This American Gods review contains spoilers.
American Gods Season 1 Episode 1
If Bryan Fuller and Michael Green didn’t call this first American Gods episode “The Bone Orchard,” they could have gone with Shadow Moon and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
This man does not have a very good first 48 hours outside of jail. First, his wife dies. Then, he finds out it was because she was sleeping with his best friend. Things might be turning around if you consider the new job the mysterious Mr. Wednesday offers Shadow, but it seems to be dangerous, endlessly frustrating, and come with some very serious strings attached. This is almost immediately demonstrated when Shadow is kidnapped and then lynched by Technical Boy and his henchmen.
Shadow’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is the throughline that keeps this story grounded in this first episode and that’s no small task. In reading many of the reviews before American Gods premiered, I saw a sentiment tossed around a lot: American Gods throws its viewers in the deep end and expects them to swim with little to hold on to other than gorgeous visuals and the hope that answers will eventually be given. And it’s true. This show is not for the casual watcher or the narrative faint-of-heart. This is especially true in this first episode, which I would argue is slightly less successful than the subsequent installments and is doubly important because of its role as the series opener.
As with the novel, the character of Shadow has to compel and ground the reader. He is our entry point into this mad world and if we don’t care about him, then what’s the point? Vignettes casting gods as contemporary characters are fascinating — and arguably the highlight of both the novel and the TV show — but they don’t make up a cohesive narrative on their own. No, that’s where Shadow comes in. Through this first episode, Shadow manages to mostly keep his stoic, yet empathetic cool through some pretty terrible shit and that tells us more about this character than anything else. The only visible signs of his frustrations: an off-road scream into one of America’s national parks (and who hasn’t done that on a long road trip?) and getting lured into a fight by Mad Sweeney.
Shadow is a gentle soul, though not one without his limits. We want to follow him, and that’s important — especially a in a story where so much emphasis is put on who we inevitably choose to follow. Gracing Shadow with our continued attention is’t just an act of narrative. It is an act of faith. It’s an act of identity.
And what an uncommon protagoist Shadow is, in some ways. It has always seemed important that Shadow is an ex-convict. After all, the prison industrial complex is a major part of contemporary America identity — especially if you are a black man, which Shadow explicitly is in this adaptation. (In the novel, his ethnicity is more ambiguous, though decidedly multicultural.) He also subverts many of the expectations media tends to have about ex-convicts. He is articulate and well-read. He doesn’t revel in violence, explicitly telling Mr. Wednesday that he will not hurt someone for fun or for money when he accepts his job offer.
Shadow draws a line in the sand and, though he may get into a fight with Mad Sweeney, it seems more a product of Wednesday and Mad both getting what they want than it does Shadow willingly engaging in combat. Maybe that’s taking too much of Shadow’s agency away from him, but the fight scene is a “Somewhere in America” vignette masquerading as central plot. It is Shadow reluctantly worshipping both Mad and Wednesday in a callback to the “Coming to America” vignette we see in the show’s opening, violent minutes. Wednesday told Shadow when he first met him that he tends to get what he wants and what does he want more than the violent worship he once received so freely?
And let’s talk about that “Coming to America” vignette because it’s how American Gods chooses to open its tale. It’s a bold statement — both visually and narratively. Premium cable viewers might be used to gore, but, if they haven’t watched Fuller’s Hannibal, then they’ve probably never seen violence articulated quite like this. For Fuller (and director David Slade, a Hannibal helmer regular), violence is a chance to create a unique visual language where so other on-screen stories choose the same flat, repetitive expression.
In Fuller’s world (and, notably, in Green’s works, as well — though generally more thematically than visually), violence never as cut-and-dry as guts and glory. Here, much like in Hannibal, violence is a symphony that never loses its sense of stake. It may get abstract, but we never doubt that it is raw and it is real and people are dying because of it. The closest we get to artless glorification is a severed arm that flies across the screen and outside the frame, but it’s so darn cool that its hard to be bothered by it. Besides, unlike so many creators, I trust that Fuller has a point.
It is this ability to articulate a subject — violence — that is so common in film and TV, yet so often lazily rendered, into something more that makes Fuller and Slade two of the perfect men for this job. For Wednesday, battle and bloodshed is a form of worship. To be able to render that without the senseless glorification is important. Add a dischordant, emotive soundtrack composed by Hannibal‘s Brian Reitzell. The result? Wednesday’s worship is frustratingly base, but with some form of larger logic — even if we can’t completely see or understand it. A visual and thematic complication that sets the tone for this entire exploration of American identity.
Endlessly ambitious, American Gods also takes on another over-represented, but repetitively-articulated subject of the on-screen world: sex. In Bilquis’ “Somewhere in America” vignette (it’s Los Angeles — she’s in L.A.), we meet an Old God whose preferred form of worship is sex. Some creators would take this idea and turn it into a gawdy, scandalous montage of hot flesh and low morals. But that’s not what this character is about. That’s not what sex is often about, though you wouldn’t know it from its representation in most Hollywood fare.
