This American Gods review contains spoilers.
American Gods Episode 2
In these first two episodes of American Gods, Shadow Moon has never been more relatable as a gateway character than when he’s yelling at Wednesday: “I don’t have a fucking clue … I want one. Give me a fucking clue.” It’s indicator to the audience that, if you haven’t read the book (or done some Google research) and have only the faintest idea of what’s going on in this, that’s OK. You’re doing it right. (Or at least not doing it wrong.)
Luckily, we viewers don’t have to go through half the trauma Shadow has to go through in order to get to some clues. This episode picks up right where “The Bone Orchard” left off, with Shadow hanging from a tree after being strung up by Tech Boy’s goons. In an (as-of-yet) unexplained act of good fortune for Shadow, the goons are unceremoniously torn to bloody, gory pieces and Shadow cut down to live another day (and, if the cliffhanger of this episode is anything to go by maybe just another day — Shadow and Near Death Experiences go together like peanut butter & jelly).
After getting stapled back together at the hospital (where, as long as he hasn’t been shot, the authorities don’t seem to care about the violence enacted on Shadow — a thematic tie-in to Anansi’s “Coming to America” vignette that opens the episode), Shadow goes to cathartically yell at Wednesday. He didn’t sign up for lynchings. A promise of double salary and Wednesday’s vengeful scheming against Technical Boy eventually assauge Shadow’s doubts. He stays on the team. Though, judging by the weary bubble bath and tears, Shadow’s decision might have more to do with the fact that Shadow is just too damn tired to figure out anything else. Besides, as a black ex-con living in America, his options are decidedly limited.
Before hitting the road, we get a nice little peek into Shadow and Laura’s home… or what used to be their home, at least. Between Laura’s death and the dick pic reminders of her infidelity, it’s lost some of its coziness. (Though the signs of the Welcome Home party Laura had been planing for Shadow are littered throughout the apartment, an indication that — though she might not have been faithful, Laura seemed to genuinely care about Shadow.) Shadow packs up the remnants of His Life As It Used To Be and hits the road with his new family, Mr. Wednesday, to figure out what His Life As It Is Now actually means.
This is where this episode, and this show, finds some of its lighter rhythms. The dynamic of a confused, stoic Shadow and a confident, charismatic Wednesday is pure TV gold. The two play off each other like the best kind of odd couples. “We’re not taking the highway. Not now. Not ever. No. Highways,” Wednesday tells Shadow, his bucket hat making him seem like the set-in-his-ways father or grandfather to Shadow’s exasperated young man act.
But, while these characters fit these stereotypes in some ways, there is a weight to Shadow that you don’t often find in the younger character in these set-ups. Of course, it is an understandable weight informed by Shadow’s time in prison and the recent death of his wife. On the other end of the spectrum, Wednesday has a lust for life that subverts his Old Man archetype. He carelessly sleeps with pretty women and blows dandelions out the car window while Shadow frowns at him from across the car. These dynamic is more than just archetypal boxes.
Before hitting the first stop on their cross-country road trip, Shadow and Wednesday stop to gather supplies. On his shopping mission, Shadow runs into another New God: Media (played with a twinkle in her eye by Gillian Anderson). Media is in Lucille Ball — nay, Lucy Ricardo — form, speaking to Shadow from an episode of I Love Lucy on one of the TVs in a super-retailer store a la Walmart.
Media wants to offer Shadow a job, the carrot to Tech Boy’s stick. “I don’t want to work for you, I Love Lucy,” is Shadow’s answer (not to mention one of my favorite TV show lines of the year thus far). He might not know what Wednesday is up to, but he seems infinitely more comfortable in the world of the Old Gods, where there is drinking and bar brawls and where the lies-of-omission are told across classic cars rather than across virtual limos.
Tech Boy and Media don’t try to lure Shadow into their world slowly and, in some ways, that’s the more honorable tactic. They show Shadow who they are, at least to a greater extent than the Old Gods do. Wednesday is all personality sleight of hand. “He does not know our world,” Zorya Vechernyaya observes of Shadow to Wednesday when they first arrive at the Zorya sisters’ home in Chicago. “I’m easing him in,” he tells her.” Vechernyaya’s answer: “You’re the worst man I’ve ever seen.”
The Zorya sisters don’t get a lot of play in the novel, so it’s nice to see them given such a focus in this episode. Though Czernobog is the Old God Wednesday is looking to get on his side, Zorya Vechernyaya seems to be the comrade he most respects and wants to impress. And she isn’t without her uses. After all, it is Zorya Vechernyaya who invites Wednesday and Shadow to dinner, giving them a chance to convince Czernobog to join their battle.
