A promo poster for Godless features women standing with rifles in hand next to a tagline welcoming us into a “no man’s land.” At a glance, the show’s setting—a town called La Belle composed almost entirely of women after all the men were killed in a mining accident—appears to be literally that. Godless promises that it will upend the western genre’s patriarchal structures, but as the Netflix limited series wears on, La Belle becomes merely a novel backdrop for a more classic drama: a showdown between a Robin Hood-like figure, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), and a psychopathic bandit, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels).
On the run from Frank, Roy stumbles upon La Belle, and when a fierce rancher, Alice (Michelle Dockery), learns of his identity, her decision to shelter him comes to exemplify the show’s neutered sense of female independence. In exchange for a room, Roy tames Alice’s horses and teaches her son, Truckee (Samuel Marty), to ride and hunt. It’s as if viewers are meant to believe that Alice, whom we watch dig a well by herself and expertly handle a rifle, is unable to imbue her son with sufficient masculinity. Throughout, we’re consistently left feeling as if the women of La Belle haven’t been empowered by self-reliance, but left waiting for men to reassume control of the town.
Men do come, when the Quicksilver Mining Company offers to buy La Belle in exchange for dozens of workers to help run the town mine, protect the women, and—as coy glances between women at one meeting suggest—maybe provide some much-needed carnal pleasure. The one woman unwilling to cede control to Quicksilver is Mary Agnes (Merritt Weaver), who worries that the mining company aims to exploit the town rather than enrich it. Her determined self-reliance is illustrated with retrograde gender signifiers: She wears suits and gun belts and is the only sexually active woman in La Belle, routinely visiting with Tess (Callie Dunn), the town prostitute. In Godless, female empowerment resembles the adoption of a rigid construction of masculinity, and female acumen appears contingent on sexual satisfaction.
Quicksilver’s proposal resonates as an oppressive gambit, particularly considering that it’s truly a threat veiled as an offer: Any acquisition would effectively force the women back to child-rearing and housekeeping, and the gesture is made with the implication that La Belle couldn’t protect itself should someone decide to take over the town. Yet the societal shift implied by the buyout is overshadowed constantly by the impending clash between Roy and Frank. We never see whether Quicksilver’s buyout brings a boon for La Belle or, as Mary Agnes anticipated, new subjugation, and the presence of the company men only leads to more casualties once Frank arrives.
Frank’s black-hat villainy and Roy’s eventual heroism reflect a generic fealty in Godless, which, despite its subversive premise, hews closely to the romanticism of the western. Genre loyalists will find comforting pleasure in lyrical shots of wild horses, melodramatic shootouts in dusty town squares, and typically brutal Old West justice; the series indulges even the traditions that feel tone deaf today, as with the mystical Native Americans who guide the show’s white protagonists with inscrutable advice. And, of course, Godless culminates with a rousing shootout, which brings into stark relief the focus on destructive men maintained from the show’s first frame.
The fire fight, like much of Godless, succeeds in offering original imagery without tweaking the western framework itself. Idiosyncratic flourishes, from kinetic shots of horseback bandits chasing women through narrow hotel halls to ethereal close-ups of Frank, untouched amid a hail of bullets, provide a veneer of originality even as the fight unfolds predictably. And the sight of 50 women firing on a herd of hardened criminals is certainly a novelty, but the moment’s intended emotional impact is blunted by the show’s dogged focus on the outcome of a personal quarrel between male archetypes.
The expected final showdown satisfies as a form of visual comfort food, but as Roy rides into the sunset, leaving a largely destroyed town behind, one’s left to wonder if Godless truly needs nearly eight hours, and so much collateral damage, to tell what’s essentially a formulaic western story—especially when the show’s sole resolution belongs to Roy, who bests his nemesis and begins anew while the fate of La Belle’s women (and its mine) remain in question. Godless equates female empowerment with armament and never investigates the myriad sources that victimize the town’s women, remaining more invested in the petty male quarrel that catches them in the crossfire.