Bilquis may literally swallow her worshippers whole, but it’s not a violent act. Unlike Wednesday’s worshippers, Bilquis’ tributes surrender their bodies in pleasure rather than agony. There’s something beautiful about that, and American Gods captures it well, unafraid to use explicitness for something other than salaciousness. Unafraid to show a woman’s body as something powerful and demanding and in total control. There’s something so insightful about Bilquis’ faded power. America has a weird, repressed, uncomfortable relationship with sex. Of course Bilquis has to resort to internet dating to find intimacy in this country.
We are briefly introduced to Shadow’s wife Laura in the first episode, but only to the edges of her character. We hear her talking on the phone with Shadow days before she dies. We see her through Shadow’s mind’s eye, wishing him goodnight. We learn about her death from the newspaper and her indiscretions from Audrey. It’s Audrey who has more of a presence in this first episide. Desperately grieving and hilariously open in her emotions and condemnations in only a way that the bereaved can really pull off, Audrey is a standout character in a show that has straight-up deities roaming around. That’s impressive.
When Audrey confronts Shadow at Laura’s grave, she is brash and she is funny and she is tragic and she is kind. She is more things at once in one scene than some female TV characters get to be in their entire series’ run. Audrey is so angry at Laura, but she misses her, too. She is drowning in her own grief, but she still has some empathy for Shadow. She gives him a hug when no one else has thought to do it.
There’s something intensely likeable about this character. I laughed out loud when she frustratedly yells at Shadow, “I’m trying to get my dignity back here,” as she attempts to give him a blow job on Laura’s grave. On some shows, this scene would have been played simply for laughs or for scandal or for the tragedy of it all. On this TV show, it is all three and more. Endlessly tonally complicated, while still fitting within this weird, wonderful story.
I think, for some people, the Technical Boy scene might be the most confusing part of this first episode. This goes doubly if you have never read the book. American Gods throws a lot at you in its first hour, and — as much as I like Technical God’s appearance (and the changes from how he is presented in the novel) — the virtual limo scene might be a step too far for some viewers who are trying to latch on to some sense of story. You think you have a handle on this world, or at least Shadow’s role in it, only to see the main character pulled into some kind of Matrix-like world where he can be injured or even killed.
But let’s parse that limo scene, shall we? Because it gives viewers an important piece of the American Gods puzzle: the New Gods. Prior to Technical Boy, we only dabble in the America of the Old Gods. Techical Boy hints that there is something more. There is another way of seeing and being America. It’s a sharp contrast to the way Wednesday and Mad Sweeney experience the world.
You understand why Wednesday and Mad Sweeney can be reluctant allies. They speak the same language: a poetry of tangible violence and wooly fate. An older form of communication and belief. Technical Boy, on the other hand, moves at a mile a minute. Information is directly connected to his preferred form of worship. He doesn’t have room for signs or dandelions in the wind. Though American Gods may skew in defense of the Old Gods, Technical Boy’s way of moving through the world is not a hard perspective to understand or empathize with. If you are reading this, then you most likely worship at the altar of the internet and of media. You find value in these things, even if you have complicated feelings about it.
Character-wise, the Technical Boy scene is also a vital moment for Shadow. It’s the moment we see him truly commit to Wednesday. Before this, sure, he had accepted a job, but that means nothing in this storytelling world if he doesn’t mean it on a level similar to faith. Shadow might not believe in Wednesday yet, but he has committed to him. When his life is threatened, he stays loyal. He chooses Wednesday to follow. This might change over the course of the first season or series, but, in this moment, Shadow has picked a side. And it doesn’t come without a price…
Seeing Shadow lynched is a bold way to end this first episode and not one that I’m sure American Gods totally pulls off. When watching this episode quickly followed by the second installment, as press reviewers were lucky enough to do, the loaded imagery of this scene immediately segues into something thematically cathartic, critical, and oh-so-relevant: Anansi’s “Coming to America” vignette. I’m not sure if it will play as well with a week in between. That being said, no doubt many viewers could use a week off to process and discuss this dense opening episode.
The first episode of American Gods may be confusing to some, but that is only because it gives its viewers a lot of credit. And, in a world where adaptations, reboots, and remakes are becoming so commonplace, we could do with a bit more of Bryan Fuller’s brand of adaptation. Which is to say: the kind of adaptation that assumes the viewer’s knowledge and uses that as a jumping off point. The kind of adaptation that attempts to be more than competent or binge-worthy. It attempts to be the kind of art to find answers in. The kind of art we need more than ever in this day and age.
If you were confused and frustrated by the first episode by American Gods, that’s OK. You can trust this story.