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Critiquing "Godless's" Gun Battle, part 1

In my last article, I praised Godless for essentially being a modern Western done right. Yet, for all the praise I could heap upon it, two particular things remain that I cannot applaud: a) Whitey Winn's demise, and b) bad visual effects. In this article, I shall talk about Whitey. In the second, I shall discuss the visual effect gaffs.

Here goes.

Whitey is shown throughout the show, wooing a local girl, who, in turn, survives a genocidal attack on her home by Frank and his men. Whitey saves her with ease, returning to La Belle afterward in order to plan the siege against their combined, impending doom. During this intermediate planning phase, he spouts dialogue that makes him sound much smarter than the show initially presents him as, beforehand. In any case, he is certainly much faster than everyone around him (despite letting Mary Agnes "beat" him in a drawing contest). He appears smelly, cocky and dim, but is in reality smart, fast, and brave.

Or so it would seem.

Alas, the good die young. So, too, does Whitey shuffle prematurely off this mortal coil. Yet, when he does, it's not in a way that feels satisfying. Rather, it's because the show changes its mind with a bit of transparent, lazy writing completely incongruous within an otherwise-superb outing.

Thus, our youthful, ace deputy dies right before the big fight, at the end of the show. To add insult to injury, he is slain the moment he steps outside by a man with a knife. I can appreciate the irony of a throwing knife beating a pistol. What I can't appreciate, however, is how lame of a writing device this is, regarding how Whitey is actually portrayed, in the show. In fact, it makes no sense to me, at all, unless the writers hoped to surprise the audience, who, up to this point, had been led to believe that Whitey would live... or at least not die before the fight even starts.

For me, it was akin to watching my star sprinter trip on the starting line, only to sprain his ankle. It's not his fault, though; it's the writers'.

Let me be clear, here: The fact that Whitey died didn't bother me, in and of itself. Point in fact, I enjoy a film that can kill a beloved character in a way that doesn't feel cheap or lazy. Say what you will about Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) being killed by arrows, all because he left his shield by the canoe and got ambushed; his eventual fall was at least foreshadowed consistently in a way that didn't clash with the way his character onscreen had been portrayed, up to that point. With Boromir, I actually bought the way he cashed in his chips; in Whitey's case, I did not. It was effectively the show's green eggs and ham, and I'm not about to eat it.

What bothered me with Whitey is how he died—or rather, how altogether stupid and entirely avoidable it was. Why didn't he simply hold up in the fire-proof town center with Mary and Alice? What worked for Emilio Estevez in Young Guns (1988) also works for them, in their bastion: They wield Winchester rifles, a weapon that is constantly celebrated in the show as unstoppable, to the degree that Roy is able to hold off thirty horsemen whilst shooting at them, from the sole cover of a lone, dead steed. Likewise, during the siege, Mary and Alice rain down shot after shot onto the attackers' heads, with virtually no danger to themselves. Eastwood may have beaten Volontè's Ramon, with a .45, in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Here, Godless's gang members are nowhere near as skilled. But if skill is what it takes, why does Whitey die at all, apart from the fact that the writers force him to?

In the end, Mary and Alice survive. Whitey does not, forced into a situation where he could be killed, purely for that and nothing else. It just feels like the writers wanted be ironic, here, having the fastest shot in the movie meet an ignominious end, much like Tsuyoshi Ihara's Hirayama, in 13 Assassins (2010), or Seiji Miyaguchi's Kyuzo, from Seven Samurai. Both of those men were champion fighters without peer amongst their own kind. Yet, one is slain by an idiot clutching a rock; the other is shot by a bandit with a musket.

The difference between their fates and Whitey's is theirs isn't insulting. They have a chance to prove their merit in battle, and are killed after having done so. Furthermore, their deaths don't contradict either a) themselves, as characters in how they're portrayed, or b) their role as samurai. On the other hand, Whitey's demise makes him look inexplicably incompetent as a deputy and stupid as a person, when, up to that point, the show had been trying quite hard to repair and reinforce his image as someone who was neither of these things. At the last second, it changes its mind. Sleight-of-hand is fine, provided it works. In Godless, it doesn't, because all of our attention is on Whitey as he is killed. As he dies in slow-motion, there's nothing to distract us.

One theory I have concerning his death is that the focus of the battle was largely between the widows and the bandits—with McNue and Goode only sweeping in, at the last moment, to save the embattled ladies, when things are at their darkest (this, itself, a tad absurd, given McNue's constantly-advertised blindness seems not to affect him at all, despite his arrival coinciding with a spontaneous sandstorm, which would make it hard for a person with normal vision to see and shoot, let alone him). I suspect the writers desired to take Whitey out of the picture as soon as possible, as to emphasize the fact that these women are ostensibly battling it out on their own (with the exception of the stable master). But am I to believe the writers of the show couldn't think of a better way to go about it? For all intents and purposes, Whitey, on his way out the door, may as well have tripped, fallen on his gun, and blown out his own brains, like White Boy Bob in Out of Sight (1998). At least, in that film, it was funny. Here, it's just frustrating.

