Well, as the poet T.S. Eliot said, “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.” What’s that mean? That the past is always with us, and irreversible, no matter what we wish for. Put in plainer terms, in the context of this week’s topic, not so long ago there were dozens of western dramas made for U.S. TV and popular around the world. What they promoted is now inescapable.
Such shows as Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Bonanza and many others sold a myth about men conquering the dangerous frontier and battling allegedly uncivilized Native Americans. The honourable act was to pick up a gun and shoot. Women were moms, schoolmarms or sex workers. A fixed world and a lethal fantasy. Then those series disappeared; what they were selling was suddenly troublesome, unsettling and shockingly simpleminded.
The English (streams Amazon Prime) is new, a great, revisionist western drama, a little masterpiece. There aren’t many in that genre, and for good reason. The typical western is, to us today, a crock. Even a revision of the orthodoxy is tricky territory. This one is stunningly good, gorgeous to look at and wildly ambitious as a drama about revenge and barbarity. It’s both epic and intimate, and it never lets its ambitious theme overcome the raw drama of people in constant danger.
Englishwoman Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) arrives in the American West in 1890 on a revenge mission against the man responsible for her son’s death. She’s thrown together with a Pawnee man, the ex-cavalry scout Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), who’s trying to make his way home to a plot of land he was promised for his services but is unlikely to ever own. This improbable friendship might sound like a wish-fulfilment plotline, but both are shockingly alive as people, not symbols. This is a searing, thrilling drama, with violent threats simmering at every turn.
The western myth is strong. You can see it in the appeal of Yellowstone (Paramount+ and Amazon Prime Video) a cliché-laden exercise in extolling contemporary conservative values, while rebooting classic western figures. How to tell the western today without being shallow? If The English offers one perspective, then note there’s the must-see drama Godless (streams Netflix, seven episodes), a distinctly serious and subversive twist on the western genre while retaining the essentials. I recommended it when it arrived and rate it even higher now. It’s a big, brave western, culturally penetrating and entertaining in way that makes you savour scenes and dialogue, rather than anticipating the next jolt.
Created by Scott Frank (the movies Out of Sight, Logan) and produced by Steven Soderbergh, it takes an old western template and swivels it, but keeps a core story of ruthless outlaws and one good man. Though mostly it’s about women. The thing about the one good man is that he is protected by a woman who is banished from the local town. That’s Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, as far from her Downton Abbey role as Lady Mary as she can get), a widow living with her son and mother-in-law on a small dusty ranch outside a dilapidated New Mexico mining town. As the story opens, an injured guy, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), turns up in the night. She shoots him but doesn’t kill him. Roy’s on the run, possibly with money, and one Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), notorious for his savagery, will kill, maim and burn entire towns to the ground in search of Roy.
The town is La Belle where most of the inhabitants are women. They’re all dissidents; some have female partners, some are starting families with the local Native American men. They don’t care what the outside world thinks. The really captivating figure is Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) a demon shot and always wearing men’s clothes, trying to convince the women of La Belle to rely on one another and not sell out their town’s resources – another underlying theme – to a jerk capitalist. “I’m done with the notion that the bliss of me and my sisters is to be found in childbearing and caregiving,” she says in a way that’s both fantastical and true.
The traditional western is so troublesome it must be approached from many strange angles, and you could argue that The Walking Dead (AMC, streams Netflix) is a new version of an old-school western, in which the frontier must be conquered again. The western as foundation myth just won’t die.
Finally, here’s a recent arrival in an entirely different genre to seek out – High School (streams Amazon Prime Video) is based on the teenage years of Canadian indie pop duo Tegan and Sara Quin, and their memoir of the same title. No, you don’t need to know anything about their music to savour this quiet, downbeat coming-of-age story. It’s suburban Canada the 1990s and there’s nothing glamorous about it. Identical twins Sara (Seazynn Gilliland) and Tegan (Railey Gilliland) rely on each other, sometimes hate each other and need to find a balance. Both are navigating their realization that they have crushes on other girls. The tone is all quiet empathy for the twins and their parents, and not since Freaks and Geeks has a series been so shrewd about authentic teenage angst.