Jeff Daniels, Russell Dennis Lewis, Matthew Dennis Lewis (Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix)

Never mind the title,“Fathers & Sons.” This episode of Godless’s present-day action nor the suite of flashbacks that complement it pertain to that relationship. Come to think of it, I’m not sure there’s a single father-and-son moment depicted at all. This just one episode after “Wisdom of the Horse,” which at times felt less like a drama and more like a nature documentary, or perhaps a rodeo. A foolish consistency, yadda yadda yadda.

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Certainly the flashbacks have nothing to do with filial piety or paternal obligation. The cold open brings us back to the moments immediately after the mining disaster, as characters like Maggie and Whitey wordlessly inspect the rubble and find the corpses of the miners, resting eerily where they sat or stood the instant the oxygen got swept out of their lungs. Rogue gunman Roy Goode’s flashback shows us how he and his ill-fated older brother Jim came to live at an orphanage run by the garrulous and good-natured Sister Lucy Cole, until Jim rode off in search of work. And twice-widowed Alice has a nightmarish vision of her near death, first in a flash flood and then at the hands of the buffalo-helmeted raiders who stabbed and raped her until she was rescued — not by her handsome Paiute husband-to-be, whom she meets after the fact at the encampment where she’s taken to be tended to, but by Sheriff Bill, who comes across the scene of the crime while hunting with his late wife and helps Alice either kill off or chase off her attackers. None of this material is exactly revelatory: mining disasters are upsetting, young boys wandering the wilderness on their own take kindly to maternal figures who treat them with kindness in turn, and stopping a female main character’s sexual assault is an easy way for a story to establish its male main character’s heroic bonafides, largely at her expense.

The scenes set in the here and now are similarly scattershot. Two relationships that fall outside social sanction — Whitey’s blossoming romance with Blackton resident Louise and Maggie’s previously stable-seeming coupledom with Callie — hit roadblocks, the first when Louise’s dad catches her splashing around in the river with Whitey and viciously beats her as a warning to stay away, the second when Maggie catches Callie with that weird German nudist woman while making her rounds one morning. Roy, Truckee, and Truckee’s grandma go on a hunting expedition that ends when Roy prevents Whitey from rashly shooting Louise’s father from afar; to thank the outlaw for saving him from the sure to be bloody consequences of his rash action, Whitey implies that the secret of the man’s true identity as one of the West’s most wanted is safe with him. (Louise’s point of view on her beating doesn’t merit attention, apparently.)

Newspaperman A.T. Griggs comes to town in search of Goode, having read the telegram Sheriff Bill sent Marshall Cooke about his capture, but seems to become at least as interested in the tale of La Belle itself. (I’ll hazard a guess that his subsequent story about the all-woman frontier town will be what brings Frank Griffin their way.) As for the Sheriff himself, he discovers that Marshall Cooke has been murdered, berates the local law for giving Griffin the run of the town, screams with palpable, powerful anger about the late lawman’s stolen badge, then continues his pursuit of the gang.

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Frank’s own pursuit of Roy is interrupted when he and his men come across a sickhouse for smallpox patients, upon whom Griffin bestows mercy. He taps his two most obnoxious henchmen, the Devlin Twins, to help him dig graves for the dead and dying. He himself assists the healthiest surviving victim, a young woman who’d brought her family there one after another, then took it upon herself to care for the patients when the doctor got too sick to do so, getting sick herself in the process. She mistakes Frank for a preacher, and he corrects her with neither word nor deed. No one would blame you for suspecting Frank sped the group along on their journey into the Eternal Arms, but his affect during the scenes where he interacts with the young woman is that of someone who’s actually heartbroken by her plight, not determined to be a mercy-killing angel of death. In fact, that point of view is relegated to the hyena-like braying of the Devlin Twins.

