While never quite descending to the grotesquerie and vileness of Deadwood, Netflix’s Godless is doubtless a grim and Gothic western. The limited series presents no shortage of disturbing scenes: a sick house littered with smallpox victims; rapist slavers wearing buffalo heads; a family butchered by a pair of sociopath sons. Godless features a quintessential Gothic hero-villain, in the dangerous person of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, in a deservedly Emmy-winning role). A revenge-obsessed amputee (who carries around his rotting, bug-swarmed arm like a creepy keepsake), Griffin recalls Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. With his penchant for twisted preaching, he also traces his literary lineage back to the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Furthermore, Griffin is responsible for a massacre that gives a wicked twist to that American Gothic staple, the angry mob scene.
In the opening episode, “An Incident in Creede,” a brutal train robbery by the Griffin Gang is foiled by former member Roy Goode, who intervenes and speeds off with the money from the heist. When Griffin and his men leave to give chase after this rural American Robin Hood, the surviving members of the the Creede community apprehend the deviant Devlin brothers (who’d been incapacitated by Goode) and quickly sentence them to death by hanging. The public execution, though, takes a spectacularly violent turn when Griffin (his left arm now a dangling wreck after taking a bullet from Goode) and his outlaw entourage double back into town. Rescuing the Devlin brothers from the noose is not enough; Griffin commands his band of bandits to murder the people of Creede and burn every last building to the ground (the town is reduced to an apocalyptic ruin). “Them sons a bitches lynched the damn mob,” recounts Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston), who in the series’ opening scene was driven to his knees by the sight of a young Creede boy strung up high by the Griffin Gang. The stunning reversal of fortune in Creede (and Griffin’s ominous promise to decimate any community that harbors Goode) sets the stage for the rest of Godless‘s engrossing run.
I don’t want to misrepresent this series by painting it as uniformly dark; there’s plenty of (dry) humor and (tear-jerking) romance splashed across the dramatic canvas as well. Godless offers jaw-dropping cinematography, the sprawling scenery forming an incredible backdrop for the broad cast of richly-drawn characters (heroes and villains alike). An epically good western, Godless is as strong an original series ever to stream on Netflix. I could shoot myself for not having followed its trail sooner.