I feel like I've been waiting forever for this show – along with The Handmaid's Tale – and now that both have arrived, it feels like Christmas. I read Neil Gaiman's American Gods for the first time earlier this year; now I'm all primed and ready to see what Brian Fuller and his team do with the material.
Before you read, know that there are going to be "opaque spoilers" throughout this review. Gaiman's story has several characters (one in particular) that operate under pseudonyms and false identities, and though I don't plan on explicitly stating these spoilers, it may be apparent to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of puns and/or mythology who I'm talking about, so consider yourself warned.
As it happened, I saw the trailer to American Gods before reading the novel, and was a little baffled by its surreal images and the dialogue. After reading the book, I was in raptures. The casting is perfect! The visuals are glorious! This is everything that an American Gods adaptation should be, and already some of the liberties taken with the text only serve to elevate the story's complexity in theme and content.
Shadow Moon is a convicted felon nearing the end of his incarceration, and though he's looking forward to being reunited with his wife Laura, he feels a certain sense of foreboding in the air. As he says to his cell-mate, there's a storm coming.
He was right to be wary, as the next day the prison warden breaks to him some good and bad news. Good news: he's to be released early. Bad news: it's because Laura has died in a car accident. On his way to the funeral Shadow crosses paths with a man who offers him a job as a driver, bodyguard and companion; a man who settles on the alias Mr Wednesday as a suitable moniker, seemingly picking the name out of thin-air on a whim.
Shadow knows a con-artist when he sees one, and turns down the offer. But as more details emerge as to the circumstances of Laura's death – several of them provided by Wednesday himself – Shadow realizes he has little choice but to agree to the terms of employment.
And so their road trip across America begins...
Ricky Whittle certainly landed on his feet after being unceremoniously despatched from The 100. From what I hear of that show these days, his former co-stars are probably eying him with some envy given the calibre of this pilot. Shadow was quite reactionary in Gaiman's novel, too busy responding to the weird and wonderful things around him to stake out any strong characterization of his own, but Whittle is given a little more meat to chew on when it comes to his performance: you can see Shadow's rage, his grief, his fear – all of which he's desperately trying to clamp down (a natural defence mechanism given he's spent the last four years in prison). But as Wednesday says; "there's always work for a big guy who's smart enough to know he's better off letting people think he's dumb", and that intelligence is in Shadow's eyes too. He can spot a con, but he also knows reality is no longer playing by the rules when he witnesses Mad Sweeney's coin trick.
All that said, Shadow is fundamentally meant to be an everyman, the audience surrogate, the ordinary contrast to all the increasingly bizarre phenomena that Wednesday throws at him, and Whittle's puppy dog expression (lampshaded in the episode itself) is going to do wonders later down the road...
As for Ian McShane... well, what can be said? He was born to play Mr Wednesday: every word, every gesture, every expression that flitted across his face was a master class in acting prowess. The casualness with which he propositions Shadow, the breathless stream of clues he drops as to his true identity, the effortless confidence he emits in knowing he'll get what he wants ... When Shadow shakes his hand it feels inevitable, and it feels inevitable because that's exactly what Wednesday is.
For now perhaps my favourite scene is when he tells Shadow before Laura's funeral: "I'll tell you this once, and once only ever: take all the time you need." A perfect mix of human compassion and godlike command.
Strewn across this episode are three vignettes of the gods – both old and new – that are so far completely disconnected to the main plot, but which provide plenty of exposition about how these entities operate (as well as being pretty compelling mini-stories on their own terms).
The first introduces the all-important theme of immigration, in which we're shown the experiences of a ship of Vikings that arrive on America's shores several (hundred?) years before Leif Erikson made a similar voyage. Things don't go as well for them: they're unable to get inland, there's minimal food and water, and – worst of all – there's no wind. So the sacrifices to their god begin, each one escalating in the amount of blood that gets shed, until finally the wind picks up.
There is so much that goes on in this sequence, from the surreal imagery (a Viking getting hit with hundreds of arrows; blood exploding across the sky, a disembodied arm flying out of frame across the black band at the top of the screen) to the introduction of a Norse god's early presence in America (and his limitations in answering the prayers of his people), to the theme of sacrifice – which is gonna be a big deal in the coming episodes.
Then there's the reveal of Bilquis (also known as the Queen of Sheba), a goddess who straight-up eats a man with her vagina. Damn. Apart from the truly insane visuals it takes to recreate this scene from the book, there are a couple of interesting altercations, the biggest being that Bilquis has been changed from a prostitute to a woman involved in a dating network. The former scenario really emphasised the goddess's desperation, but the latter connects her to the other major theme of the show: that of the new gods and their technologies.
In terms of raw exposition, what we learn from the scene is that the gods need worship in order to survive, that taking human lives rejuvenates them, and they're certainly not above deceptive tactics in getting what they want.
A similar scenario plays out with Mad Sweeney, though his power is derived not from sex, but the physical violence he instigates with Shadow. In both cases, you can see the vitality returning to the god/goddess as their form of worship plays out, even down to each one's natural accent becoming stronger as they start feeding on the energy they've initiated. In Bilquis's case, there's a subtle but clear change in her appearance pre/post-coitus scenes.
Finally we get to Technology Boy, who possibly worked the least, but still came across every bit as obnoxious and entitled as he did in the novel – even taking into consideration the huge leaps in technology between 2001 and 2017. It makes you wonder whether he'll seem dated in another ten or so years.
The lynching certainly wasn't easy to watch, but I imagine the show knew exactly what it was doing when it invoked that particular image, especially with all the noose symbolism that had been prevalent throughout the episode up until that point.
And I have to say I liked the creepy blank faces of Technical Boy's cronies, who unquestioningly beat the shit out of Shadow on command. Could there be a better metaphor for the on-line witch hunts that erupt from the slightest flick of a wrist from a disgruntled teenage You Tuber?
The psychedelic opening credits tell us a lot about the content and themes of the show: worship and drugs, modernity and symbols, even the Orange/Blue Contrast indicating an Orange and Blue Morality (though that might just be a coincidence). All of it is eventually revealed to be part of a totem pole, having created something new – but also old – from a variety of cultural symbols. Boom. That's American Gods in a nutshell.
A certain character is being kept rather low-key at this stage; I don't think they even said his name out loud. This makes sense since it would give the game away if spoken phonetically, but I wonder if his lack of clear identification will weaken the reveal further along the track. Some things just work better on the page.
That said, it was interesting to note that the character in question has been kept away from most of the show's promotion, and given Ian McShane's surprising openness with several spoilers, I wonder if even the marketing is pulling a con-job; making us think they're giving away too much when in fact they're distracting us from a major spoiler.
Also, given the staging of Shadow's strange dream sequences, I'm left wondering if they're actually being sent by this character-I'm-not-naming.
I liked the little touch of foreshadowing when the mechanism for Laura's coffin gets jammed on its way down.
In all, I love the way the show has thrown us (and Shadow) in the deep end with very little idea of what's going on. You get the vague impression of threads being pulled: moments after Shadow says he won't harm anyone, he gets goaded into a fist fight with Mad Sweeny. Why? For what purpose? You can tell something beyond his ken is happening, and it's only going to get stranger from here out...