I’m not sure where to begin. This week’s American Gods took us on one hell of a journey: from a Dutch slave ship somewhere in the Atlantic, to Shadow and Laura’s house, to the uh…inside of Bilquis’s vagina (I think…), to a shabby apartment in Chicago, with of course some ubiquitous road trip scenes between. I’m a little speechless, but in a good way. Though not completely, because when am I ever completely speechless??
This episode, like last week’s, opened with a “Coming to America” vignette. A Dutch slave ship sails across the Atlantic with its miserable human cargo in the hold. A man prays to Anansi, a god from the old world, and promises him leather, wine, silks, anything he can if Anansi will free them.
Anansi (Orlando Jones) appears to drop some truth on these desperate men: there is no freedom for them. The life in store is brutish, nasty, and short, and it won’t get much better for their descendants. He encourages the men to kill their captors and burn the ship. When they protest that they’ll die, too, he says it’s better to die as a “sacrifice for something worthwhile” than to live a slave. The men agree, and the ship goes up in flames.
Back to Shadow, who heads to the hospital to have his wounds stapled. Next it’s on to Wednesday’s room, where he bangs on the door and demands to know what’s going on. Of course Wednesday won’t cough up any answers, but he claims he had nothing to do with Technical Boy (TB) or his goons. He clearly knows who TB is, but he’s not giving Shadow any hints. Shadow screams at Wednesday that he got lynched, but Wednesday’s only response is a sardonic lift of his brow as he points out that Shadow’s survival isn’t the usual outcome for a lynching.
Classy, old man.
In his own room, Shadow takes a bath and manages to get some sleep. He dreams of Laura, who tells him her death is all just a bad dream. He wakes up and weeps over his lost wife.
Next day he heads to their old house to pack up their things. While he’s there, he looks through Laura’s personal effects from the morgue. He finds her wedding ring, but also her phone, which has a charming dick pic from Robbie. That’s always a nice thing to find on your wife’s phone.
Shadow and Wednesday hit the road, headed for Chicago. Along the way they stop at a 24 hour diner and Wednesday sends Shadow shopping. His reaction at walking into a Costco-like big box store is similar to mine: entirely dumbfounded and nonplussed. Good on you, Shadow.
As he’s wandering the store collecting the items on Wednesday’s list, he happens to pass the TV aisle. I Love Lucy appears on one screen, but uh. Lucy. Starts talking to him. Of course it’s not really Lucy, but instead the goddess Media (Gillian Anderson). She tells him that she (and the other new gods, without using those words) is the wave of the future, and Wednesday is so over he’s “not even yesterday.” She apologizes for Technical Boy’s vulgar behavior and promises Shadow she would never treat him so callously.
She offers him a job, which he refuses, then she offers him pretty much anything he could want. The conversation ends with, “You ever want to see Lucy’s tits?”
Shadow is understandably freaked out. He heads to the diner to talk to Wednesday, but once again he’s nothing but riddles and obfuscations. He offers Shadow two options. Either the world’s gone crazy, or he, Shadow, has. Either choice has merit, he says, and Shadow needs to choose carefully.
The leave the diner and head to Chicago, where Wednesday is meeting with his “old friend” Czernobog (Peter Stormare). He lives in a shabby, cigarette stained apartment with his “relatives,” Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar), and Zorya Utrennyaya (Martha Kelly). Listen, the best thing that ever happened to me was having the Zoryas on screen because when I read the book their names blur together and I can’t tell one Zorya from another. So now I have faces and I’m happy.
Anyway. Zoryas V and U make dinner while Zorya P sleeps (we never see her this ep) and Shadow sips coffee. They offer to read his fortune from his coffee grounds. When the Zoryas look at them, all Zorya V will say is that he will live a happy life with many children, and he won’t die of cancer. Shadow isn’t stupid; he knows his fortune is fuuuuuuuuucked.
Czernobog clearly isn’t happy that Wednesday is there. He wants to throw him out, but Zorya V invited him for dinner, so dinner it’ll be. Then he’ll throw him out. They sit and eat, and Czernobog gives a bit of background about their history. Once he had a brother, who was “white,” while he was “black,” but over time they’ve both become gray. He also talks about working on the slaughterhouse floor, hitting cows with his hammer to kill them, only now they use a bolt gun and there’s no skill involved anymore. Waugh waugh.
He asks Shadow if he plays checkers, which of course Shadow does because it’s a fun and productive way to pass the time in prison. Shadow is bemused, but he agrees to the checkers game and to Czernobog’s offer of a wager. If Shadow wins, Czernie will go with them on whatever mysterious errand Wednesday has for them. If Czernobog wins…
At this point Shadow’s had it up to here with whatever the hell it is that’s going on. He just saw Czernie’s hammer bleed, for fuck’s sake! He laughs, exhausted and fed up, and tells Czernobog sure! If hammers can bleed and gods are real and another world exists beneath ours, then sure. If he, Shadow Moon, loses this stupid checkers game, he’ll gladly kneel at dawn and let Cznerie bash his head in.
Wednesday looks on as the game continues. Shadow seems to be holding his own, but overall things don’t look good for Our Stoic Hero. In the end he has a kinged piece boxed in. Czernobog takes it, and Shadow loses.
Death?? So soon?? Say it ain’t so!
