to you, ever.” As best we can tell by how they’re shown interacting during the horse-theft episode several years later, Frank kept these promises.
But that’s the problem: We already know how things go. The first-kill incident is the logical conclusion of Roy’s origin story, but the show places it first, removing any sense of mystery or anticipation about how this innocent but resilient little kid became a crack-shot lieutenant of one of the West’s most notorious outlaws. You might be curious about what came before, but you’re not worried or intrigued or frightened or moved or anything more substantial. Once again, a ton of time is dedicated to building up to a foregone conclusion.
The climax of the episode, if you can call it that, comes when Alice and Roy finally bring their now-trained horses to town to sell to the women of La Belle. This puts Roy in the sights of A.T. Griggs (Jeremy Bobb), the newspaper publisher who’s been trying to locate him. The episode ends with Griggs riding off to print the big news, as you’d expect. But before we get to that point, we learn that he tried to trade advertising space for sexual favors with one of the townswomen, who’d been hoping to start a mail-order business. Griggs’s behavior isn’t exactly surprising, as he’s never been depicted to be the model of journalistic ethics. He’d been painting the blood feud between Frank Griffin and Roy Goode as an adventure story rather than a murder spree long before Frank ever set foot in his office; all that changed afterwards was who Grigg affixed the heel and face labels to. But there’s a big difference between sensationalism and sexual harassment. By crossing it, Griggs’s inevitable revelation of Roy’s true identity and location and his paper becomes easier for audiences to swallow: Of course a guy who’d proposition a potential advertiser with sex-for-ad-space scheme would sick Frank on Roy’s trail without compunction.
As minor as this plot point is, it would still be so much more interesting if Griggs wasn’t a total scumbag, but rather a mostly benign doofus whose overwhelming desire to move copies put an entire town at risk. As it stands, viewers can safely file him away in the “bad guy” pile, along with the racist Quicksilver Mining martinet Logan and all of Frank’s interchangeable underlings. (Only Frank himself is given any kind of moral complexity, and as we’ve discussed it’s a cartoonish sort that doesn’t rise much above the level of, I dunno, Doctor Doom’s.) At the risk of repeating myself, we already knew what Griggs was going to do. Why not take the opportunity to do something unexpected on the way there?
But there’s one aspect of the ep that makes it feel like it’s zipping along in a good way: its sense of humor. For whatever reason, this episode of Godless had more than its fair share of laugh lines. When young Roy steals Frank’s horse, for example, we don’t know the owner until the horse trots all the way past the camera, revealing Griffin and Gatz sitting on a bench, watching the theft transpire in laconic disbelief. (“Ain’t that your horse, Frank?”) When Frank follows Roy’s trail back to Sister Lucy’s old place, all he finds is a drunk in a shack, blindly shooting a rifle out of a hole to keep them away: “Did I hit anybody?” he asks politely after he lets off a shot. “No sir,” Frank replies, “at least not in the general vicinity.” The exchange gets markedly less civil once the Devlin Brothers bash down the door and toss the drunk back through it like he’s been launched from a catapult. “What’s your name, friend?” Frank asks. “Fuck you!” “Well, Mr. Fuck You…”
Even the good guys get off some good ones. Sheriff Bill and his strange Shoshone companion—or “Mr. Wise Old Shoshone Nusiance,” as Bill calls him—have a funny exchange about whether the Sheriff should quit his hunt while he’s ahead, and alive: “Go home to your children.” “I can’t do that either. Not without a head to show for it.” “This head will bring your family luck?” And the friendship between Maggie and Whitey, both of them recently separated from the people they love, continues to be a pleasant surprise, even when Whitey starts offering TMI about his first kiss with Louise: “Her lips were just like these puffy little—” “I really don’t care what her lips were like.” All of this goes a long way toward alleviating the sense that the show is killing time before the main characters start killing each other.
- The ladies of La Belle singing a bawdy song with lyrics like an old-timey “California Girls” is one of the oddest things I’ve seen on TV all year. Scott Frank, wyd?
- Maggie: “Ain’t nothin’ so fragile as a young man.” This year has certainly proven that true, huh?
- Frank’s “this ain’t my death” schtick gets aired out at length in this episode, and it’s not any less annoying now than it was when it first started.
- At one point, Roy talks about his late father in terms so close to those used by Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men that for a moment I thought I was hearing things. Roy: “Now I’m older than he was when he died, so I was recalling a younger man.” Ed Tom: “I’m older now than he ever was by 20 years, so in a sense he’s the younger man.” Maybe this is “subconscious plagiarism,” like “My Sweet Lord” and “He’s So Fine,” but yeesh.