[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 16.]
I’ve never been a huge fan of westerns, although there are some notable exceptions. I probably need to fill out my viewing of classic westerns, including some Clint Eastwood films I keep meaning to get around to. But Godless (on Netflix) is a limited series I wouldn’t mind watching more than once.
There are classic western tropes, like the duel, the gun-slinging sheriff standing up for his town against a gang of bad guys, the (in this case, former) whorehouse, the saloon, cowboys and Indians. But in Godless, they are definitely not ends in themselves, but utilized to push a classic story in new directions. It doesn’t feel like it’s a simple retread, even with all the familiar characters.
Although there are multiple story lines, including how La Belle came to be made up almost entirely of women, the seven episodes of Godless orbit around the relationship between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and Frank Griffin (an excellently evil Jeff Daniels). What allows this main lode to be mined successfully is the father-son dynamic, explored between the orphaned Roy and the childless Frank, who says to the young Roy, “You’ve got a family now, son. These are your brothers, and I aim to be your pappy. And a good one, too. I won’t mistreat you. I won’t beat you. And I won’t ever lie to you. Ever. Welcome home, son.” The show plays on this theme by having Roy wear his own dead father’s clothes, as well as become a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son, Truckee. Episodes 5 and 6 are particularly compelling in this regard.
Godless is not the sort of subversive western that becomes a political statement about the bad old days. It doesn’t play on the stereotypes of the oldest westerns in order to show that the “good guys” were really the “bad guys.” There are indeed cowboys and Indians. There are blacks and whites. There are men and women. But what Godless does so effectively is refrain from demonizing a group of people. There are good guys and bad guys, to be sure, but they are never good or bad simply because they have or claim some identity. They are good or bad because of how they live, how they act, how they treat people or horses.
As far as Lutherans are concerned, this refers to a civil righteousness, not justification before God. But it is a real righteousness and, in Godless, it doesn’t come from class, color, sex, or job. There are good and bad lawmen. There are good and bad women, good and bad men. There are good and bad cowboys and good and bad Indians. They all have different motivations and perspectives, and in this it echoes real life with real people. There are exploitative opportunists (like the journalist, A.T. Grigg). There are oily and smiling mercenaries pretending to be protectors (like Kim Coates’ Ed Logan). There are the women who resent being left alone, and those who simply get on with it.
There is a hardness to the characters that make them seem as if they inhabit a real, difficult world. Godless simply feels like how it must have been.
Obviously, the title implies the religious connection. Frank wears a preacher’s collar (while, in La Belle, Sadie Rose keeps waiting for the new preacher) and is continually quoting the “Good Book.” When someone asks which “good book,” Frank doesn’t answer. But none of his quotes are from the actual Scriptures. It seems that his good book is actually just a collection of his favorite sayings (which probably isn’t too different from how many people treat the Bible anyway).
When one of the Norwegians whom Frank terrorizes says that Frank is not a man of God, Frank responds, “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’s 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.”
It would be easy to attempt some sort of theodicy, some defense of God, in this case. But when Frank’s holding the pistol, perhaps not so wise. He is, in a very real sense, the “enthusiast” of the show: literally, his god is within him (en-thuo). Theodicies always go wrong in the face of actual circumstances. They might hold up in one case, but not in another. If there is a God, then He’s a God far stranger, far more inexplicable than any god we could construct or imagine.
And while Godless doesn’t dwell on this theme in the dialogue, it is the over-arching narrative: look at what happens out here in this “godless country.” Look at what happens to your Creede in such a place. The preacher shows up only when the people are dead. (Although, this preacher doesn’t quote the Bible any more than Frank Griffin does. He quotes, instead, a medieval Jewish poet!)
But, it turns out, the criticism of religion is precisely the Christian point: “the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live.” The preacher shows up to preach to the dead and the dying, because that’s the only sort of person there is. And this is what is so foreign to most understandings of God: His death is the only life in the midst of the violence and death of this world. It is not what God does or doesn’t do in a given moment, whether He prevents this or that disease or physical death. It is what God did in the given moment of the crucifixion, the eternal Son dying, rather than simply preserving a dying world.
And now I need to watch it again.