This episode took things slow, and I imagine anyone not familiar with the book is completely bewildered. Heck, I read the book for the first time just recently and I'm having trouble figuring out what some of this stuff means.
It starts with the scene everyone was talking about in early reviews of the show, so enthusiastically that I was afraid it would be overhyped: Orlando Jones as Anansi appearing to a ship's hold of African men and enticing a mutiny to overthrow the Dutch slavers. Turns out, it was just as good as promised.
Between Jones's spidery performance (watch his hands in particular) and the palpable sense of rising fury that fills the underbelly of the ship, I sincerely hope Jones is out there somewhere enjoying his tea as he reflects on his fantastic monologue and the cancellation of Sleepy Hollow.
But outside its own power, the vignette also works as a follow-up to Bilquis's first appearance, with both scenes designed to show us what the gods are capable of. Anansi showcases his Trickster characteristics, but also seems to be a step out of time: that suit was definitely not from 1967 and neither was the jazz music that heralded his arrival. Most pertinently, he tells the men that two hundred years later, they're still going to be shot by police, demonstrating what is either foreknowledge of the future or a lack of temporal restrictions.
(Or else the writers simply took the opportunity to insert some socially relevant commentary).
Furthermore, it's pretty clear by the way this scene plays out that Anansi isn't particularly interested in helping the slaves. They're given their freedom not so they can overpower the slavers and sail to freedom, but so they can burn down the ship and everyone on it – themselves included – as a sacrifice to Anansi.
Sure enough, Anansi is the only living thing that reaches the shores of America, and like Bilquis last week, he doesn't seem too concerned about the deaths of those that believe in him.
So whether his ability to see/visit from the future is an important plot-point or just part of a monologue remains to be seen, the gods' indifference in the well-being of their worshippers is now an established fact. They exist to serve the needs of the gods, and nothing more: a sentiment that's a pretty effective segue to the aftermath of Shadow's lynching...
It would appear that the show is holding back on the reveal of Laura's resurrection (if memory serves, it was she who saved Shadow from the Technical Boy's men; something that remains a mystery here) and his relationship with Wednesday is still defined by his absolute incomprehension.
His time spent in his old house perhaps dragged on a little longer than it should have: though there were some nice touches with the party decorations and the unpleasant surprise on Laura's cellphone, the visions of his wife and the processing of his grief isn't conveyed in a particularly innovative way.
I know from interviews/articles that the show plans on expanding Laura's role, but for now she suffers from the same problem she did in Gaiman's book: her importance is entirely contingent on her existence as Shadow's wife. For now Emily Browning is successfully conveying a sort of cat-like etherealness (as though she was never truly there even before her death), but it's not a hugely compelling character.
In this she sits in stark contrast to Gillian Anderson as Media, who naturally takes her monologue and ... well, does with it what Orlando Jones did with his. So far the best part of this show is simply giving fantastic actors some meaty dialogue and standing back. I'll admit I have zero knowledge of I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball, so I'll simply have to assume that Anderson nailed the impersonation and concentrate on what she said.
Like the Technical Boy, she's one of the New Gods, but unlike him, she offers Shadow a chance to team up with her. To be continued...
Finally, we reach Chicago and the first attempt at recruitment in Wednesday's ongoing mission: the Slavic god Chernobog and his sisters Zorya Utrennyaya and Zorya Vechernyaya, the morning and evening stars. (There's a third, but we don't meet her in this episode).
Again, the casting is perfection: Peter Stormare and Cloris Leachman slide into these roles like they were born to them, and so many of the details (the silver cutlery, the lacework on the clothing, the framed picture of Ursa Minor on the wall) made me squirm with happiness. Just the level of care in crafting this world is impeccable.
Chernobog's running commentary on his fair-headed brother and Shadow's ethnicity relied pretty heavily on the Genius Bonus of knowing that his name literally translates into "black god" (whereas his brother Belobog means "white god") but then Gaiman does like his word-games. This extends into the checker game, which is naturally played with black and white markers.
At this point, it's easy to believe Shadow is in the right state of mind to say "screw it" and agree to a checkers game in which his life is on the line, and that's a suitable cliff-hanger to take out the episode.
I liked the "strange fruit" shout out after Shadow's lynching; I wonder if this means we'll get the Nevermore comment to the raven.
I'm not sure if there was any deep meaning to it, but this contrast in height was hilarious:
The show plugs a potential plot-hole (one based on the fact the novel was published in 2001) by ensuring that Wednesday has no interest in cellphones.
So who did Wednesday meet with in the diner? Anubis? I'm not sure what the red flashing of the eyes signified.
We get a look at what happens to Bilquis's worshippers after they've been – er, devoured. Watching her go to the museum to gaze upon her own artefacts suggests she might be more receptive to Wednesday's crusade; she's clearly nostalgic for the old days.
Best line goes to Media for her: "time and attention, better than lamb's blood" comment.
Altogether it was a rather slow episode that was divided into seemingly unrelated portions, but which was teeming with foreshadowing and clues – if you know where to look. Viewers without any foreknowledge of the book might be just as frustrated as Shadow for not having any idea what's going on, but it's clear from Wednesday's words and actions that there's a plan in place – and it's pretty exhilarating not to have your hand held as you're introduced to what Shadow called "a world under a world." It's enough to make me wish I hadn't read the book first.