When I was a kid I read a lot of westerns. There was this kind of western novellas, very small books, or booklets, which you could buy in newspaper stands in Portugal. My father used to buy me some, and I read dozens and dozens. They weren’t very good, far from it, but taught me a few lessons in writing, mostly because the plots were very similar from one another. There was the tired and retired gunslinger that wanted a peaceful life but had to stand up against the powerful oppressors. There was the sheriff everyone considered a coward for this or that reason until he finally stood up as well. There was the hard woman who fought against bandits that wanted to take her land, usually helped by a tired gunslinger looking to settle. And there were tales of revenge, of course. The plots barely changed, so I would admire the tricks the writers used to twist something or to make the story a little bit original. And then I became a fan of Louis L’Amour, a master of the genre.
And so it was with both nostalgia and excitement that I started watching Netflix’s GODLESS 7-episode series a few days ago. Most of the familiar themes were there: the tired gunslinger, the apparently coward sheriff, the hard women facing overwhelming odds, the young wannabe gunslinger, the cruel and scary band of pistoleros harassing the powerless. Well produced and directed, as you’d expect from Netflix, it has good dialogues and good writing and with the excellent acting of the likes of Jack O’Connell, Michelle Dockery and Scoot McNairy, among others, it was a treat to watch. And then there were the impeccable performances of Sam Waterston and the brilliant Jeff Daniels. It was the kind of series that would become a favorite of mine and I would herald it to the seven winds until hell and high water… If it wasn’t for a fatal flaw.
There are these two crucial concepts that professional writers and filmmakers know all about: the concepts of buildup and payoff. I will speak again of these when I talk about rhythm and Hitchcock and Hemingway, next week. Simply put, build up is the creating, managing and building of tension inside a story. Payoff, on the other hand, is the reward for that tension.
Think of it as investment, both of writers and of audiences. When writers and audiences invest time and attention span on a particular character, detail, description, plot-point, storyline, they will expect an equivalent return on that investment. If they invested a lot, they will expect to have a good and proper reward. If they don’t invest much, they’ll expect it is not a very important item to invest in. So when you make a great buildup of something, you expect a large payoff, or you’ll feel ripped off. And when you do a slight build up, and suddenly the item is crucial to the story you’ll feel something is wrong and the story was poorly arranged.
I sometimes refer to JURASSIC PARK and how Spielberg prepares us for the grand entrance of the T-Rex. He has set-up the scene already, when Grant (Sam Neill) shows how amazed he is that the Park has a T-Rex. But at the moment the giant dinosaur is about to appear, it all starts with a glass of water. A glass of water that vibrates on the dashboard of an SUV. And the frightened faces of the children, feeling what’s coming. That’s the buildup of tension. And so we feel a great payoff when the monster shows up to chase them. This is a good buildup and a good payoff, equivalent in span and power.
See also, in GAME OF THRONES, the effect of that massive 9 minute battle scene, now known as the legendary Battle of the Loot Train, when (SPOILER) Daenerys attacks the Lannisters mounted on a dragon. There has been a buildup of several years and dozens of episodes to get to that massive scene, and the scene corresponded to that investment, so the fans loved it.
Now let’s go back to GODLESS. (SPOILER ALERT) The whole first 6 and ½ episodes are a great buildup to one thing: the 30-plus hard men riding with the outlaw Frank Griffin will fight a battle with the almost-entirely-female citizens of the town of LaBelle. And the gunslinger Roy Goode will face Griffin himself in that battle. That’s it. That’s the whole series in a nutshell. That’s all there is to it. So if you know anything about buildup and payoff you know this: that battle has to be a major-absolutely-incredible-unforgettable-astounding battle. That’s how you justify the whole investment in the series. And the thing is: it’s not. The battle is not fantastic. It’s just a lot of uninteresting shooting, where the bad guys are mostly overrun from beginning to end, without any chance of overcoming their fate, being shot in the street like fish in a barrel. And the last gunfight between Goode and Griffin is also dull. There is nothing unexpected or surprising in the climax of the series. Or, in fact, the unexpected and surprising part was the failure of the payoff. It just fails. I felt ripped off, and I bet you felt it too. They destroyed the whole series in one bad sequence. Even the moment Frank Griffin and his men faced the Buffalo Soldiers a few minutes before was a more enticing scene than the intended climax.
So there it is. I felt disappointed by GODLESS. I enjoyed (basically binge-watched) more than 6 hours of good drama. I was excited, interested and taking pleasure in all of it. Until the last half-hour. And now I can only feel disappointment. That last battle might have worked a couple of decades ago. It’s well staged and executed. It just doesn’t have any plot-points. It’s just too easy and too bland. The same for the gunfight between protagonist and antagonist. There’s no excuse for something like this in this day and age.
Do you agree? Disagree? Do comment.