Netflix's Godless is a western turned slightly topsy-turvy. Much of it takes place in La Belle, New Mexico, a town populated almost entirely by women. The men of the town died in a tragic mining accident, leaving Scott Frank, the writer, with a handy ability for this western to pass the Bechdel test. The women of La Belle are still women in the fabled "wild west" — i.e., they are sometimes just damsels in distress — but they get the opportunity to be more than just male-adjacent accessories. Tess Frazer plays Callie Dunn, a sex worker who turns to school teaching after the accident. Without men, there isn't much use for the brothel in town, so Callie co-opts the space for the children's school. Despite her career, she's one of the two most powerful women in La Belle. As she proudly tells her lover Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), she is sitting pretty on $20,000 of cash. (That's almost half a million in today's dollars.) You can make a lot of money in the lawless west through sex work, it turns out.
For Frazer, the show presented a similar opportunity: She could be a fully-realized woman character in a western, hang out with a stellar cast of women, all while learning to do traditionally "masculine" stunts like shoot and ride horses. And, Frazer enjoys the show's most optimistic storyline. While people die around them, Callie Dunne and Mary Agnes, two women left widowed after the accident, fall in love. Refinery29 spoke to Frazer just before the show came out about Callie, the rules of the Godless world, and what she calls "cowgirl camp."
Refinery29: Callie Dunne is obviously the richest person in town. Do you think this makes her the most powerful as well? I think of her as almost the de facto mayor.
Tess Frazer: "Well I would say Mary Agnes is the mayor of the town. She's in charge. And I think Callie is actually happy to have had some peace in a way, when all the men died and people stopped visiting [La Belle]. She did give up her life of being a prostitute and opened up a school, which was kind of a positive outcome out of a horrible thing that happened. So, it's an interesting journey that I think she's gone through. She has found a more quiet life after not [being a sex worker] any more. And she always knew Mary Agnes, but they only recently start developing this relationship when the show starts."
She's just the wealthiest woman in town.
"Yes, from prostituting. She did what she had to do, and she was very successful at it. I don't think she's making any money from the school."
What was it like, training for a western in an all-women town?
"We had so much fun. We girls became such friends. It was a blast. And the guys were there, too, because there are a lot of scenes where we shoot the guys! Well, we're in a battle with them. We called it Cowgirl camp. Horseback riding, shooting."
You get to play out one of the sweeter storylines in the show — it just so happens to be a gay romance.
"It's really awesome, because obviously there were homosexual relationships going back to the beginning of humans. And we just haven't seen them in westerns before this because those western films were made in the 1950s! Of course, they wouldn't show that. So I think that it is progressive to have it in our show, but at the same time, I think it's truthful, because I'm sure that it did happen in many instances. And I think it's cool that it's being shown and it's this real, romantic relationship that happens to be between two women. It's also historically accurate that there were obstacles in the 1880s. But our relationship didn't come about until the town was so abandoned and all the men are gone — what are the rules anymore? Might as well live our lives."
Yes, it's a unique move to have all the men die.
"That was something Scott [Frank, the writer] said really did happen in history, too, which hasn't been shown in a western film before this. Those mining accidents were sadly pretty common. "
Do you think Callie approached Mary Agnes or Mary Agnes approached Callie?
"Good question. I think it developed over furtive glances across a room. And probably Callie was the aggressor."
You think she sidled up to her in the saloon?
Do you think the relationship with Mary Agnes was something that Callie anticipated, pre-accident?
"Well, a theme that kept coming up that I wanted to honor was that these women may have a positive outlook, and may be strong, but there's no way you can come out of that profession completely unchanged or unscathed. And I think that having been with so many men might have an effect psychologically, or even sexually. It might have been a really nice change to be with a woman after all that. There's something safe about it.
I do think that Callie really loves Mary Agnes. But she might not have anticipated being gay. "
Obviously, "godless" means there are outlaws and evil men like Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), but it seems as if the benefit of a godless world is that there aren't any laws to cast moral judgement.
"Exactly! Because back then you would have thought you were definitely going to hell [if you were gay]. But then, they think, 'Why not? Let's just be together.'"
This story has been edited and condensed for clarity. Godless is now streaming on Netflix.
Read These Stories Next: