Godless’s season finale is not without merit, though you’ve got to dig deep beneath the mountain of corpses it’s perched on to find it. From the start, creator-writer-director Scott Frank has wielded the bright sun of the show’s Western setting like a gunslinger of light and shadow, and he puts that talent to work here more effectively and beautifully than ever. Much of Frank Griffin’s fateful ride into La Belle, and the apocalyptic gunfight that erupts when he arrives, is shot through a luminous haze of sand, smoke, and sunlight, with the participants silhouetted against the glare or rendered ghostlike by the fog of war. The effect is both mythic and appropriately murky.
Nor does the filmmaker’s skill at making Frank a menacing figure even, or especially, when comfortably seated abandon him. The key moment here comes when Griffin and his henchmen the Devlin Twins stop at the home of Louise Hobbs, La Belle lawman Whitey Winn’s fiddle instructor and would-be girlfriend. Whitey had already come to warn her ex-buffalo soldier father about the outlaw’s impending arrival and ask for his town’s help in protecting La Belle; he and his relatives were planning how best to help, despite every incentive not to, when Frank showed his ugly face. Hobbs plays dumb when Griffin pretends to be a lowly traveler to buy food and supplies, and keeps schtum when he and the Devlins sit down at the family table to join them for dinner. But before long the pretenses are dropped, and Frank and Hobbs’s relative John Randall (a steely Rob Morgan) have a drum-taut exchange about exactly what is transpiring at that table:
“Are the rest of your men outside? As I recall, you ran with quite a few. And is that a pistol I feel right now, pointed at me under the table? And these two boys of yours—they got, what? From what I can tell, four more pistols between them, under their coats. Correct?”
“You yourself, sir, I imagine, are well armed. As are you, and you. So it would appear we’re sittin’ in a room full of men with pistols.”
“It would appear so.”
I love the understatement here, the slow ratcheting-up of the stakes, the whole concept of the seated stand-off. It’s favorably reminiscent of the similar scene in the Nazi drinking hole in Inglourious Basterds.
The massacre that follows is tougher to justify, or enjoy. For one thing, it’s unnecessary. Frank Griffin’s bona fides as an indiscriminate killer of men, women, and children in any place that crosses him were established in the town of Creede way back before the opening credits rolled on the series premiere, and his likely intention to do it all over again in La Belle was the dramatic underpinning of the entire season that followed. Having him and his gang slaughter the town right next door mere minutes before the final face-off feels like gilding the lily, in blood.
Worse still, it undercuts the stakes of the showdown in La Belle, in an ethically dubious fashion. For seven episodes we’ve wondered if this town of outcasts from an oppressed class of people would be able to stave off an atrocity. What narrative or thematic purpose does answering that question solve if we’ve just seen another town of outcasts from an oppressed class of people succumb to that very atrocity in the same episode? The people of Blackdom may not be our main characters, but it’s not like that’s their fault. Only the nature of the story and script renders their lives more disposable than those of their counterparts in La Belle. Our interest in the showdown at the Hotel La Belle is predicated on whether or not the worst will happen—but as Alice’s horrified glimpse of scores of corpses in Blackdom earlier that day makes clear, the worst already has happened. What difference does it make if if it happened an hour’s ride away?
Not to get bogged down in plausibility while we’re at it, but the divergent fates of Blackdom and La Belle leave an even ickier taste in your mouth when you recall that the former is full of elite veterans who’d previously chased the Griffin gang clear out of the territory, while the latter is populated primarily by people who’d never fired a gun in anger in their lives until Frank came calling.
Before you give credit to the superior battle plan cooked up by Whitey and Maggie, keep in mind that none of its particulars—containing the fight, getting Griffin’s men off the streets and off their horses into someplace they can’t burn out—actually come to pass. Frank and friends just politely hang around outside the hotel, exchanging fire with people who occupy fortified positions on higher ground until virtually all of them are dead. The primary guys who do make it inside the hotel aren’t exactly lured there, either—they charge in out of anger, still on horseback, and royally fuck up everyone they find until they eventually take enough fire to lose control of their mounts and go flying off into the street below. It’s probably worth noting that even if the hotel is made of “brick and iron,” that doesn’t magically make all of its floorboards and furniture and carpets and curtains and beds and booze flame retardant. A few torches or molotovs tossed through the windows or in the open door would have smoked out or burned up the combatants inside in a hurry. At any rate, I don’t see how any of this makes La Belle’s defense system inferior to Blackdom’s network of underground tunnels, staffed by trained soldiers who know the terrain. Don’t get me wrong: Plot holes of this sort can, and probably should, be ignored when you get enough material of compensatory value out of a story. Here, that’s just not the case.
