Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for Godless.
Godless, Netflix's new Steven Soderbergh-produced six-part series set in a New Mexico mining town governed mainly by women, has been touted as a feminist Western, two words that typically mean opposite things.
Westerns aren't a particularly woman-friendly genre. Female roles are usually limited to A) Damsel in distress who must be saved by the rough but sweet cowboy; B) Victim of sexual assault who must be avenged by the rough but sweet cowboy; C) Mother figure who is there to feed the rough but sweet cowboy, and/or his posse; D) Vicious seductress sent to tempt the rough but sweet cowboy into abandoning his mission.
Basically, you're either a Madonna, or you're a whore. And that's if you're white. Women of color, specifically Native American and Black women, aren't even given that choice, instead reduced to basic sexual stereotypes.
In recent years, there's been a push to reclaim the genre, with films like Natalie Portman's Jane Got A Gun, Courtney Hoffman's Good Time Girls (part of the Refinery29's Shatterbox Anthology). On TV, Westworld gave us Dolores and Maeve. And now, Godless, a show claiming to showcase women's voices in the harsh landscape of the West.
Except here's the thing. Godless is a show about men.
The action, which mainly focuses on a beef between outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his former protégé, Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), is about as macho as can be. Here's the gist: Griffin and his gang of criminals are on a mission of revenge against Goode, who ends up seeking refuge on a ranch outside La Belle, New Mexico, a mining town still reeling from a terrible trauma. Almost all of the men in the town died in a mining accident two years earlier, leaving their widows and daughters to eke out an existence on the frontier.
We get to know some of these women over the course of the show, which does single out Godless as an outlier among Westerns. There's Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), the sheriff's sister and former Mayor's wife who has shed her husband's name but kept his clothes, which she now wears with a swagger; Callie Dunn (Tess Frazer), a former prostitute who has become the town schoolteacher now that the brothel has closed down for lack of customers; Charlotte Temple (Sarah Soule), owner of the La Belle Hotel now that her husband is dead; and Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), the town black sheep who runs the ranch Roy Goode wanders onto after being wounded in an altercation with Griffin. (She shoots him, then breaks him out of jail so that he can help train the horses. In other words, she's kind of a badass.)
All these women have interesting backstories and complexities — Alice Fletcher, for example, is the widow of a member of the Paiute tribe; her son, Truckee, is biracial — but they lack agency. On the one hand, they are bound by convention. 19th century women, no matter how liberated, can never hold up under 21st century standards. But despite some great female roles, the show still relies on toxic masculinity to move the plot along. The fact that the show seems to condemn this show of manly pride doesn't really do much to make its women shine.
Unlike Westworld, which gave its female characters a narrative arc in which they progressively take charge of their own destinies, or Good Time Girls, which stars Laura Dern and her posse of fierce ladies as gunslingers hell-bent on seeking revenge on the men who have wronged them, the women of Godless don't drive the action. Things happen to them: Their men die, so they run the town; the big bad mining company buys out their claim, so they submit; Frank Griffin comes looking for Roy Goode, so they take up arms to defend themselves.
On the flip side, there are plenty of examples of men pursuing their own agenda: Sheriff Bill McNue (Scott McNairy) goes off to play hero and chase after Griffin; Deputy Whitey Win (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) vows to prove himself worthy of his crush, the lovely Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula); Trukkie, Alice Fletcher's son, is figuring out what it means to be a man in the absence of his father; Griffin and Goode are obsessed with killing each other. There's a lot of talk of the need for men to tone the violence down and talk to each other, but that never really comes to pass.
Don't get me wrong — Godless is a spectacular show, and well worth watching. It's gorgeously shot, intricately woven, and despite feeling a bit long at times, hits it out of the park with the finale. It definitely gives us some impressive female performances, and touches on themes like race and sexual orientation, often ignored in such a white-male-centric genre.
And to be fair, creator, director and writer Scott Frank has actually said that he didn't intend to make a feminist show. “I wasn’t interested in making a giant feminist statement,” he told Variety earlier this month. “I don’t know that I have the right to. What I really wanted to do was focus on characters who never get their stories told, women chief among them. My favourite theme is identity and people being stuck in lives they never planned on living. Most of the characters in this story fit that.”
But still, it feels like a missed opportunity to have built up the conceit of a "no man's land" ruled by women, and fail to deliver on the feminism. Why create the fierce women of La Belle only to have them serve someone else's narrative?