After what feels like DECADES of waiting, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has finally come to Starz. The 8-episode first season has to spend some time world building (and it’s a dense world), so I was expecting more exposition than plot in the pilot. What I got was an interesting, possibly confusing, mix of both.
The episode opened with Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) writing one of his “Coming to America” vignettes that are peppered throughout the book. This one involves a group of Vikings, pre-dating Lief Erickson, who land somewhere in North America. They are greeted by hordes of insects and angry natives, but when they attempt to flee, they find there’s no wind. They carve an image of the All-Father (Odin), stab each other in the eye, and then basically go crazy on each other with axes until the wind comes back.
The first slow-mo shot of flying blood had me all, “Oh hi, Bryan Fuller. Welcome back to TV.” What would Hannibal have looked like if he hadn’t been constrained by network Standards and Practices??
Finally we move on to my baby, my son, my own dear Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), lifting weight in the prison yard while his bunkmate, Low Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker), regales him with prison yard wisdom. A few careful, atmospheric shots, in addition to Shadow’s convo with Low Key, reveal that Shadow’s getting out in 5 days…but he’s worried. Worried that something bad is coming, and there’s nothing he can do to avoid it. “It’s like the sky is constipated,” he tells his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), on the phone. “It needs to push out one big storm and get it over with.” (I’m paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea.)
That night Shadow dreams of a forest that leads to a cave, and a cave that opens to reveal a huge tree and a buffalo with flaming eyes. “Believe!” it commands…though believe in what, it doesn’t say.
Next day Shadow is called into the warden’s office where he’s told he’s getting out early…because his wife has died in a car accident. “One of those good news/bad news jokes,” a guard says to him. Shadow isn’t amused by either set of news.
At the airport he manages to get a ticket for the next day, and while he’s waiting for his flight he notices a man (Ian McShane) speaking to the same ticket agent who was so short with him earlier. He’s older, disheveled, a bit dirty, and clearly confused. The man tells her he bought a first class ticket to his grandson’s christening, but she insists his ticket shows coach. After the man fumbles around for a bit, disoriented and feeble-seeming, she agrees to bump him.
On the plane Shadow gets bumped as well, because someone’s in his seat. He ends up next to the man, who now looks sharp and far less rumpled. Shadow recognized the whole act for what it was: a con game, designed to play on the gate agent’s sympathies for the poor confused old man.
The man introduces himself as Wednesday and offers Shadow a job. Shadow insists he has a job waiting for him back home, but Wednesday tells him he doesn’t. Shadow blows the man off (politely) and they both fall asleep.
When Shadow wakes they’re not in Eagle Point, his destination, but several hundred miles away. The storm forced the plane to divert, and rather than wait around for another flight, Shadow rents a car. In the book it was clear he was driving to get away from Wednesday, who he sees boarding the new flight, but the show chose to skip that part. I guess show!Shadow was just in the mood for a road trip. Maybe you would be too, after 3 years in prison.
Anyway, he stops at this weird bar that looks like an alligator mouth, and guess who’s there? Wednesday! Naturally. He tells Shadow that his best friend, Robbie (Dane Cook), was killed in the accident with Laura, so no Shadow does NOT have a job waiting for him at home.
Some weird shit happens that leaves Shadow nonplussed, and eventually he agrees to work for Wednesday. Then a giant leprechaun shows up (Mad Sweeney, played by Pablo Schreiber) to warn Shadow that Wednesday’s playing him, and also to engage in fisticuffs.
Shadow wakes up in the back of Wednesday’s car on the way to Eagle Point. Once they get there, Wednesday tells him to take as long as he needs, and Shadow heads to the funeral. Robbie’s wife Audrey tells him that Laura “died with my husband’s cock in her mouth,” so that’s…another blow (hehe) to our Stoic Hero. At the cemetery he stands by Laura’s grave until it’s dark and asks her WHY?? Was it a one-time thing?? What happened? He then tosses a gold coin—a gift from Mad Sweeney—onto the grave, where later it’s sucked into the dirt.
Audrey shows up, completely wasted, and offers Shadow a blowjob. He refuses, and eventually Audrey collapses into his arms, sobbing.
Shadow walks back to the hotel in the dark when suddenly the street lights start going out around him. Something lands in the leaves nearby, and when he bends to investigate, it turns into a VR helmet and clamps onto his head. Shadow (or at least his brain) is dragged into what looks like the back of a limo. A young man who kind of reminded me of Max Headroom’s obnoxious little brother demands to know what Wednesday’s up to…which of course Shadow doesn’t know, because he’s clueless as it gets.
Max Headroom Lite (aka, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) tells his goons to kill Shadow. Back in the real world, a group of men dressed all in white kick and pummel him, and eventually string him up from a tree. I guess Technical Boy has an old-fashioned (racist) sense of irony. Shadow seems pretty much cooked when suddenly there’s blood everywhere! Fountains of blood! The guys are split in half by a mysterious force as blood and rib cages fly. Shadow falls to the ground, alive but hurt…and the credits roll.
Also in there was a “Somewhere in America” piece with Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), goddess of love, devouring a man with her vagina. As one does.