Ohhh I almost forgot. There was a brief flash to Bilquis, who’s still swallowing people into her vajayjay. Including ladies. She also visited a museum with an exhibit dedicated to her, because I mean wouldn’t you?
I am very nearly overwhelmed by this hour of television.
If I may take a moment to be both crude and thirsty—why the hell did I have to see not one but TWO shots of a stand-in for Dane Cook’s penis, but only got like 1/4 of Ricky Whittle’s butt? Come on, man. Show us the butt! Surely that’s not asking for too much, is it??
Ahem. Back to our regularly scheduled review.
Let’s begin at the beginning. That “Coming to America” vignette HO-LEE SHIT. I had goosebumps and was losing my MIND. Not only did I finally get to see Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, but also it was like, Mr. Nancy UNLEASHED. Raw, angry, HONEST Mr. Nancy, not the guy we’re used to seeing in the book who calls Shadow “son” and tells silly stories. I mean, I know we’re gonna get to see that guy too, but to have this as Mr. Nancy’s introduction was flat-out amazing. He was like a cross between a “hallelujah” tent revival preacher and a used car salesman, with a little Eddie Murphy thrown in for shits and giggles.
I know a lot of people were deeply troubled by last week’s lynching scene, but this opener combined with Shadow actually using the word “lynched” to describe what happened to him will, I hope, set some minds at rest about how the show will handle racial issues going forward. Shadow is Black; Anansi/Mr. Nancy is an African god. Clearly the show isn’t going to shy away from either of those things, or the issues that come with them.
“Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn’t she the one who killed her children?”
So far that quote hasn’t made it into the show, but here’s hopin’. Media’s introduction was a little different than in the book, but it worked. Boooooy did it work. I loved the idea of all these TVs broadcasting her face over and over. Rather than a tiny, shitty motel room television like in the book, Media the figure was as omnipresent as the concept she embodies. It was slick, shiny, and overwhelming—as Media (and often media) is meant to be.
Like Shadow, we are often bombarded by media from all sides. I mean, look at the page you’re on right now. There are ads throughout the article. Ads for other articles on one side, ads for merch on the other. There are links scattered throughout and links at the bottom and you can access Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest. Basically anywhere you might want to go to plug in further. We’re Shadow in the back of Technical Boy’s limo or Shadow in the aisle at Costco. Only for us, thankfully, the veil hasn’t been ripped aside and Lucy Ricardo hasn’t offered to show us her boobs.
American Gods is cleverly, carefully, surgically using us against ourselves. Our love for big box stores, for television, for phones and tablets and the internet. Our love of violence and our tolerance of racism. How many people would cheer the havoc the Vikings wreaked last week, but would ring their hands at the destruction wrought by the freed slaves this week? Mr. Nancy’s monologue, Media’s sales pitch, and Technical Boy’s threats all share a common thread. We choose what we worship, and how we worship it. In a world that has so many things beyond our control, that, at least, is the one choice we can make.
That choice plays out in a literal way through Shadow. As Wednesday says, he can choose to believe the world’s crazy, or he is, but he has to pick one or the other. In the end Shadow chooses to believe it’s the world that’s not as he thought, while he’s of sound mind in it, and it might cost him his life.
But, like Anansi told the men at the beginning of the episode, you’re already dead, asshole; at least die as a sacrifice to something worthwhile. Though just how worthwhile Wednesday’s cause is remains to be seen…
Nitpicks and Clarifications
My one issue with this episode comes as a book reader. One thing Neil Gaiman is amazing at is setting scenes. His description of Czernobog’s apartment makes it entirely real: the faded carpets, the shabby sofa, the stink of cat piss and cigarettes. While the set decorators did their level best to give you the same feeling, I wasn’t quite there. The apartment serves not only as the actual setting, but also a physical manifestation of how far Czernobog and the Zoryas have fallen. As Zorya V tells Shadow on the show, they used to have servants to cook for them, but now they have to do everything themselves. It was good, but it didn’t give me quite the same feeling of claustrophobia and desperation as it did in the book.
Did I say “one issue”? Okay not quite. My other is the pacing. When Wednesday mentioned that his meeting would be happening at “the most important place in America,” I got all excited…until I remembered that that scene won’t happen until season 2. Then I got sorta bummed because geez even though it’s only 8 episodes, season 1 is gonna go kinda slow. Like it already has. But word on the street is that Ep 4 basically reframes from the pilot from Laura’s pov, so that seems only for the good.
“I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.”
Last week I called Bilquis “the goddess of love.” As someone pointed out in the comments, that isn’t really accurate. I’ve seen her called that elsewhere, and I guess that’s what stuck in my head. Really I was just simplifying for non-book readers, but actually Bilquis is the Queen of Sheba. Hence quoting Song of Songs last week during the sex scene. Or else that didn’t happen on the show and I’m remembering a scene from the book instead. Regardless, Bilquis’s power comes from belief and worship, like all the other gods, and her particular brand happens to be sex magic. Her partner’s gender wouldn’t seem to matter.
Speaking of, if you haven’t read the comments section for last week’s review, you really should. There’s a lot of fantastic discussion there, along with some great info about the Slavic pantheon especially.
Episode Grade: A. Despite the pacing issues and my personal nitpick, it was overwhelmingly overwhelming, and I was hooked.