It may seem strange—to those of us who’ve become accustomed to TV shows which obfuscate the narrative to generate suspense—that the first episode of Netflix’s Godless lays everything bare. Yet, that is exactly what this show does.
In the opening scenes, a group of men on horseback ride through clouds of dust and smoke in a backdrop straight out of a post-apocalyptic horror film; charred corpses and burnt-out buildings reveal that something terrible happened here. Rather than make us wait until the end of the series, the show tells the audience early on that a man named Frank Griffin did this, out of spite, revenge, and a twisted sense of love for Roy Goode, a man he once considered his son.
The leader of the group of men on horses is Marshall John Cook, a mixture of gruffness and deep-rooted compassion. He acts as a narrator, leading the audience out of the smoke and the dust and providing exposition. He tells the history of Frank Griffin and Roy Goode and why they are pitted against each other, as well as the story of the mining accident in La Belle, New Mexico that killed most of the men in the town. How these two occurrences interact lights the pathway that Godless will take.
Additionally, all of the main characters are introduced in this episode, from the women of La Belle, its sheriff Bill McNue, and ersatz mayor Mary Agnes; to Alice Fletcher, who lives with her young son and mother-in-law on a ranch outside the town and is decried as a witch; to Roy Goode and Frank Griffin themselves. It all feels like an extremely traditional Western, at times almost a cliché. That is exactly the point. Once Godless gives us the outline of events and introduces us to the players, it delves right into developing its characters, something it does quite well.
Godless is rooted in its characters, even more so than it is rooted in the hardscrabble terrain of the unforgiving Wild West. TV veterans will recognize some faces in this show, but it isn’t a star vehicle for any one actor or actress. It’s a true ensemble cast who together help create a world which may be difficult and dangerous, but one in which you want to spend a lot of time.
One could not ask for more sumptuous visuals than the ones found on Godless. The old saw about the scenery being so important that it’s an actual character absolutely applies here, thanks to cinematographer Steven Meizler. A longtime assistant cameraman on Steven Soderbergh productions, he deserves to be a household name at this point.
While Soderbergh serves as Executive Producer on Godless, the show does not have the typical Soderbergh tone. If you’re looking for The Knick set in the Wild West, you’ll be disappointed (although Godless does feature Knick alum Jeremy Bobb as a particularly nervy newspaper reporter). Each episode of Godless was written and directed by veteran screenwriter Scott Frank, who gifted us with the script for last year’s Logan, and also wrote and directed A Walk Among the Tombstones. As a result, each episode feels like an integral part of a greater whole; there is a consistency here that is not often found in TV shows, even prestige ones such as this.
Although Godless deals with a specific time and place, the story it tells is remarkably timeless: How does one reconcile the conflicting parts of the past and move forward? Godless is an emotionally resonant and stunning saga, especially in an era of postmodern, metacritical pastiche and ironic distance. It’s also one of the biggest television surprises of 2017, and a sets a new, higher bar for Netflix Originals.