Godless is Not the Feminist Western You’re Looking For
I know, it seems like forever and a lifetime ago since we got anything even pretending to resemble a feminist Western. There was Bad Girls, where Drew Barrymore and a weird ensemble ran from Pinkertons, The Quick and the Dead where Sharon Stone turned in all of her sexiness for baddassery, and everyone’s favorite Western hot mess, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Let’s be real: we all wanted to earn a medical degree and move West, even if every inch of that show was super problematic (I see you, Sully, and your weird, culturally-appropriative ways).
Honestly, it seems like I’ve been waiting for my awesome feminist Western since the 1990s, so when I saw the trailer for Netflix’s Godless I figured this was finally it. JFC, there’s even a deputy, with the unfortunate name of Whitey, who is eerily reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Kid from the Quick and the Dead. My 1990’s teenage heart was aflutter.
Unfortunately, Godless is not anything like what it is advertised to be.
The set up seems pretty sweet: in a New Mexico mining town, eighty-something men go down for work, but mining is dangerous and awful and every single one of them dies. Cue ladies living lives on the frontier, 1880s style. Natives! A town settled by Buffalo Soldiers! Lawmen! Rape!
So. Much. Rape.
The rapeyness of Godless should be the first sign that the show cares very little for the female POV. The first episode opens with a shot of all the dead people in a small town where the Big Bad has rolled through. The only survivor, a child-like woman who sings of the love of Jesus in the midst of train wreckage dotted with corpses, never even gets a name. Instead it’s the posse who rides into town that we get to follow, their horror and disgust when they realize that this terrible, Bad Man (Jeff Daniels* in a role that feels like a rip off of Vincent D’Onofrio’s brilliant, creepy role as an ultra religious frontiersman in the recent remake of the Magnificent 7. Also, D’Onofrio did it much better) has lynched an entire town, including a small child.
This opening shot sets the tone for the entire show: rugged men, a victimized woman, and lots of meaningless death.
The men are constantly panned to and focused upon: their fears, their amazement, their lust, their frustrated dreams. The women serve as set dressing. They are violated in order to be saved by the heroes (literally, there are two different episodes where this has happened by episode four of a seven episode run) and there to show us how the West destroys dreams, most especially the dreams of men. The sheriff, who maybe just needs a good pair of glasses, abandons his kids to hunt down a fugitive in a last ditch effort to prove his masculinity. A hunting trip goes awry when a Native boy’s grandmother proves able to better exist with the land than either of the men. The town of nearby Black settlers is only revealed because the deputy has a thing for the pretty daughter of one of the settlers. And on and on and on. Men are the center of every story line, and when the women appear it’s as interlopers rather than as fully fleshed out characters with hopes and dreams and goals.
(We could also get into the PoC as set dressing, but honestly, I expect very little from Westerns when it comes to including non-white characters, so at least they get to exist in this series.)
This isn’t a feminist Western, it’s a Western with lots of female side characters.
And honestly, this is such a disappointment because Netflix really could’ve done something different. This was a chance for them to show us that they aren’t Bargain Bin HBO, that they aspire to be their own thing. But Godless is more like an updated version of Deadwood than anything else. It’s a beautifully shot but emotionally dead Game of Thrones in the old West, but without magic or dragons and with all of the unnecessary rape, completely lacking of anything fresh or exciting.
And if that’s something you’re looking for, this show will be right up your alley. But for me?
I just want Netflix to be a little better than they are.
*I originally had Jeff Bridges in here instead of Jeff Daniels and someone emailed to point out that they aren’t the same person. But honestly, how are they not? Both are utterly forgettable, yo.