Godless has two major factors in its favor: the sun and the stars. The former glares into the mud-caked eyes of Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), a lawman who’s secretly going blind, then shines down on a field where he collects flowers to place on his late wife’s grave with a brightness that echoes his still-warm sentiments. (“I can see just fine,” he announces as he picks primroses and whatnot, to no one in particular except perhaps the sunlight itself.) It burns like the fire of fate itself when bandit-turned-babyface Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) exits the barn where he’s recuperating from gunshot wounds and sees the silhouetted form of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), the outcast widow who shot and then saved him. It creates an ironic, halo-like nimbus around the head of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), the one-armed madman robbing and slaughtering his way through the mining towns of 1884 Colorado in search of loot and his one-time apprentice Roy, when he rides his horse right into a rural church and promises he’ll rain the wrath of God Himself on the parishioners should they ever lend his rogue ally their aid. It’s reduced to a dim, dun haze by the dust swirling around the site of Griffin’s latest massacre, dust from which mustachioed Marshall John Cooke (Sam Waterston) emerges to gaze in penitent horror at Frank’s grim handiwork. Finally, it reflects off the water that splashes and sprays from beneath the hooves of the horses ridden by Griffin’s and his gang as they cross a river in slow motion, dazzling and luminous and, it seems, imbued with the sheer joy of filmmaking within a beloved genre.
By now you’ve probably picked up on the “stars” side of the equation. The series premiere of writer-director-creator Scott Frank’s Godless, “An Incident at Creede” (referring to the aforementioned massacre), parades its cast of familiar and friendly faces before the camera in all their well-worn Western finery like a herd of prize cattle. One of the big under-covered pleasures of the past few years of Peak TV is getting to see its stars re-mixed and re-mingled once they’re freed from the commitments of shows that launched and ended earlier in the era. Want to watch Halt and Catch Fire’s Gordon Clark confess his love to Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary Crawley? I know I do! Want to see Sam Waterston play Old West Batman to Jeff Daniels’s horse-opera Joker, like the weirdest reboot of The Newsroom imaginable? Now’s your chance! Years of totally omnipresent TV culture have turned its actors into one giant repertory company where we viewers are concerned; it’s often delightful, as it is here, to sit down and see what this season’s production will give them to do, even if you’re not nuts about the end result.
In Godless’s case there’s not much to disappoint you just yet. The show falls very, very, very squarely within the confines of its genre; it’s an old-school oater the new-school aspect of which, namely nasty (and sometimes sexual) violence, hasn’t actually been new at least since The Wild Bunch rode into town nearly fifty years ago. Thus, while it’s hard for the show to knock your socks off, it’s equally difficult for it to shit the bed. Soup-strainer facial hair, stern-faced gunslingers filmed against big sky, metaphorically biblical imagery and literally Biblical dialogue: If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you like. And that’s exactly the experienced the algorithmed-out-the-wazoo metrics by which Netflix judges its programming are designed to deliver.
The episode’s best moments come when it leans into the Western’s larger-than-life qualities as hard as it can. Why have one widow when you can have La Belle, a whole mining-accident-devastated town full of them? Why have a sharpshooter demonstrate his prowess by killing a human target when he can shoot a snake, and the snake is threatening a baby, and the shot doesn’t just kill the critter but takes its hissing head clean off? Why have him simply be good with horses when he can gentle an entire corral to the point of every animal lying down like lambs? No good reason that I can see, frankly.
As to innovation, my personal favorite wrinkle in the usual fabric of these things is Truckee (Samuel Marty), the son of Alice and her late, and likely murdered, Native American husband. From the moment Alice takes Roy in, not yet knowing who he is or what he’s done, her son provides a constant, gently sardonic running commentary in his very low-key voice, as if a character from a Peanuts special had suddenly wandered on set. Moving forward, the test for Godless, clearly a labor of love for Frank and his collaborator Steven Soderbergh, will be whether they can add flourishes of character, plot, and tone, like Truckee or that gorgeous slo-mo river run, turning the merely solid into something magical.
- From the Bible-quoting to the civlian-slaughtering to the horse-in-church bit, Frank Griffin’s villainy is laid on mortar-thick. Some of these bits and pieces works better than others. Losing a limb to the man he’s hunting, a la Ahab and his white whale? Sure, that’ll do. Confidently asserting he knows how and when he will (and won’t) die, like Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, also in the cast)? Pass.
- As a dyed-in-the-wool original-recipe Law & Order fan I didn’t realize how badly I needed to see Jack McCoy ride out of the dust on horseback until I was staring him in the face.
- It’s fun to hear how actors with voices as distinct as Sam Waterston’s and Michelle Dockery’s arrive at their individual Western accents. Waterston’s adds twang to his signature warble; Dockery slow-cooks her posh pronunciation until it’s just this side of Southern. Native Texan Scoot McNairy is basically fine as-is.
- <Paul Rudd in the Tim & Eric “Celery Man” sketch voice> Nude. Scoot.
- I’d held out hope for months that the show would use the Dandy Warhols’ “Godless,” from their pretty much perfect record Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, as its theme song. I may just mute the credits, put this on iTunes as they roll, and pretend.