“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Fathers & Sons”

[Circumstances bring] Sheriff Bill within striking distance of Frank for the first time…which the bandit sees coming, presumably thanks to his own scouts and trackers, and responds to by lying in wait. A tense conversation ensues, in which Bill first dissembles about his business, then comes clean when it’s clear the jig is up. Bill talks a tough enough game, but Frank nevertheless senses that something’s wrong with him on a spirit-deep level. Echoing the Native American characters who’ve told the Sheriff he’s lost his shadow, Griffin says “the life has gone out of your face,” and speculates that the true goal of his hunt is to get himself gunned down at Griffin’s hands (er, hand), so he “can die attached to a purpose.” Bill denies this, and Frank seems disinclined to offer him that dark deliverance no matter what.

So Frank and company ride on, sparing Sheriff Bill’s life…because it’s the dramatic thing to do, I guess. Honestly, I can’t think of any other reason a mass murderer who presided over the execution of an even more senior lawman several days prior would let a cop who’d just announced plans to kill him a chance to continue his quest. You could say it’s Frank’s vision of his own death that does it, giving him confidence that no one with a badge will be the one to do him in. Or you could say it has to do with his screwy moral code: tending to smallpox victims and quoting the Bible one moment, massacring entire towns and proclaiming the supremacy of “the god of the locust” the next. But both of these factors are just different ways of saying the same thing. Frank spares Bill, because he’s written that way, because it makes him a cooler villain and gives the story more (horse-)operatic stakes.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Most of the time, even the best genre works come with a side of corn. But nothing we’ve seen on the show so far has added anything of real sustenance to this particular meal. Godless boasts solid, if not spectacular, performances from a suite of likeable TV veterans — Merritt Wever, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Jeff Daniels, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster most notably. They speak clever but not particularly quotable dialogue. Their story is overburdened with B-plots, but it’s still heading toward an inevitable, and I’m guessing entertaining, climactic confrontation. This happens against a backdrop of beautiful Western scenery, shot with an eye for light that’s most welcome when contrasted with your typical murky green prestige-TV palette. All of that is what keeps the show from ever sinking below that little B- grade you see above. But it has yet to reveal any signs that it will get substantially higher, either. Frank’s comic-book behavior and all the show’s other tics and flaws would be easier to accept if it had.

I reviewed episode four of Godless, the very definition of a B- show, for the A.V. Club. 

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