Crossing the Stream: Part 70 - "Godless"

New Year resolutions are one of the things I grew out of very quickly in life. It just wasn't for me. It's funny, the last two years have proven to be "The Year of..." for me. While 2017 was "The Year of The Self-Published Book" and 2018 was "The Year of the Diet/Exercise Plan," those goals didn't materialize until about March. Why? Well, for the same reason I'm not into resolutions this time of year...I'm lazy, and I naturally spend most of November through January reckoning that I'm on bonus time, and all my hard work can go jump up a rope.

That's my way of saying...welcome to Crossing the Stream now that we've gone through my personal bests back during the summer, and the Big Regression of the holidays. Big Regression is capitalized because I'm setting goals and doing my math based on it. Today is Day One, ABR. After Big Regression. As of this last Monday, I've lost zero pounds since the Big Regression. Today, as I post this on Thursday, it's 4 days ABR, and I've lost a few. I don't want to tell you how many I gained since the Day of All Give-Ups, that's private stuff for me to reflect on during the weekly Mind-Feast. And to think, all this weird structure came from a nasty case of the Fuck-Its.

Okay, I got all that out of my system. Sorry.

Anyway, yeah. The gym is packed with people I've never seen before, so that's fun. What a great time for me to both look and sound like I'm about to keel over and die. I tried going back to my usual workout, and it didn't. Work out. It didn't work out. I coughed and wheezed for hours afterwards, winded like the fat kid in gym class that I still identify as. I did a quick inventory of the way I've been eating the weeks or so, and I'm both ashamed and disgusted. I think I might as well have been brushing my teeth with Oreo frosting the last two weekends, and who among us is to say that pizza isn't a vegetable? The US government decided it counted as one for school lunches, but then again, that was back when we had a functioning government, so maybe I should stop dragging it too hard.

So, I don't do resolutions. Or any goal for the year, specifically. But this year, I do plan on starting things out better than I ended them in 2018. So, for starters, it's the gym every weekday at lunch. It's this weekly post to keep myself accountable. It's coffee and water only to drink, for the most part. It's no more sweets at all, a reduction on meats and oils, an increase of fruit and vegetables. And above all, it's me trying like hell to identify my patterns of behavior that lead to this gut, these scrambled emotions, and this inferiority complex, and try to discourage those behaviors.

From what I've seen the last better part of a year, my modus operandi seems to consist of a cycle of imagined transgression followed by over-the-top attempts at contrition that fail quickly. But the real story behind my office catchphrase ("What'd I do?") is an ever-present guilt for all my inaction. I do so much nothing, it's not even funny. I plan things. I imagine and plan and outline, but when the time comes to do the thing, I'd rather move on to the next plan. This passes as imaginative and ambitious, right up until you check in with me a week later, and I'm like, "Oh, that. Right. I better do that. And not this other thing, which I'm now obsessed over. I'll be thinking about this other thing the whole time, but yeah. Let's go do the thing."

This is a critical flaw in any regular routine. My ability to get up and go to the gym on my lunch break is terribly unimpressive even if you remove how heavy I am. It's not a miracle. I went to the gym, I didn't want to appear foolish, so I started exercising while I was there. When folks ask me what I did to lose the weight that I did, I tend to shrug and chuckle and say, "I ate less and exercised. I did that a lot, for weeks." So, let's eliminate the obstacles toward my new weight goals one at a time. Step one: I can't plan anymore. I have my whole plan:

Eat less. Exercise. Get up. Do it again. Even if you don't want to. Especially when you don't want to.

Planning's done. Let's get after it.

"Godless" Episodes 1-7

Why choose to watch this? Well, a few reasons. One, I've been in full western-mode since November on account of my own cowboy story I'm writing. Two, it's almost impossible to go into a Netflix series knowing nothing about it, and here's a grand opportunity. When "Godless" released, the only words I heard about it were "this isn't as good as it thinks it is," which is an easy pass, right? Who needs it. But then I started thinking...maybe this is one of those situations where I find this show fascinating when everyone else finds it painfully dull, because I'm a gigantic nerd for horse opera.

