Photography: James Minchin/Courtesy Netflix

Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery leads a talent-rich cast in Netflix’s first western miniseries. Here’s a primer.

Michelle Dockery’s TV résumé already boasted incredible range when the script for Godless landed on her lap. As Lady Mary Crawley on PBS’ sensation Downton Abbey, Dockery traversed six seasons of addictive interpersonal drama with remarkable poise and subtlety. In her current TNT series Good Behavior, she endures a different kind of drama with her mess of a main character, ex-con, thief, and drug addict Letty Raines.

But Godless offered something Dockery had never done — a classic-style, shoot’em-up American western. And while it had for years been conceived as a feature film by creator Scott Frank (the screenwriter behind Logan, Minority Report, Out of Sight, and other hits), Godless would eventually become an epic seven-part miniseries, directed by Frank for the creatively nurturing folks at Netflix. The entire miniseries was scheduled to land on the streaming service November 22.

“I was just blown away by the story and by the character,” Dockery says. “There’s something about all the characters — they’re united by this sort of common suffering.”

The 1880s-set Godless weaves together the narratives of several contingents. There’s the struggling mining town of La Belle, New Mexico, almost totally populated by hardened widows who’ve lost their husbands in a mine accident. A group of investors wants to get its hands on that mine. Evil gang leader Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) also has La Belle in his sights because one of his former associates is reported to be hiding out there.

Where does Dockery’s character, Alice Fletcher, play into all of it? Fletcher is a widow, as well, but she’s an outcast who’s not trusted by the ladies of La Belle. She resides with her young son and mother-in-law on a horse farm outside of town. She’s also the one harboring the man Frank Griffin wants to find. As expected in any great western, all the narratives eventually collide in one violent showdown.

“There is this tension between Alice and the townspeople, but of course as the story goes on, she has no choice but to become an ally with the women of La Belle,” Dockery says.

And the interpersonal struggles and redemptions are where Godless’ magic creeps in — the relationships between characters and the building of personalities happen more naturally with miniseries pacing.

“For an actor, it’s wonderful because you’re spending so much time with the character, and each episode gets deeper and deeper into who that person is.”

For Dockery’s Alice, that didn’t just mean harnessing the inner strength of a woman holding her entire farm together. She also had to be convincing with her physical acumen, her horse skills, and the way she held a rifle. She remembers learning and bonding with fellow cast members at a preproduction “Cowboy Camp” near Santa Fe before their six months of filming began.

“The horse riding was so very, very different because Western and English riding aren’t the same. Western is a lot freer, not as many rules,” Dockery says. “And I’d never held a gun in my life. I found myself doing rip curls with my gun to try and build up my arm muscles.”

Working on a western realized a lifelong dream for the 35-year-old Brit, and it didn’t hurt that she was part of a strong ensemble.

“It was just an amazing cast,” she says. “And that scenery — I was pinching myself every day that this was my office.”

The Heavy Hitters

Photography: James Minchin/Courtesy Netflix

Frank Griffin (played by Jeff Daniels)

Frank Griffin is the “big bad” character in Godless, and even if you think you know Jeff Daniels from his relatable characters in everything from HBO’s The Newsroom to the goofy franchise Dumb and Dumber, you might be surprised to see how ruthless he can be here. Transformed by an unkempt beard, a notable limb loss (in Episode 1), and an eerie, wild-eyed unpredictability, Daniels will give viewers chills as they watch Frank and his men go on a trail of murder, intimidation, and terror. Daniels’ Newsroom costar Sam Waterston turns up in Godless as a lawman on a mission for justice against Griffin.

Photography: James Minchin/Courtesy Netflix

Roy Goode (played by Jack O’Connell)

British actor O’Connell (Unbroken, Money Monster) stars as Goode, a young man whose back story fuels the main conflict in Godless. He was taken in by Daniels’ Griffin as a boy, but as an adult has turned against his former boss and is on the run. After a fateful incident involving a train robbery, Goode finds himself hiding out at the horse farm of the widow and outcast Alice Fletcher (Dockery). His surefire shooting, useful horse knowledge, and a budding friendship with Fletcher’s young son begin to earn him some loyalty and protection.

Photography: James Minchin/Courtesy Netflix

Mary Agnes (played by Merritt Wever)

You may remember Wever as the eccentric Zoey in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. Her Godless character is entirely different. Even though Mary Agnes’ sheriff brother (Scoot McNairy) has official authority in the town of La Belle, he’s got personal problems that distract him from duty, including adult-onset blindness. So, out of necessity and from her own core strength, Wever’s character has stepped into the moral leadership role in the town full of widows. She’s got a wit as quick as The Duke’s and a way with a gun that should come in handy by the final episode. Wever’s a joy to watch — she ought to prepare herself for the next round of Emmy nods.

Photography: Ursula Coyote/Courtesy Netflix

Whitey Winn (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster)

The young British actor Brodie-Sangster has already thrived in the fantasy realm with turns in Game of Thrones and the Maze Runner film series. But he couldn’t be more convincing here as the gaunt but good-natured deputy, Whitey, who’s trying his best to stick up for his fellow residents in La Belle as dark forces close in. He becomes one of Godless’ supporting characters you root for the most, as he engages in a risky courtship with the daughter of a former Buffalo Soldier who’s settled outside of the town.

Watch all seven episodes of Godless on Netflix beginning November 22.