To be fair, I think I can understand what they were trying to do: have Whitey die and for another woman to join the widowed ranks— to be united, at least in spirit, with those already bereaved. Or, as Takashi Shimura's Kanbe Shimada said, at the end of Seven Samurai, "Again, we have lost." There, the tragedy works. In Godless, Whitey's inclusion alongside the unlucky miners as part of the show's bodycount just feels forced. And to make matters worse, Whitey's eulogy is delivered by a preacher who inexplicably shows up in the last ten minutes of the show merely to give the young man a benedictory send-off no one in the show (or out of it) actually wants to hear. As I heard him monotonously drone on from about death and how horrible it is, I felt like I was watching Tommy Wiseau's The Room (2003). I wanted to shout "Who is this guy?" at the screen.

To try and be fair, the show does mention him, earlier on, but I insist: Why pass the buck to a no-name MacGuffin when you could write actual, meaningful dialogue delivered by someone we want to hear from? "Yes, Mary, why did you, as someone who constantly looks after Whitey, permit him to stay outside, effectively to die; and yet, you cry harder at his funeral than anyone else?" I don't quite buy it. Here, it's not the actors' faults, either. Meritt Wever and Thomas Brodie-Sangster do a fine job with the material given. But no amount of tears shed by the former, nor shock on the latter's face, will disguise the fact that the writing is lazy and transparently so.

Maybe the point is "shit happens." Life is an idiot's tale, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Even so, I would add, that doesn't automatically qualify it as entertaining. It would have been, had Whitey's final actions—and by extension, the screenplay—made any sense, at this critical juncture. Except they don't. That's why Mary doesn't talk at the end. There's just no explaining why he's killed in a way that's admissible according to how Mary actually viewed or treated him, up to that point. Perhaps if there had been a scene where Mary implores Whitey to join her and Alice in the near-impregnable fortress, but he refuses, they would have addressed how stupid he was acting. No dice.

Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1968) has anything offscreen be invisible to both the audience and the characters onscreen. Thus, Angel Eyes can sneak up on Blondie and Tuco despite wearing spurs and standing on open ground for miles around. Perhaps if Frank's posse in Godless had arrived on site with a similar level of unannounced spontaneity, the shock of Whitey catching a knife in the chest would have worked better. But his killers are ostentatiously exhibited, shown entering the town, riding past widows, and generally making as much racket as they can, prior to Whitey being killed. When he is, it's because he walks out to meet them. What's especially irritating about how this plays out is the fact that the show tries to make it seem like a shock. Granted, it is—just for not for the reasons advertised. Watching Whitey walk out into the street like a lamb to the slaughter was like watching my favorite pet get euthanized in slow-motion, for no reason other than someone good and narratively-substancial had to die.

Make no mistake, plenty of other characters in the show die. Lots. Probably the biggest red herring apart from Whitey is Sam Waterston's marshal character (whose name I freely admit I forgot as soon as I heard it). At least he provides a good scene or two prior to his a memorable-albeit-unfortunate end; and his role is mostly for laughs, to begin with, and to point out how properly screwed La Belle is. We're not meant to care about him. As far as Whitey goes, we are. More's the pity.

As for the battle, many women and bandits die. But just about all of them, as I can recall, are tertiary members of a large ensemble cast. Some of them are recognizable. Most are frankly cannon fodder, with just enough of an introduction spent on each to induce some kind of emotional response when they kick the bucket (mostly the women, in that regard; the bandits, apart from Frank, are by-and-large carbon copies).

Yet, the biggest, most lasting emotional response I had during the big battle was the kind you generally don't want when watching something: wanting to pull one's hair out. When Whitey died, I experienced this. If he had been a character with less screen time, I wouldn't have cared. But the fact of the matter is, he was given a great deal of it. What was the point of all these scenes with him, including a romance subplot that takes up a substantial portion of the show's screen time if it effectively goes nowhere, in the least-satisfying way possible? I cannot stress the word "least-satisfying" enough, here. Have him die. Go right ahead. Just do it in a way that actually adds up.

Part of this, I suspect is due to the miniseries length. It tries to do a lot. Perhaps, there are simply so many good characters here that not all of them can be fully explored or tied up neatly in a hour-long climax. Then again, perhaps not: Kurosawa's aforementioned Seven Samurai sports a large cast of samurai, bandits, and farmers, yet also manages to introduce, explore and conclude the subplot of each by the time the film ends (and with a runtime of roughly three-and-a-half hours, it's considerably shorter than Godless). Then again, it's one of the greatest movies ever made. Godless, while it is good, isn't that good.

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  1. Whitney dying that way, without any glory.... I really hated that. Really dumb too because there could have been some great, heroic scènes with him. I didn't like the way t hat the massacre in Blackdom was filmed ; it looked hasty. On the whole it looked like the series was meant to be eight episodes long but that they shortened to seven in the last moment. And Roy leaving ? I expected that buy I didn't expect the sheriff to take his place so soon.

  2. Don't forget he did walk out of the sheriff's office where you would expect the law to come from, against the light knowing full well as he discussed with Maggie that they needed to be in a place with some advantage. I took it as he always was all about the fancy tricks with his guns and wanting to be an iconic gunslinging sherrif, he was blinded by this ideal and bravado and went out without thinking it through. I was disappointed that he didn't take a few with him but it fits in with the message even despite Frank Griffin's Mantra, you never really know how or when you're gonna die.


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