Overview: After being released from prison, Shadow Moon finds himself thrust into a war of gods, old and new. 2017; Starz; TV-14; 8 episodes.
Here there be spoilers.
A Starting Point: American Gods, the STARZ adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel, helmed by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, is at its core a show about icons, and all icons derive power from the meanings and messages that they suggest. Gaiman’s book, considered one of the seminal works of his career, follows Shadow Moon, a released prisoner, as he becomes involved in the very real and dangerous world of American mythology. In it, the Old Gods, those all our disparate and varied ancestors brought to this continent and country, square off against personifications of what we have replaced them with: the tidal forces of modernity, technology, and media. Our attention and belief has granted them godhood to rival the hundreds of slightly different Jesuses we too created into being. A war is brewing on the battlegrounds of motel lots, mansions and interstates for dominion of our souls and the meaning of what it is to be American.
The eighth and final episode of American Gods’ first season has aired, and we have been left with an interesting first attempt and a look at what’s to come. Covering just about the first third of the novel, the show has set a meandering tone, more excited to play with the possibilities of the narrative universe of the book than slavishly recreate it as Gaiman presented it. This seems a smart decision, since fellow fantasy show Game of Thrones finally found its own footing last season in absence of a written novel with which to adapt. Today’s audiences revel in the creative process of adaptation, debating the individual choices of characters, scenes, pacing, and their inclusion (or exclusion) across the internet. Anticipating this, Fuller and Green have made a show with the godly power to predict its own nature as fodder for think pieces, boldly giving itself the labor of culling narrative from the great issues of our time and laying judgement on them.
The protagonist of the show, Shadow Moon, has an outsized presence in the first few episodes, though in later episodes he gets somewhat lost in the crowd. We follow his release from prison, his receiving news of the death of his wife, Laura, the memorable funeral. Ricky Whittle is clearly a charming and talented guy, but I couldn’t escape the impression that he’s a sexier Mr. Clean. His love for his wife is as constant and absorbing as any brand of paper towel, and his eyes glint with a smolder that seems to never have an off switch, which hey, I totally respect it working for people, but for me seemed just a little silly. Despite years in prison, he’s morally uncompromised by his time, with little impact on his personality past his isolation from the life he left behind. His role in the show, as is so often with POV novel characters portrayed on screen, is to observe events, feel required feelings, and act appropriately when called upon, and Shadow does it all.
When Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday, the show begins to breathe as if emerging out of water. Ian McShane is a great Wednesday, as full of grit and piss as he ever was, effortless and winking in divinity. But it isn’t just his presence that opens up the show as it is the world he brings with him, and the tone. It is in tone that American Gods both excels and suffers, and this tone is the source of its uneven nature. For every stellar moment—where style meets substance offering something special—there is another moment where the overt stylized approach distances us. Several scenes feel robbed of stakes and immediacy by campy, immaculately staged shots. This is ultimately a stylistic decision akin to Fuller’s own Hannibal, which had its ardent fans and supporters. I can only speak for myself in saying that, while in small doses, such effects can be a treat, many of these moments could feel much more visceral if they weren’t so visibly and visually eager to impress.
Coming to America: So much of the show’s runtime is devoted to the “Coming to America” segments, in which we are introduced to the many gods that wander modern America, explaining the source of their powers and introducing their believers, and how these gods continue to operate in the modern world. I found these scenes to often be very engaging television. These are the segments where Fuller and Green most engage in play with the conceit, blending the novel’s expositional vignettes with original visions of their own. What we receive is the kind of representation and storytelling that modern television sorely lacks: All of America, rich, poor, black, white, in our very real historical and cultural contexts, personified in avatars of our own creation, adapting themselves to America’s innate nature (and the systems we have forced upon it.) There are moments and scenes that feel created specifically to provoke reactions and start conversations, such as Anansi’s call to arms upon the slave ship (original to the show) and the bloody scene with Jesus on the Mexican border, that can feel like they are exploiting today’s political atmosphere for attention or praise. While the sentiments and messages of the scene are not incorrect, they will be obviously controversial talking points for the show moving forward.
Beyond that, this is a show that is defined by its supporting cast, and proud of it. As much as American Gods is the story of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday, it revels in the variety of talents it provides. Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber share incredible chemistry as Laura Moon (Shadow’s undead wife) and the miserable leprechaun, Mad Sweeney. So much so that Emily Browning’s dual casting (as Irish immigrant Essie in A Prayer for Mad Sweeney), which might initially be a distracting, comes to work well. Her role as Essie nods to the theatrical tradition of dual casting in a way that draws explicit (but non-textual) links between the characters and their depicted relationships. Seeing Browning’s face greet Sweeney in this New World gives the scene at episode’s end a poignancy it might have otherwise lacked (though I maintain Schreiber could have bridged any such gap, that talented ass.) Browning as Laura is given a hefty role in the adaptation, arguably equal to Shadow’s. While her expanded presence on the show came as a surprise to me, it makes perfect sense. In expanding the material of the book, the actions of Laura will reverberate through the story and deserve this closer examination. Git Gone and A Prayer for Mad Sweeney, which both showcase Browning (giving her a weightier screen time than most of the cast), offer her more opportunities to react organically to situations than her husband ever seems to get.
The other Old Gods of the show vary from good to great. Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis (the vaginal devourer herself) and Orlando Jones’ Anansi (that anachronistically stylish African trickster spirit) are played with skill and heart, leaving an outsized impression for their underutilized screen time. Salim, the Omani businessman who falls in love with a Jinni, is another great addition to the cast, bringing a sincerity and tenderness to his scenes that feels lacking elsewhere. Crispin Glover is a (essential phrasing here) goddamn revelation as Mr. World, the amalgamation of globalization’s voyeuristic omniscience and leader of the New Gods. His introduction scene, alongside the chameleonesque Media, played by Gillian Anderson (a surreal and hovering Marilyn Monroe, whose presence punctuates the ubiquity and god-like nature of modern celebrity) is a potent thesis statement for the show and stands as my hands-down favorite moment to date. It progresses and unfolds with an electric aura, surprising you with its dedication to the moment (the stakes, the players) and the message (the culture war in metaphoric play). All of these characters carry with them exciting depth and possibility, and much of the appeal of the show for me will be in seeing how it utilizes them past these introductions.
The final episode, which features Kristen Chenoweth as Easter, and a ton of other people as different Jesuses, doesn’t end the season on its possible highest note. The show’s tonal inconsistency comes to a head here, scenes barraging forward that clash in their proximity to each other. The long-delayed reveal of Wednesday’s true identity is as hammish as it is obvious, given how much it’s hinted at prior. The replicating faceless men tap-dancing around a heated moment are just the most distracting shit I’ve seen since those henchmen in Spy Kids that are just giant thumbs. I’m sure someone had a reason for doing it, but man if that didn’t fall flat for me.
Ultimately, the show isn’t perfect. But expecting perfection from a show as ambitious and well-intentioned as this one feels selfish and wrong spirited. American Gods is fertile ground for the kinds of narrative that we can use to understand the forces at play in our lives, and as this cast and crew goes comfortable, it will be exciting to see how they progress from here. Ideally, the show will find confidence in its performance, in the weight of its words, and not just in its aesthetic character. Hopefully, it’s wonderful cast will be able to explore the worlds we’re given hints to in this first glimpse. Putting faith in these creators to grow and to entertain us moving forward may yet be worth the cost we pay by tuning in.
Overall: Season One of American Gods is an uneven but engaging look into the world of America’s volatile mythology.