[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Godless.”]
The Old West was a lawless place, where nothing was certain except for dust and hardship. On Netflix’s limited series “Godless,” outlaw Frank Griffin was certain about one thing though: how he wasn’t going to die.
“This ain’t my death,” he says over and over again like a mantra. Whether he has a noose around his neck or a shotgun pointed at his heart, he holds onto that unshakeable belief. “This ain’t my death. I’ve seen my death; this ain’t it.”
Jeff Daniels, who portrays Frank Griffin, spoke to IndieWire about that infamous line. “If it were a song, it’d be a good hook,” he said. “You preface that with, ‘Is this it? No, it’s not it. This ain’t my death. I just checked. Didn’t get the feeling that this was it.’ And that’s kind of all he goes on.
“He sits there in the middle of some gunfire simply because he knows this isn’t it because God speaks to him, or he hears voices, whatever’s going on in Frank’s head. There’s Michelle Dockery pointing the gun at me. ‘Is this it? This ain’t my death.’ And she misses.”
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In the end, one person doesn’t miss. Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), the man Frank had adopted as a boy and raised as his own, had turned his back on the outlaw life and his adoptive father. In a beautiful clearing, the two have an intimate showdown, and Roy is about to finish off Frank with a bullet to the back of the head. But even in that moment, Frank still mutters, “I’ve seen my death. This ain’t it.” Roy informs him, “You seen wrong,” and pulls the trigger.
“Even at the end, he doesn’t think it,” said Daniels. “That’s [series creator] Scott Frank. You’d think Frank’s going to go, ‘This is my death,’ yet Scott does the opposite.”
That level of conviction must come from something concrete, but Daniels never tried to even imagine what Frank’s vision of his own death was.
“I didn’t. I don’t have to,” said the actor. “What that feeds is a casualness and a certainty based on absolute confidence. Because he didn’t get the sign, that’s all he needed. And so if that’s all Frank needs, that’s all the actor needs, and you find the way into that. Believe what he believes. You don’t need to know why.”
Scott Frank confirms that he never had a specific vision in mind for Frank to believe was his final ending.
“I just thought it’d be very interesting if you had a guy who just believes your time isn’t now,” said Frank. “His belief is borne out because he just can’t seem to get killed… And I just thought there might be just a kind of humor to it, that it might even be funny. It’s still scary and funny at the same time.”
Frank’s Twisted Point of View
This ambiguity, even when it comes to death, is at the core of what makes Frank Griffin so fascinating and frightening. He’s a villain of true contradictions, a nurturing man who can gentle a horse, raise an orphan boy, and nurse the sick. But he’s also fine with ordering his gang of outlaws to lynch an entire town, including children, to make a point. It’s difficult to understand his motivations and predict what he’ll do next.
“It’s okay to be confused because he is,” said Daniels. “I don’t think Frank knew what everything was. That’s why it was so fun to play him. He is so conflicted. He is so dysfunctional. He is so in need of a team of therapists to sit him down and go, ‘Let’s talk about when you were stolen as a child and you watched your family annihilated, and then you saw the man who stole you wearing your old father’s clothing…’
“He’s screwed up, and there weren’t any therapists around for Frank Griffin,” Daniels continued. “You’re watching a guy who doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. Or now he is quoting the Bible because that’s a sense of solace after he just put a bullet in a guy’s head, and now he’s OK again.”
After Roy decides to leave Frank’s gang, that feels like the ultimate faithlessness.
“In Frank’s world, in Frank’s reality, in Frank’s normal, it’s a stronger bond to have taken a child and raise him than it is to actually bear that child,” said Daniels. “Frank thinks that’s a stronger bond, and ‘How dare you betray that?’ When [Frank] sees [Roy] early in the series it’s, ‘What are you doing?’ But then that becomes an out-and-out betrayal of someone who Frank views as his son. At the end of the day, when he realizes Roy isn’t going to come back, then it’s ‘you versus me.’”
Unfortunately, going after Roy meant that everything and everyone else was just in the way.
“If you didn’t get what you want, then you got a gang of guys, and you got guns, and you went and got it,” said Daniels. “The law was an annoyance, a nuisance, a speed bump between Frank and what he wanted. That’s how Frank viewed it. Then when it came to trying to find his son and all of that, that’s all he saw, and he would do whatever needed to be done to resolve that situation.”
When Frank finally learns that Roy is hiding out in La Belle, New Mexico, he and his gang swing by Blackton, a nearby town settled by former Buffalo Soldiers. Although he claims to not want trouble when he sits down to dinner with the leading family, a shootout ensues, which ends with everyone in town killed. Frank ends up killing a man across from him, but is chagrined to realize that man wasn’t even armed.
“There’s a bit of guilt and remorse: ‘Why didn’t you just tell me? Then you wouldn’t have a bullet in your head,’” said Daniels. “The thing that Frank says at the end: ‘You didn’t even have a gun,’ is not the standard button on a scene. That’s what Scott is so good at. It’s just that thing that comes out of the character’s mouth that you don’t expect.”
Frank’s Putrid Arm
Perhaps the most unexpected and baffling move by Frank is to hold onto his severed arm after it’s been amputated. He wraps it up in a bit of cloth and ties it to the back of his saddle. He doesn’t really do anything with it, except for the one time he decided to travel in the direction that the hand was pointing. Instead, it tends to attract drone flies, which look like bees.
Daniels explains, “It’s not something you just throw away, so you keep it with you. That’s it. That’s the depth of the ‘why’ [he keeps it]. But that’s all I needed. For Frank, it was, ‘I’m going to take my arm with me. My arm, not yours, doc.’”
Scott Frank said, “He’s just a disturbed, sick person and I think that he’s not going to leave any part of him behind. It’s just so ridiculous.”
The last viewers see of the arm is when Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) finds the charred remains in a campfire. We don’t witness when exactly or why Frank decides to finally burn the appendage, but it happens right before he sets off for La Belle.
“He does eventually [get rid of it] because it gets so putrid,” said Scott Frank. “He can’t keep it anymore. The other guys in the gang are complaining about it.”
“Godless” is currently streaming on Netflix.