If you happen to remember "Godless" at all since it dropped on Netflix in fall of 2017, it was billed as a very timely story set in America's frontier past, a #MeToo wrapped in a #YeeHaw, if you will. Summaries are still quick to point out that the fictional town of La Belle, New Mexico is under attack and the twist is that the town is populated almost completely by ladies. But I'm here to tell you that the "town full of widows" after a mining accident kills all the men is very much the Inglorious Basterds segment of this show. Just as Brad Pitt and his fearsome squad of Nazi-maiming, Jewish commandos only appear marginally in a film that they headline, Merritt Wever's Mary Agnes and the resilient ladies of La Belle don't quite equal out as the primary protagonists. They mostly function as components of the story's setting, with little C-plots and D-plots of their own, several of which are simply dropped or forgotten. That doesn't save them or their feminist struggle from landing as subtly as an anvil in spots, especially when Wever is saddled with actual lines of dialogue like "I'm done with the notion that the bliss of me and my sisters is to be found in childbearing and caregiving." Woof. I mean, I fully agree with messages like this, but...that's just a stinker line. 

Luckily, Wever is the most prominent character on this portion of the show, and she's absolutely terrific. A character like Maggie, the demur wife turned trouser-and-gunbelt clad badass protector, is one that could easily be a plank of wood, or an outlandish cartoon. Maggie is neither. Wever gives the character a surface-level misanthropic streak, but like Robin Weigert before her on "Deadwood," she's able to layer a lot of pathos behind the hard stares and prodigious barbed one-liners. The B-level character that really shines in this portion for me is Whitey Wynn, the lanky boy-man deputy struggling with forbidden love, played with an energy and adolescent glee by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the former Jojen Reed of "Game of Thrones." Brodie-Sangster is having so much fun as Whitey that it woke me up and kept me interested during the pokey first hours. Honest to goodness, if the series had just been Maggie and Whitey trying to protect La Belle just the two of them, that's one hell of a show that I would have loved.

Michelle Dockery seems to be Netflix's idea of who the main character is, judging by the way they marketed the show. Could. Have. Fooled. Me. Alice, the rifle-brandishing horse rancher and #StrongFemaleLead might have the least lines of any principle character, and never strays far from her resting "maternal disapproval" face. She gets to heft her rifle and look menacingly cool, but that's almost it. Even after her mysterious backstory is revealed, there's just not enough to convince me she's integral to the story. That's kind of fine, since Scoot McNary is quite compelling as one of the real leads, a sheriff coming apart at the seams and unable to the task in front of him, and who rides headlong into it anyway. A true revisionist western hero, there's nothing skillful or special about him other than his resilience against great misery. Unfortunately, we see less of his adventure than we do the sleepy, contemplative tales of Roy Goode and the towering inferno of plot progression and hammy Bible imagery of Frank Griffin.

Roy Goode, in classic western anti-hero fashion, is a deadly man who has done terrible atrocity and still manages to be tender and mystical with horses, paternal with a young man under his tutelage, and a dashing love interest for Alice. Jack O'Connell plays Roy, who of late is trying to make amends for his life as a desperado, as an actor might play an understated Clark Kent without any hope of getting to play Superman. It fits the character just fine, but it makes for a weak antihero to lead the main plot. Jeff Daniels, the most recognizable actor in the series, is meanwhile gnawing on scenery as Roy's sociopath mentor and surrogate pappy, Frank. A mad titan king of the New Mexico territory, Frank is just as classic an archetype as Roy: he leads a locust-like band of outlaws, he kills and rapes and robs indiscriminately, and he is also a deeply philosophical, emotionally wounded man who adheres to his own special self-written code that borrows conveniently from the Bible when it suits him. Daniels, in small moments, is doing wonders. He's showing vulnerability between the cracks, he informs on the character's thoughts with the slightest of eye movement or sneers. In big moments, of which Frank is almost exclusively made of, he suffers from comparison to Jeff Bridges' rusted over Rooster Cogburn voice and look. Make no mistake, it's fun over-the-top, not too garish to enjoy, but Frank is a character written to be too many things at once.

As a matter of fact, if this whole series sounds like entirely too much all at once, that's because it is. "Godless" is a real kitchen-sink Western; it wants to be the bloody, gritty, violent spectacle and the somber, picturesque period drama at the same time. It wants to tell a simple story about morality, and also a complicated grey tapestry of politics, race, sex, family, and history. And it challenges you to follow along whenever it shifts back from one to the other. And here's the thing: it totally works moment-by-moment. Any one of these things would be a terrific show on its own, but the constant juggling of them all is too much. "Game of Thrones" is able to do that stuff by segregating plots and characters for long periods of time, and by building to some of it over years. "Godless" seeks to do the same in seven episodes, and it could be called ambitious, but I'd lean closer to calling it shapeless, or scatterbrained.

There's just something off about the show's structure that way. It doesn't feel like a centralized story, a unified plot. It feels like four or five separate yarns that take place intertwined with each other. That prospect should invigorate a genre fan like me, but instead it just ensures that no one of those plots ever reaches the point of urgency it needs. Some things help: McNary's Sheriff McNue is rapidly going blind, turning the plot into a "one last ride" kind of deal for him, which lines up well with his quarry, Frank, who incessantly tells us that he has "seen his death" and assures every foe that they are not the one to show him the dirt. The mining company's quiet invasion of La Belle is a terrific season-spanning plot, but it's hard not to tell it only in broad strokes in order to get back to Roy, Alice, Frank, and occasionally McNue.

Sam Waterston's grizzled Marshal character says in the opening hour, "A man needs something to proceed himself, apart from rumor," and that line stuck with me thanks to "Godless" having nothing of note to hang its hat on, with the exception of misleading marketing to capitalize on the current cultural climate. Not the bizarrely Shakespearean dialogue of a "Deadwood," nor the razor-sharp character mill that "Justified" enjoyed. It doesn't really have a Big Thoughts kind of theme, either, with the widowed town and each character's individual struggles constantly overshadowed by the ongoing plots that can never go on. As Netflix's stab at a serious, post-post-modern western, it smacks too heavily of algorithm-shaped, AMC and HBO standardized prestige television. That feels weird for the genre, but it also just feels weird for "Godless," which was always planned as a limited series, something akin to a "Lonesome Dove" novel-length run time.

It sounds like I hated it, but I really can't when there's something for everyone here. The performances are worth the investment of the entire mini-series, and though I've watched a lot of breathtaking Westerns with panoramic vistas lately, this one still caught my breath. Contemplative drama, gritty violence, effervescent natural lighting, lots of horses, robberies, shootouts, arguing over silver mines, biblical imagery, all the hallmarks of a western grab-bag are present, but that might be to the detriment of "Godless." The more stitching together is done, the easier the seams are to spot. But the cut of this frock is quite fetching, nonetheless.

Notes & Quotes:

-Episodes range from 40 minutes to 90 minutes. That's ridiculous. There's no reason for it. I suspect Netflix had a lot of beard-stroking meetings about how to stretch "Godless" into ten installments, or at least eight. The penultimate episode is the sparse 40-minute one, and still contains two meandering montages that fast-forward through some inconvenient plot points that needed sewing up before the big showdown.

-Holy cats, that CGI snake looked terrible. This whole show is full of bad CGI critters getting their cobs blown off, but that snake also appears so randomly that I couldn't help laugh at the supposedly tense situation or the sidewinder's startling demise. Oh well, at least it has some top notch horse acting in it. Can't deny that.

-As plodding as the show gets at times, I'll take any and all sequences of quiet horse-whispering that "Godless" will give me, It's gorgeous to watch, and that's one of the chief advantages the series has. 

-(Daniels, as Frank, chewing on his villainous monologue, suddenly swatting at the air) "What is with these infernal bumblebees?!" Man, that was sure a moment.

-Whitey the deputy has a cute reversal of expectation when his adolescent pistol-twirling antics in the first two hours give way to an action-hero level of accuracy and speed when confronting hooligans in the street. I liked that.

-"I've been known to kill a man or two."
"So's lightning."

-I neglected to mention Sam Waterston's performance, but he really gets very little to do, other than make a joke or two about his mustache and good whiskey. He's great at that, though. I just wish we could have gotten one joke about "Hang 'em High" McCoy actually hanging someone.

-"Aw Maggie, I got all these feelings. It's like I've gone and sprained my heart."
"Pfft. Ain't nothin' so fragile as a young man."

-I might have been hard on Jeff Daniels, but there's nothing more viscerally Western than the way he leans into referring to all parents as "mammy" and "pappy." I don't know why I found a speck of truth in that bit of his performance, but I did.

Rating: C+

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