Hell, you can’t even properly award Alice, Maggie, and the rest of La Belle’s women—nor even Whitey Winn, who takes a throwing knife to the chest as the battle’s first casualty before firing so much as a single shot—credit for thwarting the attack. True, they give as good as they get in the lengthy and mostly empty display of bloodshed the battle comprises. (If you were disappointed The Punisher didn’t feature enough mindless carnage, Godless has got you covered.) But the day really belongs to Sheriff Bill McNue and his unlikely ally Roy Goode. The two men traipse into the town square during a convenient lull in the battle (apparently everyone on both sides ran out of ammo at the exact same time) and just stand there plugging away at Frank’s remaining goons like a pair of ten-gallon Terminators. The ladies continue to contribute to the fight, with Alice in particular saving Roy’s skin from the Griffin gang’s designated Knife Guy, but writer-director-creator Scott Frank structures the battle in such a way that Bill and Roy’s arrival is the clear turning point and key to victory.
This impression is only strengthened by the aftermath. Smelling defeat in the air, Frank escapes with Roy in hot pursuit. Goode comes across his former mentor gently coaching Alice’s son Truckee through euthanizing his horse, who’d incurred a broken leg while the kid’s ride to California to look for Roy was still in its very early stages. Frank politely lets the child go (he’d done the same with the rest of La Belle’s children, despite editing that implied he’s figured out they were hiding in town’s dramatically resonant mineshaft) and challenges Roy to a duel, amid a vast, Barry Lyndon-esque green field rather than the traditional dusty Western street. Why Frank takes his shirt off to do so is a mystery he takes to his grave, since Roy nails him, then strolls up to deliver the kill shot while Griffin’s in the middle of his usual “I seen my death and this ain’t it” spiel. “You seen wrong,” Roy retorts with Schwarzeneggerian swagger. Sorry, folks who figured Frank would meet his long-foreseen demise at the relatively unorthodox hands of a woman rather than the constant barrage of lawmen and ruffians he’d faced down—it was all misdirection in favor of the most predictable (though admittedly fitting) nemesis imaginable.
The rest of the episode continues awarding Roy and Bill pride of place. After he and his sister Maggie are spared the discomfort of saying an appropriate eulogy for their friend Whitey by the sudden arrival of the town’s long-awaited pastor (who recites a few verses by medieval Jewish philosopher-poet Judah Halevi, as I guess was custom among Old West preachers?), Bill moves in with Alice. Fletcher had rebuffed his affections for years, and her romance with Roy was a central storyline for the whole season while Bill spent his time on his (somewhat literal) vision quest for Frank. For them to become an item now makes it feel like the show is rewarding him just for being a male main character. He’s a cool guy, and Alice could do a lot worse, but why do this at all? It’s not like it’s his turn or something.
Roy, meanwhile, is given the honor of closing out the entire season. A series of gorgeous landscape shots track his progress from New Mexico to California, his beard and his poncho increasing in size as he goes, until he reaches the mighty Pacific his brother Jim had described so beautifully in his long-ago letter. Which is…nice? It’s just not a resolution to the story Godless had spent the season telling. Alice and Maggie were the heart of this thing, and while I’m not complaining about more conventional genre figures like Frank, Roy, and Bill, they were most effective when used either in tandem with or as a gateway to these more unique female figures. Judging from the final minutes of the finale, though, Roy is Luke Skywalker, Frank is Darth Vader, and the various Leias and Hans and what-have-yous barely merit a mention. It’s myopia of a sort that puts Bill McNue’s to shame. And like so much else in this finale, it reveals Godless as a show blind to its own strengths.
- Despite barely registering as a character before the previous episode—just a few shots of her in the nude from a distance, pretty much—German artist/runaway bride/two-gun killing machine Martha and her new Pinkerton boyfriend are treated like stars of the show during the battle. They’re funny, so give ’em a pass.
- Sheriff Bill’s Shoshone companion, and the companion’s dog, are not figments of his imagination as you might have suspected, a fact Roy Goode confirms when he sees them too. But according to Roy, they’re something even weirder: ghosts. Wait—ghosts? In my revisionist Western? It’s more likely than you think.
- Before he starts firing at Frank, Bill McNue sees his shadow, which you might have heard he’d lost. It’s gunslinger Groundhog Day, and this means six more months of being able to shoot bad guys in the dome before he goes blind.
- Considering that he signed their collective death warrant, A.T. Grigg gets off pretty easy when the townsfolk allow him to attend the funerals for the slain, instead of dumping his body in there along with them.
- Logan the evil Quicksilver Mining security guru also skates on what seemed like a death sentence, with Roy merely kneecapping him instead of killing him for abandoning his post at La Belle, stealing their horses so they couldn’t escape, and abusing his steed all season long.
- The late Mr. Hobbs has the laugh line of the night when he sees Whitey riding back into town despite being told in no uncertain terms he isn’t welcome: “Boy, you cannot be this ignorant!”
- Second place goes to Roy, when he follows up wounding Logan by shooting another Quicksilver goon, who whines “The hell’d you do that for?” “Aw, just because I’m so damn mean.”
- Turns out it’s Blackdom, not Blackton. I guess I misheard it in those earlier episodes, but I’m not entirely convinced there wasn’t some sort of Game of Thrones Season One maester/meister business going on here.
- When Frank says to Truckee “Tell me son, have you got a pappy?” I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ask about gladiator movies and Turkish prisons next.