So. I could spill some ink (metaphorically speaking) about how the pilot compares to the first bits of the book, but I think that’s more Jorge’s bag, so I’ll skip it for now.
It’s impossible for me to consider the show without taking the book into account at all, so I’ll say this: the first part of American Gods—and certain aspects of it throughout—are incredibly disorienting. It’s honestly one of my favorite parts of Gaiman’s writing: sometimes you have no clue what the fuck is going on, and he has no intention of straight-up telling you. You have to figure it out, and often it’s simply a matter of your own interpretation.
The show adheres to that philosophy perfectly. In case Bryan Fuller’s work on Hannibal didn’t clue you in to his love of extreme close-ups, slow-motion flying liquids (esp. blood), atonal scores, and darkly poetic mise-en-scène, American Gods seals the deal. From the opening credits that juxtapose the old gods with the new, to the final scene that so closely mirrors the opening one, reminders of Fuller’s oeuvre are on full display.
I was unsure at first about Ricky Whittle’s casting. Not because I have anything for or against him either way, but because I always imagined someone much bigger playing Shadow. A Vin Diesel type, but younger. Whittle overcame my doubts admirably. He perfectly captures Shadow’s stoicism (something some readers find off-putting), as in the scene where he learns about Laura’s death. His reaction is subtle: his body is tight, prepared for a blow, but when it comes it isn’t at all what he is expecting. He crumples, just a bit, through the shoulders and across his face. The next several close-ups he looks stunned, barely there, and until his road trip, we don’t get to see him fully express the grief, confusion, and rage he’s feeling over Laura’s sudden death.
Shadow Moon is one of my favorite characters in fiction because he’s so quiet. Still waters run deep, as they say, and that’s exactly Shadow. I of course wasn’t expecting to suddenly have a Chatty Cathy on our hands, but since it’s not like we can actually get inside his head like we can in the 3rd-person limited PoV of the book, it’s nice to see they still retained the essence of Shadow. At least so far, though I don’t really see it changing that much.
All the casting so far is spot-on. Did anyone doubt Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday? Pablo Schreiber was a nice surprise as Mad Sweeney; he seems bigger than he was as Pornstache, which is good, because he’s gotta be bigger than Shadow. I can’t wait to see more Laura, and of course Gillian Anderson as Media.
“Uh, what the hell’s a liminal space?”
I need to talk a sec about this show’s use of liminal spaces. Uh, what the hell’s a liminal space? It’s a place of transition, where you’re neither here nor there, but in between. Reality can feel altered, either further away from, or more in touch with, the so-called real world.
Shadow spends hours in the airport as time passes around him: people come and go, the floor is cleaned, the place empties, and the night outside darkens, and Shadow sits.
He drives cross-country, still sitting as the world (and the car) move around him and the fury and pain inside him begin to reach a boiling point.
After his fight with Mad Sweeney he wakes up in the back of Wednesday’s car unsure of what happened the night before or exactly where he is.
Later he walks down a dark, empty road when the lights go out around him and he’s nabbed by Technical Boy.
Each of these instances prologue his meeting with (look, okay, spoiler, but my word) a god. The veil between worlds is thinner in liminal spaces, and Shadow finds himself tossed between dreaming and waking, reality and confusion, like a man lost in a storm. Liminal spaces as transitions between acts? I like it.
“I’m squeamish, okay??”
My one criticism: the early scene with the Vikings, plus that last scene with the “mysterious someone” killing the thugs were both excessively, unnecessarily violent. I mean, people being chopped in half and limbs flying all over. Rib cages and heads and fountains of blood. There was no need for it, especially since neither scene is in the book as they were shown on the screen. I’m squeamish, okay?? And it’s not like the violence added anything.
Irony, maybe? Appealing to the god of Television Violence, who’s enjoyed such a happy happy surge of worshipers with the success of, amongst other things, Game of Thrones? Or True Blood another fantasy adaptation that loved a good blood bath. Or maybe just Bryan Fuller indulging his love of splashing blood in a way he couldn’t fully on network TV.
This show is about a battle between old gods and new ones, and just as Shadow is thrown in without any sort of explanation or warning (aside from Mad Sweeney’s largely ignored, oft-repeated “he’s playing you”), we as the audience are too. What the hell is Shadow dreaming about? How did Sweeney get that coin seemingly from mid-air? Who saved Shadow from Technical Boy’s thugs? Speaking of, who the hell is Technical Boy and why does his face pixelate like a poorly-buffered YouTube video from time to time?
I don’t know how confusing this pilot was, really, until I talk to some non-book readers. Unfortunately, over the years I’ve coerced nearly everyone I know into reading it, so that won’t be easy. But, look, if you’re a non-book reader and you were confused: hang in there. The book is confusing at times too. It’s meant to be. Shadow is delving into things he has no rational basis to understand, and it will take time to get his feet under him. I’m glad the show is doing the same thing…as long as people are patient with it, and willing to stick in there.
Episode Grade: A-. I honestly think the extreme violence was distracting, and the pacing (an issue that will resolve itself, I hope, once most of the world building is taken care of) was a little off. I’m looking forward to more!!