Merritt Wever is nervous about her new show, the Netflix limited series Godless. “That’s not abnormal for me,” Wever says of her pre-show jitters when we speak over the phone. But, what is odd, she admits, is how nervous she is about her own performance. The seven-episode series, which also stars Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, Jeff Daniels, and Halt and Catch Fire’s Scoot McNairy, puts a feminist twist on the old Western by focusing on the town of La Belle, which is led by females after all of the men died in a mining accident. It’s Wever’s character Mary Agnes who’s leading the charge, working to empower the women left behind. It’s a powerful role, and that’s exactly what concerns Wever.
“I think on the page Mary Agnes came across as very tough and strong and confident and I was a little worried that people wouldn’t believe me in that role,” she says. “So I think I leaned into all the ways that she was vulnerable.”
Looking back on it now, Wever, who is best known as the lovable Zoey Barkow in Nurse Jackie, feels “there’s a version of [Mary Agnes] that maybe, I wish I found a little more joy in playing.” She worries that her more vulnerable portrayal “did [Mary Agnes] or the story a disservice.”
Throughout our conversation, Wever returns to this idea that she didn’t properly serve her character, saying her performance was one born out of “severe self-consciousness.” And that after reading the script, she thought to herself, “I’ll never be able to get away with this so I’m going to have to find ways that my weirdness or my insecurity will be acceptable.”
Wever pauses after revealing this. “Maybe I shouldn’t admit that," she says — and maybe she shouldn’t. But after watching the series, which begins streaming on November 22, it’s unlikely you’ll agree with her assessment. Wever’s Mary Agnes is vulnerable, yes, but she’s also many other things. Her choice to not make this character a perfect hero, but something more complex, makes Mary Agnes the kind of strong female character we need more of. The kind that isn’t afraid to be honest when it comes to their strengths and their weaknesses — something Wever isn’t afraid to be, either.
From the moment you see Mary Agnes, it’s clear she’s unlike any other woman in this 1800s town. She’s not wearing a Victorian dress, but men’s clothing. The clothes — a pair of trousers held up by suspenders, a loose gun holster around her waist, and a rancher’s hat — are her husband’s, who died alongside 200 other men in the mine two years prior. That tragedy has made the New Mexico town an anomaly: it’s female-run, but that wasn’t the plan.
That difference is important, according to Wever, who’s been asked whether this all-female western town is a commentary on the need for more women in powerful positions. While Wever loves the idea of a municipality filled with only women — Wever was raised by a single mom — she says Godless is making a statement about female resilience.
“This horrible event that’s occurred is a bit of an opportunity for these women,” she says. “It’s opened up a space for them to live their lives a little differently. In a way that frankly wouldn’t have been possible if all the men were still alive because they were taking up that space.”
Mary Agnes seizes that opportunity to begin anew by reclaiming her sexuality, starting an affair with Callie, a prostitute-turned-school marm, and ditching her maiden name. After all, she says, her husband’s dead and “there’s no reason for me to keep carrying his name about like a bucket of water.”
She’s also made it her priority to make sure this town, which held so much hope for so many young couples, survives by pushing the women to realize that they’re not damsels in distress. They have the power to turn La Belle into whatever they want.
With no one to repair the mines and little else in financial assets, the other women have a hard time believing they can keep this town afloat on their own. So when a mining company rides in promising to save La Belle, it’s an offer too good to pass up. In that moment, you see that as strong and resilient as Mary Agnes is, she doesn’t have the power to convince these women they can go it alone.
By the end of the series, Wever says the other women of La Belle “are disabused by the notion that men are going to ride in and save them, physically, financially, all of it.” They ultimately realize that they too want the independence Mary Agnes has opened their eyes to. But in that one scene, you get a real sense of how fragile Mary Agnes is and how much of her power relies on bravado. She plays the part of a strong leader by wearing the pants in the town, but once a real man comes in, she has to step back. Her power has boundaries and she’s not ready to push past them just yet.
It’s perhaps Wever’s own vulnerability that helps sell this dichotomy. Both the actress and the character feel like impostors and we watch as they try and reconcile this with themselves. Wever worried her own insecurities would hurt the character, but instead she offers a sense of how society makes it hard for women to take control of their own lives. Not just in the 19th century, but the 21st, too.
“When people are excited for Godless,” Wever says, "I think that one of the things they’re responding to is seeing more women in a Western, not just numbers wise but the kind roles that we’ve seen them in traditional Westerns.”
Wever may have to come to grips with the fact she personally is one of the many reasons to be excited for Godless. But, maybe don’t tell her just yet — we don’t want to make her any more nervous than she already is.