Godless review: Crack the damn whip already

A ruthless gunslinger discovers his limits in the meandering new western miniseries

Even the western frontier has its limits, and, at the start of Netflix's Godless, a young outlaw seems to discover his own. This is Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), who rides with a legendarily vicious gang. Assisting with the derailing of a train and the looting of its payload, he goes no further, double-crossing his posse, stealing the cash, and playing no part in the ensuing murder of an entire town's population, which the gang undertake mostly to blow off steam.

But grievances remain: Roy’s blazing escape leaves the group’s leader Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) – our frame-filling antihero – with just one arm and a head full of revenge. Such is the contradiction in Scott Frank’s new western miniseries, setting up a showdown in next to no time, then dawdling through several unwieldy episodes in no particular hurry to get there.

If that sounds like a grabby idea stretched frustratingly thin, there is good reason. Writer and director Scott Frank originally conceived of Godless as an epic film, in the mode of Shane or Unforgiven, before finding a home for it a decade later on the streaming service with the input of producer Steven Soderbergh. Just as 19th century writers used to pad heir stories for the demands of serialisation, so Frank embellishes the scope of his western to keep binge watchers occupied. Sadly, it's more dead wood than Deadwood.

The most interesting conceit is the vulnerable town of LaBelle, which lost almost its entire male population in a mining accident, and now exists as a fractious matriarchy, pivoting between self-sufficiency and the hostile takeover of a mining company. Just outside it lives the willowy Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a twice-widowed rancher, who takes in the wounded Roy, as gifted a shot as he is a horse whisperer. Those who like their sexual tension delivered with lip-biting gender parity will revel in the moment our smouldering paragon of sensitive machismo tells Dockery: “If I stayed here there’d be something else I’d want from you . . . Teach me how to read.”

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Even they would be surprised to attend these literacy sessions at such thorough length, though; or another young sharp-shooter's equally romantic music tuition; or the horse-riding lessons for Alice's Native American son. Eventually, you hope someone will teach Godless how to to crack the goddam whip. It meanders instead, like a horse without a rider, grazing on characters and stories with all the time in the world.

Aware that it has become unwieldy, it keeps the storylines conversely simple, hammering home its themes. “There is no higher up,” Daniels yells at a luckless travel party. “This here is the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake… It’s godless country.” And still this outlaw existentialist believes in fate: his death has been foretold, we hear again and again, and he is unafraid of every other threat.

There are interesting ideas and some refreshing roles here, languorously trailed among the endless vistas. Take Merritt Wever’s lesbian widow, tentatively pursuing her butch identity, in a town where a new social structure might flourish or be brutally supressed. But these ideas flare and subside in the slow sprawl of the show, without the assurance of a guiding hand.

Griffin may be right. There is no higher up.