This American Gods review contains spoilers.
American Gods Episode 8
As the first season of American Gods progressed, it became more and more apparent that the show had chosen an ambitiously small portion of the book to adapt in its first season. While this allowed for some excellent canon additions to the story — for example, an extension of Laura Moon’s character — it also led to a certain amount of wheel-spinning.
Last week, we got an entire episode devoted not to Mad Sweeney’s character, as the title suggested, but to Essie McGowan, an Irish immigrant to America. It was a beautifully told story of hardship and immigration with some delightful modern-day Mad/Laura/Salim interaction thrown in, but it wasn’t exactly what you’d expect from a season’s penultimate installment. There was minimal raising of stakes. We did find out that Mad killed Laura per Wednesday’s orders, but the revelation didn’t lead to decisive action in tonight’s season finale.
In “Come to Jesus,” Laura confronts Wednesday (kind of) by revealing herself to a still love-struck Shadow only moments after Wednesday finally gets Shadow to believe in something other than his love for Laura. It’s a cool moment, but one that has its hands tied by the book canon. Laura can’t attack Wednesday with the god-killer sword crafted by Vulcan (which, I think, would have been an awesome, thematically-rich ending). It’s not in the book and, while this TV adaptation seems more than willing to add material to its adaptation, it doesn’t seem very comfortable with changing it. This is a tough decision to pull off when you’re also choosing to adapt so little of the book.
The anti-climactic vibe of this entire Season 1 finale was most reflected in the final confrontation between the Old Gods and the New Gods, which saw Wednesday facing off against Media, Tech Boy, and Mr. World. Both sides were trying to win Ostara over to their side, but the conversation was too similar to the one they had only a few episodes ago when we first saw Wednesday and Mr. World on screen together.
The New Gods say that Wednesday’s day are numbered because people have forgotten him. Wednesday bites back with a bitter observation about the difference between distraction and belief. It was riveting stuff… the first time we heard it. This time, it doesn’t matter how prettily it is written or how prettily Ian McShane says it; we’ve heard it all before.
What of the Odin reveal? American Gods has to walk that fine line between telling the story for the book reader and telling the story for the non-book reader. The Odin reveal was obviously a moment that would have hit a bit better for the non-book reader who didn’t know who Wednesday was. However, we live in the age of the internet, when all you have to do is Google “Wednesday,” “ravens,” and “lightning” and you’ll have found the answer to Wednesday’s identity before the end of the first episode.
The Wednesday reveal relied heavily on how Shadow reacted to it. We may have all known who Wednesday truly is, but Shadow (somehow) still didn’t have a clue. And this was one of the main problems with adapting such a short section of the book for this first season: Shadow comes off like a moron. He both somehow doesn’t believe in the existence of gods until the eighth episode and also has no idea that Wednesday is Odin.
When Shadow realize all of these fools are gods — after Wednesday explicitly spells it out for him in the middle of Ostara’s party — he wanders around in a daze, making conversation with White Jesus (who, by the way, was pitch perfect and the true highlight of this episode) and staring gooily at Ostara. There may be a difference between confusion and anger, but it’s hard to believe that Shadow wouldn’t at least be a little angry after seeing Ostara literally kill all plants within a 100-mile radius. Or at least scared. Something. Some kind of emotion.
Instead, it is Media who is shown to be horrified by Ostara’s actions — which, let’s remember, will probably lead to the most vulnerable of people going hungry. It was an odd moment to empathize most with a New God who has been treating as an antagonist of sorts throughout the first season. In this moment, I wanted to jump ship and join the New Gods’ coalition and I couldn’t quite figure out why Shadow wouldn’t want to, too.
On the other hand, the season’s “cliffhanger” that sees Bilquis ending up at the House on the Rock is only a cliffhanger if you’ve read the book. Otherwise, it’s just Bilquis sightseeing. Which, sure, she deserves it after all she’s been through, but not exactly season-ending material.
This ending might have been saved by making us care about the characters a bit more, but this show (and, I would argue, Neil Gaiman’s work in general) has never been primarily concerned with emotional connection. Intellectually, I’m often fascinated by these characters and this story. Emotionally, my interest is sporadic. I care about Salim and his search for the Jinn. I care about Laura and Mad’s complicated frenemy-ship. My interest in Shadow’s journey and the fight between the New and Old Gods is more academic. Because of this, I didn’t care much for an ending that didn’t bring much to the table intellectually. It was more wheel-spinning without the sentiment to offset the plot redundance.
In this age of adaptation, it’s not so uncommon for on-screen adaptations of popular books to struggle when it comes to giving a story shape in a new medium. Watching the Season 1 finale of American Gods was similar to the experience of watching the first half of a book’s film adaptation that has been split into two separate movies (Mockingjay Part 1 is a great example).
If you’re not fundamentally changing the story in its adaptation, but you’re only telling a portion of a story that is meant to be told as a whole, then you get an ill-defined shape, an aborted narrative, an incomplete picture. In the American Gods Season 1 finale, this cast of characters was all dressed up with nowhere to go. As is often the case with these split on-screen adaptations, the best parts of the story are often not in the arbitrary “ending,” but in the added material — the parts of the source material that are given a chance to stretch out and breathe in their on-screen adaptation. This is where American Gods Season 1 was truly brilliant.
American Gods Season 1 was a success in so many ways, and it is a viewing experience that I would still wholeheartedly recommend to people, despite the lackluster ending that is more of a random chapter break than an elipsis. The “Coming to America” vignettes have addressed topical, necessary issues that grip a nation still trying to come to grips with and understand its immigrant foundation. (The Bilquis chapter we got in “Coming to Jesus,” however, was one of the least successful of the bunch, as it felt thematically-divorced from the rest of the episode.)
Other highlights included the magnificent performances, the stunning visuals, and the sheer style with which American Gods has translated this Gaiman story. While it spoke to the limitations and difficulties of adaptation, American Gods managed to beautifully update many of the themes from the novel written more than 15 years ago and push some important boundaries in the process (the Salim/Jinn love scene will surely go down as a TV landmark).
America Gods Season 1 may not have been perfect, but it is still fearlessly asking some important questions that aren’t being asked elsewhere in the pop culture landscape and it does it all with panache. Mad Sweeney would be proud.
What did you think of the American Gods Season 1 finale? What did you think of America Gods Season 1? Are you going to keep watching this show in Season 2? Sound off in the comments below or come find me on Twitter.