The American representations of these Slavic gods are the best part of this solid episode. They give us conext for how down-on-their-luck many of the Old Gods truly are. Though they have a roof over their heads and, apparently, enough food to share with others (in the book, Zorya Vechernyaya tries to get $40 from Wednesday to help pay for dinner), they appear to live frugally, with their only money coming in from Czernobog’s slaughterhouse job and the Zorya sisters’s fortune-telling. This peek into the lives of the Zorya sisters continues in next week’s episode to even more effective results.
It’s Czernobog, here, who gets the most to do. Though he doesn’t get his own “Coming to America” vignette, Czernobog sure knows how to make an entrance, smashing a cow’s brains in to demonstrate to the viewers just what he is all about. (He just loves killing things with his sledgehammer, OK?) According to Starz press material, Czernobog is “the Slavic god of darkness and evil.” So, maybe not the kind of guy you want to lose in a game of checkers to. For example.
Like Zorya Vechernyaya and Mr. Wednesday, Czernobog, dreams of a world that used to be. Rather than finery and power, however, Czernobog remembers fondly a time when he got to kill cattle with his sledgehammer on the regular. Now, he has to use a cattle gun… which is apparently less fun, instead finding fun in cutthroat games of checkers and casual racism. Enter Shadow Moon, who stakes his life (or at least one swing of Czernobog’s hammer) on one of those games of checkers. (Never have the checkers stakes felt higher!)
“So, at sunrise, I get to knock your brains out,” the episode ends before Czernobog lightens the decree with a message of faux-remorse: “A shame. You’re my only black friend.” Again, a thematically poignant ending for an episode that started with that angry, still-relevant sum-up of black oppression in America. While we wait to find out Shadow’s uncertain fate, let’s discuss the opening in more detail…
Coming to America — Anansi
Anansi is a very important figure in the American Gods story. Not only does he play a prominent role in the novel, but he gets his very own spinoff book called Anansi Boys. In a sea of potential spinoff deities, he is the one who is chosen.
In this TV adaptation introduction, it’s not hard to see why Anansi might be a fascinating, compelling figure to follow. Played here by a charismatically furious Orlando Jones (one of the great nerd actors of our time), he is introduced in his “Coming to America” vignette as he crosses the ocean on a Dutch slaving ship.
In this one scene, Jones gives one of the standout performances of the first four episodes (and, let’s face it, he has some stiff competition). He holds nothing back as Anansi, telling these desperate, yet hopeful men bound for America that they have little to hope for, instead convincing them to set the ship on fire.
However you may feel about American Gods, this “Coming to America” vignette is something that will stick with you for a while, a scene you can share with your friends who don’t care about this new, weird show you’re watching, but who might find something to talk about in this scene. A scene to think about as you make your way through modern America.
Somewhere in America — Bilquis
For the second episode in a row, Bilquis gets her own aside. This time, it is a montage of her sexual worshippers as they succomb to her charms and end up trapped inside her galactic forever in a permanent state of arousal/pleasure. There are worse fates. (Like a sledgehammer to the skull, for example.)
In addition to the worship montage, we also see Bilquis visit a museum exhibit centered around Makeda, aka the former Queen of Ethopia, aka her. Like the Zorya sisters and Wednesday — presumably, like all of the Old Gods — Bilquis wants her power back. She wants the good times to return for her. As a Queen of Sheba statue looks on, Bilquis calls to a golden dress with a determined stare on her face. Bilquis has not given up.
Additional thoughts & quotes
“Angry gets shit done.” — Anansi
“We will be meeting with a number of people pre-eminent in their respective fields. Then, we will rendezvous at one of the most important places in the country.” Wednesday finally gives Shadow a clue. Now, it wasn’t so hard to outline the plot of the season, was it?
“The screens the altar. I’m the one they sacrifice to.” Could Gillian Anderson be anymore perfect for the role of Media? (There is only one correct answer to this question.)
“They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me. Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or in the palm of their hand so they don’t get bored watching the big one.” I’m beginning to think this story doesn’t like social media very much…
“Time and attention, better than lamb’s blood.” — Media
“We are now and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and he ain’t even yesterday anymore.” — Media
“What hath god wrought? God damned information age, is what.” — Wednesday
Cloris Leachman is a national treasure. Discuss.
“You don’t believe in fortunes?” “I think we’re all fucked anyway, comes out, you know. So, seeing that before it happens is just playing the odds.”
“Let there be beauty where there can be.” — Wednesday
For those who were intrigued by the appearance of the jinn in tonight’s episode (he was meeting with Wednesday in the diner), look for more time with the character in next week’s episode.