Thursday, November 23, 2017

REVIEW: 'Godless' - An Injured Roy Goode Rides Onto Alice Fletcher's Ranch in 'An Incident at Creede'

Netflix's Godless - Episode 1.01 "An Incident at Creede"

When an injured outlaw shows up at her ranch, a headstrong widow sees that her life - and the lives of those close to her - will never be the same.

At first glance, Netflix's Godless seems like a daunting show to watch simply because of the running times for each episode. The season is only seven episodes long but many of them run for over 70 minutes. In the streaming era where running times keep growing, that seems particularly extraneous. Sometimes, the art of condensing down can really aide the storytelling. It forces the creative team to only fit in what is absolutely necessary without getting rid of the beats that will make it all have meaning in the end. And yes, this premiere is bloated in some instances. However, it's a very effective episode of television as well. The Western genre is very popular for a reason. It seems unlikely that anyone will be able to find a new and original spin on it. Between this and HBO's Westworld though, the genre appears to be getting some new life in television. That's very good because stories like this lend themselves to this medium very well. Of course, Godless is only intended as a limited series. It will be curious to see how the story reflects that desire and if Netflix will actually hold true to that promise. The streaming service has aired limited series before only to renew them for additional seasons. The biggest example of which is probably 13 Reasons Why. So, it should be curious to see what happens to Godless. In the first episode at least, it presents itself as a very compelling drama that has interesting things to say while also being a proud return to the Western genre and all of its familiar tropes. Some elements are pretty conventional. And yet, that's exactly what one should expect in a story like this.

And so, the main thrust of the narrative appears to be this ongoing conflict between Roy Goode and Frank Griffin. Roy is being positioned as the white hat-wearing good guy. His name reflects that. And in this opening episode, he literally shoots a snake to keep it from killing a baby. That highlights his heroism even though the rest of the narrative props him up as a deeply troubled man. He is in conflict with the black hat-wearing villain that is Frank. That character has familiar plot beats as well that signal his villainy. He literally interrupts a church service to threaten to kill the entire town if anyone is caught helping Roy hide out. It's not an empty threat either. This premiere depicts how he viciously destroys an entire community just because his plan is interrupted by Roy's suddenly noble actions. Frank is a character who could easily be over-the-top with these devious tendencies. He keeps proclaiming that the current situations he finds himself in aren't going to lead to his death. His left arm needs to be amputated early on in this premiere. But he's still a badass terrorizing the region. He's on a personal mission to find Roy. And yet, it's a compelling performance because of how quiet and understated Jeff Daniels is playing the role. That's unexpected and a really welcome change of pace - even though it doesn't change the basic plot function of the story.

It's also meaningful that Roy is rendered mute throughout a lot of this premiere. He was fleeing Frank and his gang when he wanders onto the ranch of Alice Fletcher. She happens to shoot him in the neck. She only misses his head because there isn't enough moonlight. That's just a great badass moment that shows that Alice isn't someone to mess around with. Her introduction to the series proves that she is the one in charge who is just as capable with a weapon as everyone else. That's very empowering and different. It still leads to a familiar story where she is caring for the man she shot in the dark. She is helping nurse him back to health. And yet, she is unwittingly doing this. Plus, it's mostly her mother-in-law, Iyovi, doing the majority of the nursing. Alice is just telling Roy that he can't stay here for very long. She doesn't know him and doesn't have the resources to allow him to stay for a long period of time. And of course, he quickly proves his worth in being able to tend to the horses in a way that no one else can. Plus, he's curious about the ranch that Alice and her family have. He wants to know how she ended up here. That's a really colorful story as well. It's one that begins by total destruction and sheer luck. That once again proves that Alice is a fighter. It strengthens the relationship between these two even though it's also obvious that they are hiding things from each other.

