This review contains spoilers.
1.2 The Secret Of Spoons
The larger the world of American Gods becomes, the more interesting things get, and the more confusing things seem to be getting for Shadow Moon. He’s reeling, looking for any anchor in a stormy sea. He’s fresh out of prison, trying to rebuild his life. His wife and best friend are dead, and they’d betrayed his friendship before death. And perhaps worst of all, the only grounding influence in his life is a smooth-talking con-artist who is drawing him into something that looks suspiciously like a violent confrontation.
Why else would Wednesday want to drive to Chicago to meet with a skull-crushing maniac and a vodka-swilling fortune teller? And why else would Shadow get beaten up by a toad-skin smoking kid in a virtual reality limo? And why on earth would Lucille Ball (Gillian Anderson as Media) appear on the TVs at a big-box store and offer to flash skin in exchange for Shadow switching teams?
I have to give American Gods a lot of credit. Every time they’ve introduced a new character, it’s been spectacular. The cold opening introduction of Mr. Nancy (a brilliant Orlando Jones) is incredible; he inspires a whole ship of people to revolt in a scathing invective against America’s history of racial problems. Or, I suppose, America’s future of racial problems, since this is 1697. Mr. Nancy is a wonderful combination of well-dressed dandy and rabble-rousing pulpit preacher, equal parts invective and inspiration.
However, the more interesting introductions are Czernobog (Peter Stormare) and his companions, the sisters Zorya. Vechernyaya is a charmingly sassy old woman; Cloris Leachman is a treasure and every scene she shares with Ian McShane is a joy to watch. Czernobog is shabby, a chain-smoking, dirty-looking man, but there’s a layer of intense menace to him. Something about the joy he takes in killing, and the way he fondles his blood-dripping hammer, is supremely effective. He’s a God who is only good at one thing, and it’s something that the world doesn’t value anymore, but Wednesday values that skill and clearly covets it.
David Slade does another wonderful job this week of making the elements of American Gods balance. Czernobog is scary and pathetic all at once, while not losing Peter Stormare’s natural ability as a comic actor. Ricky Whittle continues to impress; he’s found a balance between the impassive nature of Shadow as a character in the book and the necessity for a television actor to not be a complete blank slate with things bouncing off him. He emotes well, but he’s stony enough to communicate that Shadow is a man used to being guarded, whether by his general nature or due to being in prison. Nancy’s introduction is incredibly well done, but the highlight might be the checkers game between Czernobog and Shadow. It echos Ingmar Bergman’s famous chess with death scene, except with a little more singing and a little less philosophical discussion.
However, Shadow’s fate hangs in the balance on the egalitarian game of checkers. Every piece is the same, and every piece is equal. It’s very much an American game, and it seems like it would naturally appeal to these gods, who have been stripped of most of their powers and forgotten, adrift in a world where Lucille Ball is more powerful than Bliquis, Odin, or any of the old gods. He’s been battered and beaten for his boss, and now he’s putting his life on the line for lack of something better to do (and possibly a little curiosity about this new world he’s becoming a part of).
The visuals of American Gods continue to be stellar. There’s an extended sequence involving flying through space that I’m not quite sure I understand, but was very impressed by nonetheless. Mr. Nancy’s look suggests the spider that he is, even before he morphs into a giant tarantula. Even Shadow’s trip to his family home is a beautiful bit of storytelling, the happy memories and half-finished surprise party giving way to the sad reality of cleaning out a late family member’s things and leaving behind a home and a former life.
Even when the visuals get a little confusing, as they do in this episode, the writing remains the show’s greatest strength. The characters are clearly defined, and have their own motivations. Shadow is lost, but he’s slowly finding his feet as the world around him divulges more and more of its mysteries. Michael Green and Bryan Fuller have another winning script on their hands, and the two of them plus David Slade means television gold. The visuals do the characters a service, and vice-versa.
Even when nothing’s really happening (or perhaps I just didn’t understand what was happening), it’s at least pleasant to watch. When the characters are taking centre stage, the show goes from being a visual treat to something more substantial. It’s still early, but thus far all the elements of American Gods seem to be balanced. There’s comedy and drama, chills and thrills, interesting writing and incredible visuals.
Provided that they can keep a similar balance on their growing roster of characters without marginalising the two central cast members, the road movie structure being hinted at by the first two episodes is going to work out just fine. I could watch Shadow and Wednesday drifting around the country, meeting Gods and getting into adventures for four or five seasons. Anything to keep Ian McShane in steady work.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan believes that American Gods has one of the best casts on television. If you can have Ian McShane and Cloris Leachman in the same scene, you’re going to have magic. Find more from Ron daily at Popfi.