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‘Godless’ TV Review: Women of the Wild West

Even if you don’t usually watch Western films, Godless, Netflix’s 7 episode mini series, is worth a watch. Starring Skins alum Jack O’Connell, outlaw Roy Goode betrays his father figure Frank Griffin (Pleasantville, The Newsroom) and his gang, after he finds he can no longer tolerate their actions. Goode seeks refuge on a ranch on the outskirts of La Belle, a New Mexico town inhabited mostly by women. The men of the town were all killed in a freak mining accident, which left the population severely unbalanced. 

\Writer and director Scott Frank gave us the full experience of the thrill and anarchy that came with the Wild West. From the very first scene depicting a dusty landscape that opens up to a train wreck AND a massacre, I was on the edge of my seat. The cast was also a big part of the viewing experience. Personally, Jeff Daniels played his role as an alcoholic, scripture quoting, terrifying leader of bandits, to perfection. All of the characters were nuanced and flawed which made it all the more enjoyable. 

Godless, in many ways, is breaking boundaries in the Western movie genre. Traditional Wild West flicks idolize domination, whether it be over the harsh conditions or ‘uncivilized’ communities. The series, however, incorporated indigenous people and black communities into the narrative. 

I was first interested in watching the show because it was set in the rural town of La Belle in which the overwhelming majority of residents are women. All of the promotional pictures screamed ‘women defying patriarchal society’ to me. I was under the impression that it would be the feminist historical drama we all crave, but my expectations were shot down.

Here’s why:

(SPOILERS)

Widows of La Belle, Mary Agnes McNue and Alice Fletcher (Source)

The entire story revolves around the white male protagonist, Roy Goode, and his feud with another white man, Frank Griffin. When Griffin and his gang of outlaws finally arrive at La Belle, the women of La Belle manage to hold them off for some amount of time while holed up in the only reinforced building in the village. The men eventually burst through the doors and start attacking the women left, right, and center. When it feels like all hope is lost, Roy Goode and the town Sheriff arrive and save the day. To me, this felt like a betrayal to the feminist notions the show seemed to push throughout the story. The fact that the independent women of La Belle had to be saved by men soured my viewing experience.

The show had the potential to transcend the Western genre even more, by giving the women more strength and purpose to the plot. At the end of the day, the story would not have been much different if the cast consisted solely of men.

The subplots concerning the women of La Belle just sort of didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The dispute with the Quicksilver mining company that offers the town to rebuild the mine and help revive the economy, could have been explored a bit further. The widows of the town meet with them, and while half of them agree to their business offer, the other half disagrees. It showed the different mentalities of the women- the damsels in distress wanting to be helped by strong men, and the independent women who do not wish to participate in their exploitative, patriarchal scheme. This subplot just sort of…vanished. The Quicksilver men just ran away with the town’s horses and got caught by – you guessed it – Roy Goode. It got kind of tiring seeing the women constantly being saved by white men. 

In the director’s defense, he never intended Godless to be a feminist series, but to give a voice to those often ignored. He sort of failed at doing so anyway. 

There was another interesting storyline of Blackdom, a small community of black soldiers from the civil war, and the Buffalo Soldiers, who live with their families, just outside of La Belle. It seemed as though the narrative was leading us to something exciting. The people of La Belle hyped up the Buffalo Soldiers as fierce and determined warriors who were able to defeat enemy forces while being significantly outnumbered. It was also interesting because Whitey, the young, white, male policeman in La Belle, had a budding romance with a young woman from Blackdom. The show sheds light on the existing racial tensions, but only very briefly and without closure. Was this storyline only used so that it could expand on Whitey’s, plot? It would have been a worthwhile theme to explore for a historical series based after the civil war…in the South… but it did not come into fruition because Griffin and his men killed them all. I personally would have loved to see the Buffalo Soldiers have a proper fight and see them in action.

Iyovi(Source)

However, Godless succeeded in creating strong femme characters that defy the patriarchal nature of 19th Century America. Mary Agnes, widow-mayor of La Belle, is a queer woman in a relationship with a sex worker-turned-village teacher. This kind of narrative is excluded in basically ALL Western films, so I welcomed it with open arms. I also appreciated the character development of the damsels in distress who ended up yielding guns in the final showdown.

Despite the overwhelming number of white characters, Iyovi (Pauite mother to Alice Fletcher’s deceased husband), may have been my favourite character. While she did not have much screen time as many other cast members, she represented the strong indigenous woman in a colonized society. Sure,she wears Western attire and uses Western weaponry, but she refuses to assimilate culturally with the settlers. Iyovi hunts, performs folk remedies, and is all in all very attached to her identity as a Paiute woman, despite the people of La Belle treating her and her family as pariahs. Overall, while having complex backgrounds, it was unfortunate that the femme characters were merely used as backdrops to deepen male-centric storylines.

Still, I enjoyed the series so much that I have started my second round of watching it again, less than a month after I finished watching it the first time around. Godless is packed with thrill, action, and some light hearted comedy. It just missed a great opportunity to go where no Western has ever gone before and give the marginalized characters more crucial roles.

Liberal Arts student in Tokyo whose spare time is dominated by pop culture. Full time intersectional feminist.
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