“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Shot the Head Off a Snake”

Another series of flashbacks reveal how Roy came to be the ward of Frank Griffin in the first place, but this too is mishandled. The episode’s cold open shows Frank and a young-adult Roy getting caught red-handed with stolen horses, nearly getting hanged before their associate Gatz Brown comes to the rescue. Frank tells Roy to finish off the angry ranch owner whom Gatz had merely wounded; this is his first kill, and Frank rewards him with a gun, indicating that both his skill with the weapon and his willingness to use it are relatively recent developments. There’s something vampiric about this induction into Frank’s bloody brotherhood.

The next flashback segment jumps us way back in time to Roy’s childhood, showing the day he departed from Sister Lucy Cole’s orphanage when it became clear his brother Jim was never coming back from his job hunt in California. From there, we follow him to a town where he steals a horse that winds up belonging to Frank, who takes a shine to the kid as a fellow orphan. When Roy first meets the rest of the Griffin gang, then a much smaller bunch, Frank describes them as one big happy family. “These are your brothers,” he tells Roy. “And I am to be your pappy. A good one, too. I won’t mistreat you, I won’t beat you, and I won’t ever lie to you, ever.” As best we can tell by how they’re shown interacting during the horse-theft episode several years later, Frank kept these promises.

But that’s the problem: We already know how things go. The first-kill incident is the logical conclusion of Roy’s origin story, but the show places it first, removing any sense of mystery or anticipation about how this innocent but resilient little kid became a crack-shot lieutenant of one of the West’s most notorious outlaws. You might be curious about what came before, but you’re not worried or intrigued or frightened or moved or anything more substantial. Once again, a ton of time is dedicated to building up to a foregone conclusion.

I reviewed episode five of Godless for the A.V. Club. It’s fascinating to see all the ways this show manages to be not-great but also not bad at the same time.

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