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Review: Netflix's 'Godless'


A TV Western comes to Netflix today. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans reviews "Godless," set in a frontier town inhabited almost entirely by women.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When you think about how "Godless" challenges some of the biggest cliches in Westerns, it's easy to focus on Mary Agnes McNue, played by Merritt Weaver. Mary Agnes, or Maggie, is one of the leaders in Le Belle, a 1880s-era New Mexico town where nearly all the male residents were killed in a mining accident. After the death of her husband, Maggie begins wearing his clothes and his gun belt. She falls in love with the town's schoolmarm. That doesn't go over so well with her brother Bill, the town's sheriff, played by Scoot McNairy.


SCOOT MCNAIRY: (As Bill McNue) You're not maternal no more.

MERRITT WEVER: (As Mary Agnes) Maternal?

MCNAIRY: (As Bill McNue) Well, yeah.

WEVER: (As Mary Agnes) Bill, I love my husband, may he rest in peace, but I'm done with the notion that the bliss of me and my sisters is to be found in childbearing and caregiving.

DEGGANS: In fact, she's so done that when a slick mining company executive shows up to buy rights to the mine, she's the only person who insists that the women in Le Belle can participate as equal partners.


CHRISTOPHER FITZGERALD: (As J.J. Valentine) Now, Quicksilver would take just 90 percent of the claim and bear 100 percent of the cost.

WEVER: (As Mary Agnes) Maybe you didn't hear me before. We want half.

FITZGERALD: (As J.J. Valentine) I heard you, Ms. McNue. And while you may possess a working knowledge of the mine, you are naive when it comes to the business of running it, certainly not on your own.

WEVER: (As Mary Agnes) Now, I think you, sir, naive when it comes to understanding just what we all been through and just how changed we are on the other side.

FITZGERALD: (As J.J. Valentine) Some of you more than others.

DEGGANS: Maggie challenges gender roles the most of any figure in "Godless," but the show gives every major character an unexpected twist. "Downton Abbey" alum Michelle Dockery is Alice Fletcher, a twice-widowed mother just as independent as Maggie. Scoot McNairy's Bill McNue is an earnest no-nonsense sheriff secretly losing his eyesight.

And the show's big bad villain, Frank Griffin, leads a murderous band of two dozen men he's recruited like a twisted adoptive father wearing a preacher's collar. Griffin, played by Jeff Daniels, learned from his adoptive father, a religious zealot who slaughtered his biological family.


JEFF DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin) One of them, Mr. Isaac Haye (ph), was all the time preaching to the men doing the killing about how all things are purified with blood. After he saved my family, Mr. Isaac Haye became my new Papi and one of his wives my new Mami. I learned to love Mr. Haye. He taught me with a stick and a bullwhip and a knife how to love.

DEGGANS: Classic Westerns are often rooted in a myth, transforming the exploitation, sexism and racism employed to build the Old West into a virtuous pioneer story. "Godless," like a lot of modern Westerns, excels by facing that bruising history. It shows how much tougher life was for women and people of color back then.

When a protege of Griffin's leaves him to hide in Le Belle, Griffin's brutal gang comes to find him. And the town's unlikely collection of characters have to step up to fight them just like traditional Western heroes. The show's title even challenges the idea of the Old West as God's country. It's explained in a speech by Griffin to a family that he's victimizing.


DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin) This here is the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It's godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you all going to live.

DEGGANS: I'm a sucker for the stories of justice and revenge at the heart of most good Westerns. And I love it even more when those stories recognize the social realities of the time. "Godless" does all that and more - a compelling reinvention that never strays so far, you don't recognize its classic roots. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.