For Alice, the secrets she keeps pertain to her husband and her place in the local community. La Belle, New Mexico is a mining town where the majority of the men have died. On one hand, it's very inspiring to see a western centered around the idea of a female community. On the other hand though, there are only two female roles of great importance in this opening episode. And they are still fighting against a sexist society that wants them to conform to a certain way of life. Sure, it's great that Mary Agnes, the sister of the sheriff, is dressing in menswear because it's more comfortable and there's the need for someone to fulfill that traditional role. But the majority of the story about this town is told from the male perspective here. The sheriff, Bill, is the introduction to this world. He's the one who rides into town and is criticized by every woman there that he is essentially a coward. It's only later on that it's revealed that the rest of the able-bodied men died in a matter of minutes during a mining accident. That's pretty vicious. But the story mostly highlights how out of touch Bill truly is. He doesn't know the recent terror of the Griffin Gang until his old friend, Marshal John Cook, rides into town believing this to be an enticing target to the men of Frank's gang. Again, the show is being pretty blunt and upfront about the realistic portrayal of the time. It also then just casually goes off to set up mysteries in Roy's own story about stealing from Frank but losing that loot quickly thereafter. It's all very interesting. But it is potentially problematic as well in a way that may go against the show's core message.

And yet, the last twenty minutes or so of this premiere are truly gripping television. So much of this opening episode is exposition. That's always to be expected. But this world truly starts coming together the moment John tells Bill about the incident at Creede. There was the immediate expectation that that story had significance because of this episode's title. Everything opens with John riding into Creede and seeing the devastation that Frank left his wake. That opening sequence is agonizing and so visceral just by seeing the aftermath of this vicious attack. It is something that immediately resonants with the characters and the audience. And then, the premiere actually shows what went down during this robbery gone wrong. It easily could have been a story told to the audience. A tale passed around this community that no one experienced first hand. But the creative team understands the power in actually showing it. Plus, there are still a number of mysteries left to be solved because John doesn't know the full story yet. It's just so explosive to see how Frank's gang operates and how horrible they are. Roy comes in as the perfect hero and savior. He's more skilled with a gun. He's able to fend off over 30 men and seriously injures Frank. But in the end, Roy is unsuccessful in stopping the gang from pillaging another mining community. This time the destruction is even more immense because they return to kill every single man, woman and child in this town. That sends a message immediately about what kind of gang this is. It also sets up that nice twist in the end with Roy feeling remorseful and choosing to turn himself in to Bill. Of course, Bill is a little too skeptical about Roy being who he claims to be. But it's still a very enticing note to end on. The target is on Roy. This town is in danger because of his presence. And so, this escalating war is about to be pretty damn interesting. Frank and his gang are already riding in a beautiful shot across the river.

Some more thoughts:
  • "An Incident at Creede" was written by Scott Frank and directed by Scott Frank.
  • Everything about that opening sequence is ominous. It starts with the direction and the way it is just slowly building the dread of what horrors have occurred here. But it continues with the sound design as well. The clicks of the distress signal can still be heard. Meanwhile, the singing from the only survivor keeps fading in and out. It's an intriguing effect that really unnerves the audience too.
  • Frank makes peace with losing his arm very quickly. He knew what the outcome would be the moment he went to the surgeon. It just makes him more determined to hunt down Roy. But will the loss of his arm be a good or bad thing in the story? It could be good because it makes him a different antagonist who needs to be taken down differently. Or it could be a hindrance because he's used to going through the world with two arms.
  • Bill is mostly defined as being the cowardly sheriff. Of course, he's also a widow who has a young daughter with a lackluster education. He's also going blind. The first time Bill is seen. His face is covered in a mud-like substance that he needs to wash off quickly thereafter because it is just too annoying. Plus, he's naked through all of that which makes for quite the introduction.
  • It's also established that there may be a romantic dynamic between Bill and Alice. Yes, it's lame that these badass women also have to be confined to more traditional romantic stories. As such, it's lackluster when Bill is standing there proclaiming to Alice that he's dreaming about his wife less and less. He worries that it's because his love for her is growing despite her not making her feelings for him clear.
  • Alice and Iyovi are completely skeptical of Roy. They don't want a stranger on their property for a long time. And yet, Alice's son, Truckee, is completely enamored by him. He sees that he is great with horses right away. Plus, he's quick to invite him in for food and translates whatever Iyovi is saying while making it sound more positive.
  • Of course, Roy did a solid job in covering up his tracks so that it's difficult for Frank's gang to find him. But John warns Bill that it's very likely that Frank Griffin is coming this way because of the prospect of taking advantage of an all-female town. So, it may just be a complete coincidence for Frank. He's making an educated guess about where Roy is. Delaying that for awhile may be how the show keeps this conflict going for most of the season.

As noted in previous reviews from shows that release their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.