But still, the effect of the interlude is an odd one. Watching a guy who’s killed and raped an untold number of people suddenly become Florence Nightingale…well, it’s as if a Sopranos episode about Tony’s soft spots for babies and animals had been presented with a totally straight face, instead of a backhanded indictment of the entirely relative scale of suffering by which the character measures right and wrong. There are better ways to complicate your arch-villain than showing he’s actually not such a bad guy deep down some times; the show found one of those ways itself last episode, when it revealed that Frank was a product of the same brand of banditry, ultraviolence, and old-testament moral judgment he rains down upon his hapless victims.

Regardless, the delay brings Sheriff Bill within striking distance of Frank for the first time…which the bandit sees coming, presumably thanks to his own scouts and trackers, and responds to by lying in wait. A tense conversation ensues, in which Bill first dissembles about his business, then comes clean when it’s clear the jig is up. Bill talks a tough enough game, but Frank nevertheless senses that something’s wrong with him on a spirit-deep level. Echoing the Native American characters who’ve told the Sheriff he’s lost his shadow, Griffin says “the life has gone out of your face,” and speculates that the true goal of his hunt is to get himself gunned down at Griffin’s hands (er, hand), so he “can die attached to a purpose.” Bill denies this, and Frank seems disinclined to offer him that dark deliverance no matter what.

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So Frank and company ride on, sparing Sheriff Bill’s life…because it’s the dramatic thing to do, I guess. Honestly, I can’t think of any other reason a mass murderer who presided over the execution of an even more senior lawman several days prior would let a cop who’d just announced plans to kill him a chance to continue his quest. You could say it’s Frank’s vision of his own death that does it, giving him confidence that no one with a badge will be the one to do him in. Or you could say it has to do with his screwy moral code: tending to smallpox victims and quoting the Bible one moment, massacring entire towns and proclaiming the supremacy of “the god of the locust” the next. But both of these factors are just different ways of saying the same thing. Frank spares Bill, because he’s written that way, because it makes him a cooler villain and gives the story more (horse-)operatic stakes.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Most of the time, even the best genre works come with a side of corn. But nothing we’ve seen on the show so far has added anything of real sustenance to this particular meal. Godless boasts solid, if not spectacular, performances from a suite of likeable TV veterans — Merritt Wever, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Jeff Daniels, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster most notably. They speak clever but not particularly quotable dialogue. Their story is overburdened with B-plots, but it’s still heading toward an inevitable, and I’m guessing entertaining, climactic confrontation. This happens against a backdrop of beautiful Western scenery, shot with an eye for light that’s most welcome when contrasted with your typical murky green prestige-TV palette. All of that is what keeps the show from ever sinking below that little B- grade you see above. But it has yet to reveal any signs that it will get substantially higher, either. Frank’s comic-book behavior and all the show’s other tics and flaws would be easier to accept if it had.


Stray observations

  • Frank to Bill: “I admire your ginger, sir.” That’s going into my repertoire!
  • I mentioned this earlier, but man, Scoot McNairy really tore into Sheriff Bill’s rage when he demanded to know what happened to Marshall Cooke’s badge. It made me miss his brilliance in the role of Gordon Clark in Halt and Catch Fire.
  • A.T. Grigg, dashing editor-about-town, feels like he wandered off the set of a lost Deadwood story about someone setting up a newspaper to rival A.W. Merrick’s Pioneer.
  • There’s a potentially meaty subplot brewing about the rivalry between La Belle and Blackton — two towns inhabited solely by oppressed people, at odds with one another about how the former has mistreated the latter over the years. In shades of Flint, Blackton’s water getting tainted by runoff from La Belle’s mine is the source of the conflict.
  • It’s fortunate Whitey Winn didn’t kick off a new more heated phase of that dispute by gunning down Louise’s father. But man, the fed-up menace in Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s voice as Whitey watched his would-be girlfriend get beaten and made up his mind to punish the man responsible: “Oh, no, sir. Oh, no, sir.”

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