Michelle Dockery (Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix)

Frank Griffin works best when Godless treats him and his gang not like characters, but as if they’re part of the scenery. From a genre perspective, this works pretty well. Isn’t the unforgiving landscape’s reflection in unforgiving men one of the Western’s core concepts?

Based on how he depicts the madman at the center of his story, writer-director Scott Frank seems to think so. There’s a glorious 360-degree shot of a canyon festooned with Griffin’s men that ends with a push in on Jeff Daniels’s stern, wooly face; it makes the bandits look like dangerous animals that emerged from unseen caverns and crevices to inhabit the wilderness. The show takes this artful approach to staging once again later on in a very different environment, the sumptuously appointed home of a local newspaperman who’s selling copies by the wagon-load by painting Griffin’s prodigal protégé Roy Goode as an anti-hero thorn in his old master’s side. When the camera cuts to reveal Griffin and the boys, they’ve made themselves so at home — lounging on his sofa, leaning against his shelves — that they could just as easily be sitting for a portrait photographer as threatening the guy into printing fake news in Frank’s favor. The image of Griffin reclining comfortably in a house he’s just broken into, utterly without fear, is more frightening than all his fire-and-brimstone proclamations put together.

And boy, does this episode put a lot of them together. Frank tells a party of Norwegian settlers he waylays that he was raised by one Isaac Haight, the real-life perpetrator of the real-life Mountain Meadows massacre, in which over 100 emigrants were slaughtered by Mormon fanatics. Watching his family get raped and murdered by the man who would eventually adopt him, subjecting him to additional cruelties, taught Frank a peculiar kind of “love,” which he plans to show his own adopted son Roy if and when he catches him.

After forcing himself on one of the Norwegian women, Griffin awakes from a nightmare of the massacre to upbraid their husbands for not lifting a finger to fight for their wives and children, quoting the Bible at them to back up his point. “You are no man of God!” one of the men shouts. Then we’re off to the monologue races, as Frank delivers a speech on theodicy from which the show derives its title:

God? What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. Look around. There ain’t no higher-up around here to watch over you and your young’ns. This here is the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live. You know, if you think about it, same God made you and me also made the rattlesnake. That just don’t make no sense. All a man can count on is hisself. That’s the truth.

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In the middle of all this, the woman he raped emerges, naked, firing a rifle, before Frank’s men carry her away. Griffin himself is so inured to atrocity that he hardly misses a beat.

It’s a pretty good speech of its sort, all things considered. But that’s the problem. This is a speech you’ve heard from any number of bad guys before, and its familiarity undercuts the seriousness required to address sexual violence and child abuse appropriately. I don’t need to see a terrified, naked woman sobbing as she tries in vain to murder her attacker just to give his big Republic serial villain speech extra oomph, you know?

Truth be told, you could maybe get a good show out of Frank’s hunt for Roy, and Marshall Cooke’s hunt for Frank, and maybe Alice’s decision to take in and fight for Roy when push comes to shove. Or you could get a good show out of Bill, a sheriff who’s slowly going blind, and Maggie, his queer widowed sister, and the complicated family dynamic they have, with either a mass murderer or an unscrupulous mining company providing an antagonistic spark. Or you could get a good show out of a town full of widows coming together to fend off either the killer or the capitalists, and requiring the talents of women they’ve looked down on because of the race or gender of the people they love, i.e. Alice and Maggie respectively.

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At this point, however, I’m not convinced you can get a good show out of all of those things at once. Despite the hour-plus running time of both episodes so far, it still feels like Godless is in a necessarily big hurry to whip from one storyline to the next, which in turn necessitates a shallow reading of each set of characters. The dinner scene in which Merritt Wever’s Maggie tries and fails to singlehandedly prevent her town from getting swindled by a sweet-talking mining company is a highlight of the hour, but I’d happily have followed her for an entire episode to see how she’s maintained a leadership position among her fellow widows despite her unorthodox, masculine style of dress and her relationship with local schoolteacher Callie Dunne, I also could have stood to spend more time in the company of Alice, and to learn the story of her lethal land feud from something other than an expository infodump between young hotshot deputy Whitey Winn and the incarcerated Roy Goode. I could have settled for either a look at life in a frontier town without men surrounded by a hostile world full of them — the kind of story promised by the episode’s title, “The Ladies of La Belle” — or a more straightforward Western thriller centered on the Frank/Roy business. As it stands, I got just enough of each to tantalize, and not enough of any to satisfy.


Stray observations

  • Game of Thrones vet Thomas Brodie-Sangster makes his debut as Whitey Winn, a cocky, smelly young deputy who seems to be an even better shot than Roy. Watching him take aim at a couple of would-be tough guys is the closest thing to a white-hat/black-hat moment the show has served up so far, and it’s a hoot.
  • Whitey gets a solid fatalistic one-liner, too, when he and Roy discuss the townsfolk’s belief that Alice and her Paiute mother-in-law cursed the town after her husband was killed: “Eventually, we all of us gonna find the dirt one way or another.” I hope you’re taking notes for your next supervillain monologue, Frank.
  • It’s not clear how serious Maggie and her sex worker turned schoolmarm lover Miss Dunne are, but the show establishes their connection beautifully: As Maggie sinks into her chair at home following her defeat at the dinner negotiations with the mining company, she suddenly starts to smile. It’s not until the camera cuts to a shot out her window, and into Callie’s window across the street, that we realize why she’s smiling, and that discovery makes us complicit in their connection.
  • “You don’t seem so stone cold to me,” Alice tells Roy after she springs him from jail to work on her ranch. “You just look lost, maybe a little sad.” It’s like she’s writing his character summary.
  • On the road to join the hunt for Frank’s band, Sheriff Bill bumps into the most helpful minor character in recent television history — a friendly optometrist who both knows where Frank is and sells the Sheriff a pair of glasses to help him see his way there. “For a security guard, he had an awful lot of information, don’t you think?”
  • I’m not sure what part of the Bible or the Book of Mormon says that a severed arm covered in bees will point the way to the promised land, but based on the episode’s final moments, Frank Griffin may have access to a different edition.

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