(Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix)

After a season of buildup, Roy Goode’s past and his present both arrive at their long-foreseen destinations. Godless’s penultimate episode, “Dear Roy…,” takes its title from the letter the gunslinger received from his brother, written years ago but which he’s only able to read now. We hear it through Alice’s voice as she reads it aloud with her son Truckee, choking back tears as she hears the older brother’s words of regret and pleas for forgiveness. The night before, she and Roy had sex for the first and (as far as Alice knows) last time, as he’s departed both to spare the town from Frank Griffin’s wrath and, she hopes, to meet up with his brother at long last. After reading that thoughtful, promising letter, Alice can only wish him well.

Of course, from our vantage point we can see that this farewell will be a short-lived one. Scummy newspaper publisher A.T. Grigg has already put a bullseye on La Belle by revealing Roy’s presence there, and Frank and company are on their way. Roy himself is shown during a break from his ride, looking like he’s gotten second thoughts about leaving. In that light the goodbye feels a bit superfluous, but the letter is beautifully written, so it’s hard to complain — especially when actor Michelle Dockery uses the trick she employed so many times on Downton Abbey, relying on our familiarity with her usual reserve to make even the slightest break or waver in her voice feel like a full-fledged breakdown.

By contrast, the revelation of how Roy and Frank finally fell out feels abrupt and under-supported. We get a total of two flashbacks to depict what happened. In the first, the Griffin gang comes across the Devlin Twins, bloodied and babbling to one another in a cryptophasic language only they can understand. Frank discovers that their family has been massacred, a crime the twins blame on “savages” who forced them to deliver the coup de grace. The rest of the gang, Roy included, susses out the truth pretty quickly: With no tracks to indicate a raid, it’s a certainty that the twins themselves slaughtered their kin, including a baby Roy sees lying in the dirt. Frank’s lieutenant Gatz Brown assures the group that their boss knows the truth too…yet Griffin still welcomes the grinning Devlins into the gang as “family.” For whatever reason, Roy seems to be the only gang member troubled by this decision; even setting aside moral considerations, you’d think it would be wise to be wary of having these two psychopaths join “the family,” given what they’d just finished doing to their actual family.

(It’s worth noting that in a scene set in the present day of the story, the Devlins take to Frank’s dark gospel much more readily than anyone else we’ve met, quoting chapter and verse as if it really is the Good Book and not just some fucked-up shit Frank made up. Most likely they’re not smart enough to know the difference. You can see why Griffin finds them appealing, at least.)

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The second flashback, and final straw, comes after Roy takes a detour to visit Sister Lucy Cole, offering her a huge sum of stolen cash as payback for her kindness years ago. In addition to finally delivering the letter Roy’s long-lost brother Jim sent him years ago after he’d already left the orphanage, Sister Lucy presses him to tell the kids how he became so successful, going on and on about how there’s a light inside him that she knew would see him through. “He is livin’ proof,” she tells the awestruck children, “that with the help of God we can all find our way.” The shame of being so described when he’s just an illiterate horse thief and stagecoach robber is written all over his face.

So when he returns to the brothel where the gang is camped out, he’s in no mood to be taunted by the elder members of the crew about his whereabouts, his letter from his brother, or his “high ’n’ mighty” attitude, apparently already a bone of contention between them. He winds up beating one of the company half-blind and fleeing on horseback as Frank calls his name.

And that’s that! No dramatic make-or-break incident, not even a direct confrontation between Roy and his father figure — Roy feels bad about being a crook and gets sick of being around assholes and crazies, so he bolts. For a show that relies so heavily on grand gestures, it’s weird to give this crucial development — the crucial development, the impetus for the entire story — the soft sell.

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In case you think I’m kidding about the grand gestures, think about Truckee Fletcher, who reacts to the news that Roy is leaving his mom’s ranch — and his mom — by going full Heston: “Goddamn you, Roy Goode! Goddamn you all the way to hell!” There’s also yet another flashback to the day of La Belle’s mining disaster, this one a full-color, brightly lit affair in which the assembled townsfolk stroll down the street toward the mine in unison like it’s an Easter parade as the women see the men off to their (last) day on the job. It’s wordless, heavily scored, lit like a fire in the Thomas Kinkade factory, and shot in slow motion, as if writer-director Scott Frank had no confidence that seeing our cast of characters basically happy in the lives they had before the catastrophe wouldn’t be powerful enough on its own.

At just over 40 minutes long, the episode is fully half an hour shorter than the norm, so we’re pretty much done here — except for one last sequence that wraps up a very minor side plot in sitcom-like fashion. Remember the perpetually nude German beer magnate’s wife Maggie saw with her girlfriend Callie, causing a blowup and a breakup? A Pinkerton detective comes looking for her on behalf of her husband, who just wants her “safe and sound.” Whatever her beef with “the fritz bitch,” Maggie knows that “safe” can mean one thing to the husband and another thing entirely to the wife, as she tells the Pinkerton directly. After passing him some bogus intel about her whereabouts, she sneaks off to the woman’s cabin and discovers that it’s an art studio. This explains a lot, from why she never wears clothes (she’d ruin what few clothes she has with the paint) to why Callie was hanging around her place naked herself (she was posing for a portrait she was going to give Maggie as a birthday present). It’s all so absurd that even Maggie herself laughs at its implausibility, and it’s so good-natured that you’re more likely to laugh along with it than think “Jesus, Callie should have just forgotten about making the portrait a surprise.”

It gets even better when the Pinkerton shows up at the door, draws his gun, gets shot by the German, and confesses his love for her (he’d grown awfully fond of her image in the photo he was using to track her down) while she’s busy tying him up and dressing his wound. “Your voice is just like it was in my dreams!” he marvels at his captor, hands bound and bleeding from his thigh. “I’ll just be goin’ now,” Maggie deadpans.

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The sequence ends when the thoroughly chastened Maggie strolls over to the under-construction church the women of the town have been building. Without saying a word, she takes up a position near Callie and begins hammering boards together. Callie doesn’t say anything either — she just grins, ever so slightly. Just like that, they’ve eased back into one another’s life. From start to finish, this whole segment of the episode was funny, silly, exciting, and sweet, like Deadwood at its most moony-eyed. And since we’ve got to care about these folks for the next episode’s raid on the town by Frank Griffin to have any emotional impact, it’s well-timed, too.


Stray observations

  • “From disaster to impending disaster, a small town struggles to survive” sure is a shitty subhead to slap on an article that’s going to cause that impending disaster, A.T. Grigg.
  • Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera’s score has never been sappier than it is during Maggie and Callie’s quiet rapprochement, and I loved every note of it.
  • The show takes a novel approach to its flashbacks, adding more color to the image the closer they get to the present day.
  • Alice’s heart-melting reaction when she reads that Roy’s brother named his son Roy in honor of the man she now loves goes straight to the heart. Michelle Dockery can do so much with so little; I suspect her best role is still ahead of her.

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