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6 things to know about 'Godless,' Netflix's star-packed limited-series western

Kelly Woo
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Jeff Daniels as Frank Griffin in Godless. (Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix)

Go West, Netflix viewers.

This Wednesday, the streaming service debuts the limited-series western Godless, featuring an all-star cast and created, written, and directed by Scott Frank (the screenwriter behind Out of Sight, Logan, and Minority Report).

The seven-episode series centers around the New Mexico town of La Belle, a mining community ravaged by tragedy. An injured outlaw named Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) is on the run from his former boss and mentor Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and seeks shelter at a farm just outside La Belle owned by the widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery).

With Roy comes big trouble, and aging sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) does his best to protect his people. But Frank and his gang are tearing up nearby towns hunting the turncoat, and a showdown looms.

Here are six things to know about Godless.

1. It was a long time coming.

Even a wagon train out West didn’t take as long as it did for Godless to make it to the screen. Frank first had the idea for it back in the early 2000s.

As he tells Yahoo Entertainment, “I wanted to do something completely different and write something that was in a different genre for me. And I always wanted to write a western. I knew they were sort of out of favor at the time — I was starting to write this in 2002, I think it was. I was really into the idea of creating that world, working in period, learning how people spoke. And I loved watching them, so I thought it would be a lot of fun to actually do one.”

Though that is a very long labor of love, Frank is used to it: “Everything I’ve ever done that I’ve cared about has taken a long time, for whatever reason,” he says.

2. It’s (sort of) based on a true story.

When Frank began writing, he had no story, no characters, no plot. During an extensive research period, he “zeroed in on New Mexico because I liked the mountains there,” he says.

From there, he narrowed it down to a mining town after watching 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Then, his researcher told him about mining towns decimated after an accident that killed all of the men.

“I went, ‘Oh, well, that’s it!’ That became everything,” he says. “Then, it became about identity, who these women were before the accident and who they were after the accident. And identity is very important in everything I write. So all of the characters began to flow out of that.”

Merritt Wever, center, leads the ladies of La Belle as Mary Agnes. (Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix)

3. It started out as a feature film.

At the start, Frank penned Godless as a three-hour movie script, but after having trouble securing a director, he decided to do it himself — and also expand it into a miniseries. That meant more than doubling its length.

“It was almost like a reverse adaptation,” he says. “In a film, you have limited amount of real estate with which to tell your story. In expanding it, there were a lot of characters I wanted to go deeper with and wanted to explore.”

One of those is the sheriff’s sister, Mary Agnes, played by Nurse Jackie‘s Merritt Wever. As the widow of the town’s mayor, she literally wears the pants as La Belle’s leader now.

“I was very nervous and scared to do it though,” Wever says, “because on the page I saw her as so tough and strong, and I wasn’t really feeling that way and didn’t know if anybody would buy me as tough or strong. I think I kind of leaned into her vulnerability as I could, all the ways she wasn’t so tough or that she wasn’t so confident.”

Jack O’Connell as Roy Goode. (Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix)

4. It’s a classic western…

A murderous outlaw. A noble lawman. The tough-as-nails widow. A greedy mining company. Flinty Native Americans. Sweeping vistas. Unforgiving deserts.

Check, check, and more checks — Godless has them all.

“I really wanted to embrace every single western cliché,” Frank says. “I didn’t want to reinvent the aesthetic of westerns; I didn’t want it to be modern. I wanted to embrace all of the stuff that made old-school westerns.”

One of those tropes is the complicated relationship between Frank Griffin and Roy Goode. “Their father-son relationship, the betrayal involved in that relationship by [Roy] leaving him, was as essential to me as the town full of women,” Frank says.

Merritt Wever as Mary Agnes. (Photo: James Minchin/Netflix)

5. …but with fresh perspectives.

Godless may not exactly give the western a totally modern spin, but it does touch on some nontraditional storylines — like Mary Agnes exploring a new side of herself in a blossoming romance with the local prostitute turned schoolteacher Callie (Tess Frazer).

Wever notes that the same-sex relationship isn’t meant to indicate Mary Agnes’s marriage was a sham or one of convenience. Instead, she says, “I started looking at the accident in the mines as a tragedy but also something that, in a way, opened up a space for Mary Agnes to live her life a little differently and a little bigger. In a strange way, it was an opportunity — an opportunity for all the women, though they may not see it.”

For Mary Agnes, that opportunity isn’t just romantic either. “That’s why she fights so hard for them to retain control of the mine. She sees this as an opportunity to get some financial control and power over their lives,” Wever says.

6. In the West, family is what you make it.

Just as Mary Agnes lost her husband and found a surprising new lover, all of the characters form relationships in unexpected ways.

“Roy, if he hadn’t left the woman who’s raising him, he never would’ve met Frank. Alice came out to New Mexico to meet her husband — she meets him, he dies in a flash flood, and suddenly she’s living with Paiutes for four years. And Frank was coming out on a wagon train from Arkansas when his family was massacred, and suddenly he’s living with one of the men who massacred his family as his father,” Frank says. “Everybody, if you think about it, is leading a life they didn’t intend to lead.”

Godless premieres Nov. 22 on Netflix.

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