Historically, at the same time that the U.S. was trying to reconcile the North/South rift after the Civil War, many white Americans preferred the quasi-expartriate life of the West (as modeled by John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, or by Owen Wister's titualr Virginian). Rather than face defeat in the south, Westerns provided a narrative escape from having to reckon with the new legal status of African Americans in the nation's reformation. In essence, one of the greatest motifs of the West--the nomadic cowboy--was a metaphor for a white nationalist refusal to be a part of the post-Civil War nation.
Godless (Netflix, 2017) trades the escapist, white nationalist myth of U.S. exceptionalism and the West for domestic inclusivity. Frank Griffin (Jeff Bridges) oft repeats his death-defying catchphrase,"I've seen my death...this ain't it," ever-growing his mythology—until it doesn’t. Just as many white Americans today are unwilling to see U.S. exceptionalism as a white nationalist mantra, Griffen’s end is inconceivable to him even as his inevitable death comes. The series repeatedly punishes nomadic, anti-domestic models of white male violence, and permits the more grounded, domestic models of masculinity to prevail. In Godless, the men who opt to diffuse explosive situations where possible, choosing family over gun-slinging glory, tend to win. Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), for example, only partakes in violence in this scene to preserve domesticity, rather than as a means of running from it. Godless also hauntingly confronts white viewers' racial anxiety through the massacre of an entire community of African Americans--a scene that may merely feel out of place in a genre that has historically been a whites-only space in the years following the U.S. Civil War. There are few Westerns that offer new models of masculinity, or confront the genre’s complicity in white nationalism, as Godless does.
Reading the Western genre as a historically white nationalist coping mechanism, we can better engage with, and challenge, twenty first century additions to the cannon, asking: How are racial tensions over slavery confronted in Westerns, whether African Americans are present or not? How is masculinity (de)constructed in these narratives and how does that contribute to or challenge the ethos of U.S. exceptionalism? And in what ways do new Westerns offer alternative models for domesticity that grow the nation’s inclusivity, while not shirking its culpability for the past?