This review contains spoilers.
For those hoping that the recent Netflix mini-series “Godless” would be a story of strong women braving the late nineteenth-century western frontier without the help of any men, prepare to be disappointed. Instead, the series demonstrates the harsh realities of the world and how real men are of absolute necessity.
“Godless” also seems to demonstrate the vital role of religion in a well-ordered society and culture. Finally, and most importantly, the series invites its audience to rediscover the vital role that fathers play in the lives of their sons.
The series begins at the scene of a mass massacre, an entire town wiped out by Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his murderous gang of outlaws. Griffin is searching for a traitor to his gang, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), and vows to kill anyone who helps or harbors Goode. Goode lands in La Belle, a town largely populated by women due to a mining accident that took the lives of some 60 men.
Despite his status as a fugitive and former gangster, Goode proves to be handy around Alice Fletcher’s horse farm. Since the death of Alice’s husband, things haven’t been going so well. She has more than 30 horses that need to be broken, a water well that needs completion, and a son who lacks the skills needed for surviving in the western frontier. Goode takes on and completes all three tasks for Alice in short order.
Back in La Belle, the female-dominated population has its own problems. For starters, the mine is no closer to returning to operation, which leaves the women vulnerable to a greedy corporation looking to take advantage of the situation. The women also find themselves bickering over simple leadership decisions and stuck with Mary Agnes at the helm. Mary Agness seems more concerned with her lover, Callie Dunne. Little do they know, but their secret (harboring Goode) is also about to be put in the newspaper by an odious and unethical reporter.
Fallout from the Lack of Good Men
At any rate, the absence of good men and subsequent fallout is made clear over and again in the series. The story portrays to the audience three, and only three, virtuous men. They help restore the lives of the women of La Belle in a way that was seemingly impossible before.
The young Whitey protects the town from wandering outlaws with crack shooting, the nearly blind town sheriff Bill McNue attempts to track down the villainous Griffin, and the aforementioned Goode show what is possible if just a few strong and virtuous men step up and take responsibility. These three strong and virtuous men are contrasted with weak and evil men throughout the series.
Writer/ director Scott Frank makes it abundantly evident that La Belle’s women can do whatever it takes to survive in the absence of men. They are tough and generally fearless in the face of much adversity. Additionally, the big shoot-out at the end is all about women taking care of business. However, while the women have done well to overcome certain circumstances, Frank seems wont to demonstrate that the women need men to sustain their town. Yes, women can survive without men, but can they thrive?
It also seems that La Belle not only needs men, but also needs God. The town’s inhabitants need God to defend against those who might try to become or present a false god. They need God to defend against corrupt business men, a corrupt media, and the like.
When We Lose God and Good Men, Then Regain Them
During the series, townspeople build a church and anticipate the arrival of a pastor from back east. Griffin, the villain, wears a pastor’s collar and is addressed as “pastor” by strangers he meets. In one disturbing scene, he happens upon a house of people who have contracted small pox. He prays with the people, feeds them, makes them comfortable, then murders all of them.
One begins to fear that the “pastor” La Belle is anticipating is indeed Griffin, but thankfully it is not. The genuine pastor finally arrives to a freshly erected church building in time to conduct Whitey’s funeral. Finally, here all seems right.
“Godless” is a tale of what happens when the presence of strong and virtuous men is lost and then again comes forth. It is a tale of what happens when religion is removed from a society and culture. It seems Frank, like many, cannot make sense of a manmade system of ethics and warns us of the chaos that ensues without a “third party” intervening.
Put simply, women need men. Men need women. And we all need God. It is implausible to expect that a proper ethic of life will arise from altruistic men simply using their reason. If history has shown us anything, men are anything but “altruistic” and “ethical” in and of themselves.
If men are the arbiters of ethics, those men will always bend the “ethics” to their will. Recall the corrupt mining corporation, the corrupt reporter in our story, and the false pastor, outlaw, and murderer Griffin. If there is no God dictating his laws to us, then men such as these will dictate the terms.
When a Man Loves His Son
“Godless” also demonstrates that boys need fathers. This is most clearly shown in the relationship between Goode, who had no father, and Truckee, Alice Fletcher’s son, whose father died. This portion of the plot occupies a majority of the time in the series and perhaps illustrates its overarching theme.
Goode teaches Truckee how to ride, how to hunt, how to shoot, and more importantly, how to use intellect, reason, and divine values, only using violence as a last resort when a conflict arises. This relationship is framed as perhaps the most important relationship in the series. Emotionally, Frank does well in attaching the audience to this surrogate father-son relationship.
This series illustrates that men, God, and fathers are crucial components to a well-ordered society and culture. As strange as it may seem, Frank seems to be questioning the Hollywood status quo. That status quo says that men are virtually irrelevant to women and children thriving. It also holds to Nietzsche’s philosophical theory that “God is dead,” and that boys do not need fathers.
In the series, Frank labels all of this “godless.” The most powerful moments in the story are when the men save and help the women, when the church is completed in La Belle and the genuine pastor arrives, and when Goode succeeds in teaching Truckee how to be a man. In essence, “Godless” warns us of a life without men, religion, and fathers.