Scott Frank’s Godless, which begins streaming its seven episodes on Netflix on Nov. 22, welcomes you with an opening montage of earth and death. As the camera takes its time panning across a circa 1800s Western town-wide massacre, the colors of the land, the dust, the clothing, the sky range from oatmeal to beige, until the lens sickeningly settles on bright red blood. On a child. A man hanging. Another lying in the street. It’s the villainous work of a religion-defying, one-armed robber and killer, Frank Griffin, played with scenery-chewing relish by Jeff Daniels. That missing limb is courtesy of his former protégé, Roy Goode (Skins’ Jack O’Connell), who stole his former boss’ loot, and ran off to La Belle, New Mexico, a mining town with almost no men or miners, where he hides in the barn of one of the many town widows, Alice Fletcher (Good Behavior’s Michelle Dockery). The beats quickly start to feel predictable. Which game of cat and mouse, the murderous one or the flirtatious one, will end better? Griffin and his gang are on the hunt to do some serious damage to Goode, threatening everyone they meet that withholding information equals death. Meanwhile, the damn fine Goode has caught the attention of Fletcher, who isn’t even remotely convincing when she says she wants him to stay with her to break in her wild horses. (One tortured exchange goes like this: “I look you in the eye and you don’t seem so stone cold to me. You seem lost.” “Ma’am, I’m bad luck.” The lost guy, the bad luck. It works in every century!).
But this ambitious show, which executive producer Steven Soderbergh reportedly convinced Frank (best known for writing scripts like Out of Sight and Logan) to turn into a series rather than a movie, doesn’t limit itself to that triangle and love and death. Godless keeps its world as expansive as the vast plains, so beautifully shot on location in Santa Fe. The supporting cast (including Scott McNairy, Kim Coates, and Daniels’ Newsroom costar Sam Waterston) is strong, but no one is more electric than the always extraordinary Merritt Wever, who manages to elevate every series she graces with her presence — from New Girl to The Walking Dead — to a higher plane. Her Mary Agnes is sleeping with a former prostitute, wearing men’s clothes, and trying to convince the women of La Belle to rely on one another and not sell out their town’s resources to a visiting chauvinist. “I’m done with the notion that the bliss of me and my sisters is to be found in child bearing and caregiving,” she proclaims.
And yet, the series still sometimes feels self-indulgent and self-congratulatory, with its looooooonng shots of horses running through water or tousled-haired townsfolk looking out in the distance. And heaven forbid any editor chop out even a syllable of a Daniels-delivered monologue in service of moving that story along. (Be forewarned: only two episodes of the seven clock in at under an hour.) At least when Wever is on screen, schooling a shop owner with her pistol on why he can’t insult her niece, the show seems to find a more comfortable stride. A Mary Agnes series? Now, that sounds divine. B