The Violent Ending to Netflix's 'Godless' Offers Hope for a Season 2
This post contains spoilers for the Netflix series Godless and discusses its ending in detail.
Just in time for Thanksgiving, Netflix released Godless, a brutal Western mini-series best consumed over the Thanksgiving weekend alongside mounds of re-heated leftovers. With its beautifully photographed widescreen vistas, lengthy episode run-times, and mix of recognizable genre elements -- the show's main plot follows a handsome young gunslinger (Jack O'Connell) hiding out from a domineering outlaw father figure (Jeff Daniels) -- the series is as familiar as your aunt's stuffing recipe. It's not necessarily great, but, hey, it's around and it fills you up.
But did the finale leave you stuffed and satisfied? Or did the show's blend of loquacious monologues, extended horseback riding montages, and unnecessary flashbacks feel undercooked? From a storytelling perspective, the ending to Godless felt definitive. The show's creator Scott Frank, who wrote and directed all seven episodes of the series, has a background as an ace Hollywood screenwriter, penning crime scripts like Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and A Walk Among the Tombstones along with co-writing the recent super-hero Western riff Logan. He first developed Godless as a feature for director Steven Soderbergh, who serves as an executive producer here, in the early 2000s, but encouraged by the creative freedom and heavy pockets offered by streaming services in the era of Peak TV, Frank refashioned his movie as a TV project. Unfortunately, the final product often feels like a thoughtful, pulpy film stretched thin.
Still, Frank knows how to go out with a bang -- or, more specifically, many bangs. As the side plots fall away and Daniels's Frank Griffin, along with his band of rootin'-tootin' cowboys, converges upon La Belle, a town run mostly by women after a mining accident killed most of the men, the action picks up. The show's most compelling character, Merritt Wever's Mary Agnes McNue, briefly takes center stage, picking off bad guys with a rifle from the roof of a hotel like she's in the climax of a Sergio Leone film. Now that the dust has settled, it's worth taking a closer look at the finale's shoot-out and speculate about what the outcome could mean for the show's unclear future.
Who died (or survived) Godless' big battle?"Homecoming," the final episode of Godless, is a welcome change from the proceeding hours because it has something rare: a sense of urgency. (Though Episodes 5 and 6 were the shortest of the whole series, clocking in at under an hour each, they also felt the most inessential.) After searching far and wide for his surrogate son, Frank Griffin is on the warpath. The women of La Belle are stocking up on firearms. Scoot McNairy's visually impaired sheriff Bill McNue is on his way back to defend his community. Roy Goode has unearthed his hat, pistols, and a bag of money from its hiding place. The stage has been set for a High Noon-style face-off between good and evil.
"Ain't nothing but pure-ass luck gonna save us now," cracks Mary Agnes.
When Griffin pulls up in front of the hotel and the bullets start to fly, things get bloody fast. We quickly see Whitey (Thomas Brodie-Sangster from Game of Thrones) take a knife to the heart. It sets an ominous tone, suggesting that every character could be expendable -- after all, Griffin and his men quickly kill off the Buffalo Soldiers in nearby Blackton during an earlier scene -- but that ends up being a bit of misdirection. Most of the main cast members survive the skirmish.
Yes, many nameless women in the town get killed as Griffin's gang infiltrates the interior of the hotel and take their horses up the stairs. (The stunt work on the series, particularly in the scenes involving horses, is often tremendous.) Countless members of Frank's gang get slaughtered as Mary Agnes and Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) fire away from their perch atop the building. There's more than enough death and destruction to justify the show's apocalyptic title. But most of the characters we've grown attached to -- like Mary Agnes, Alice, Bill, Roy, and Whitey's love interest Louise -- survive the massacre. Even Griffin, the show's primary villain, gets away free.
Who kills Frank Griffin?It's a miracle that Frank Griffin, sporting one arm and carrying no weapon, emerges from the smoke of the big gun fight with his life. After Roy and Bill arrive to offer some last minute relief to the women of La Belle, Griffin slips away in the chaos. One detail the show hammers hard over the course of the seven episodes is that Griffin, a man who wears a preacher's collar and spews vaguely Biblical proclamations like Al Swearengen dropped curse words, has seen his own death. It's a prophecy that gives him the invincible swagger of a Cormac McCarthy villain. He goes sauntering into deadly situations, like entering a house filled with smallpox, with the confidence of a righteous warrior protected by god's grace. He can't be killed because he says so; it's a perverse tautology that gets tested in the finale's closing moments.
After escaping La Belle, Frank attempts to bring the young Native American boy Truckee under his nefarious wing, but Roy confronts him and tells the boy to run away. The two former friends amble out into a lush green field and Frank removes his collar, along with his shirt, for one final gunfight. They trade shots. Frank stumbles and a wound grows on his bare chest. "I seen my death. This ain't it," he gasps. "You seen wrong," says Roy, and shoots his former mentor right in the head.
It's the type of grim one-liner that wouldn't sound out of place in a Coen Brothers film. While much of the flowery language that peppers Godless feels like it comes from historical research into the time period and a deep understanding of the genre, it's in those little staccato moments that the show finds its surest footing. Often in Westerns, it's best to be quick to draw. Unfortunately, much of Godless feels tentative and unsure. For a long-running show, that can be fixed in later seasons. For a limited run series? It can be deadly.
Is there room for a Godless Season 2?Despite some serious flaws, there's an interesting show lurking inside of Godless. As other critics have pointed out, the show's marketing materials over-emphasized the "No Man's Land" aspect of the story, promising a more female-driven series than what Scott Frank ultimately delivered. The town of La Belle is only one part of this story. Instead of spending more time in this unique community, where women have learned to survive together, Frank gives up valuable screen time to thinly drawn characters like the gutless newspaperman A.T. Grigg, an archetype that's as dusty as Jeff Daniels's beard. There's no shortage of fascinating stories to tell about the Old West and at times Godless feels overwhelmed by the possibilities. The last shot of Roy gazing out at the blue ocean of in California seems like an acknowledgement of just how vast the canvas here is.
What could potentially help clarify some of those problems? A second season. At the moment, it appears Netflix has no plans to continue on with the show beyond these seven episodes and Scott Frank's comments about continuing the story have been non-committal. ("You never know, but right now I don’t know what it would be," he told the Hollywood Reporter.) But recent shows like Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why, Big Little Lies, and The Night Of, which were launched as stand-alone's, have inspired sequels or speculation that they might continue. If enough people watched it in between football games and family gatherings over the last week, Godless could be in a similar position.
More importantly, it would also be in a position to tell a different story in this world. By resolving the rivalry between Roy and Frank, the show is now free to explore some of the less conventional character dynamics hiding out in the margins. Ultimately, Godless is an old-fashioned Western in revisionist clothing: It's more interested in tweaking classic tropes and slyly referencing old works than in completely reimagining them. Again, that's fine for a weekend of leftovers. But the ingredients are there to create something more long-lasting.