This review contains spoilers.
2.1 The House On The Rock
American Gods has been off television for a very long time. By the time the second season debuts, it will be roughly a month shy of two years since the first episode bowed on American television, and since then, there hasn’t been a lot of good publicity from the show’s production. The creative team of Michael Green and Bryan Fuller left, replaced by Jesse Alexander. Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth left, with Media to be recast and Easter to be forgotten about, despite her explosive and memorable debut. Old Gods, new directions, with new showrunner Jesse Alexander promising to skew the series closer to Neil Gaiman’s original source material while maintaining the Fuller lushness that made the first season stand-out visual television.
If there’s one thing that can be said for The House On The Rock, it’s dazzling to behold. The directive under Alexander must be to crank up the special effect to 11, because from the opening moment—Technical Boy runs over a golfer with a speeding stretch limo—to the end, there’s no shortage of impressive special effects at every turn. The fact that the show is filming in one of the book’s most iconic locations only helps matters on that front. The House on the Rock is absolutely amazing to see on screen, even if it’s only a small part of the episode.
The bulk of the second season debut deals with two stories. Mr World is ready to use all the weapons at his disposal, literally, to stop Wednesday in his attempt to bring the Old Gods together to unite against him and the New Gods. Wednesday’s job is to talk a bunch of Gods from a variety of cultures and epochs into working as a team to stop scraping together moments of worship where they can find them and actually go out and inspire awe in the people again. After smashing the New Gods and taking their rightful place in charge of America, of course. While Wednesday uses the kitsch of roadside attractions and a bacchanal at a diner in lieu of Valhalla’s feasting, Mr World uses the power of the Eye of Argus and the Cold War-era nuclear bunker Black Briar, a take on the real-life Greenbrier (a hotel/fallout bunker of massive proportions built in secret by the US government through a front company).
In terms of plot, The House On The Rock feels thin. Mr World sends Technical Boy off to find Media, and he holds court with an elderly security guard at Black Briar. He still offers Odin respect, and he’s loath to launch into a war with the Old Gods, despite their weakness and his high-tech trickery. Wednesday brings a bunch of random Gods together to give the his sales pitch, though they’re reluctant to sign on until Shadow Moon gives them a big speech as a closer. That seems to skew things in Wednesday’s favour.
Shadow’s speech is fine, and Ricky Whittle does a good enough job selling it, but something feels off tonally about the episode, and that starts with the screenplay. With credits given to Neil Gaiman and Jesse Alexander, it’s probably a good glimpse into what the future holds for the series. Wednesday seems to lack some of the spark he had in the first season, and Mr Nancy definitely feels different, leaning more on profanity and less on wit during his interactions with Shadow and Sweeney and company. The performances are there—Orlando Jones in particular is in fine form when the true form of Anansi is revealed in Odin’s mental mead hall—but it seems to be lacking something that was present in the character’s previous appearances.
Perhaps the appearances of the characters—all with glowing white eyes and impressive new costumes—was too much of a distraction. There seemed to be a lot of heavy CGI, more than usual, and less delicately handled by director Christopher Byrne and the production crew. It feels more like a cudgel than a scalpel, and there’s a lot going on in both the God scenes within the House on the Rock and at Motel America. At some points, like on the spinning carousel, this works in the show’s favour, but at other points, like the assault on the diner, it just seems to create confusion where none is needed. Several characters get shot, but it’s difficult to tell who it is until the smoke clears and the battle is over.
American Gods doesn’t hit the ground running in its second season. Instead, it seems to slow down slightly, dispatching characters on side quests and focusing less on the main plot in favour of a little vamping. It’s not quite stalling, as Wednesday does get to have his palaver with the Gods and undoubtedly the attack will change more than a few minds for the war to come, but aside from a pretty sad death scene involving one of my favourite characters from the first season, knocked out of the park by all three actors involved, it feels a bit prone to distraction.
Or, perhaps, two years away has heightened my expectations for American Gods. It was entertaining enough, for the most part, but it seemed to lack some of the sparkle of the first season, and certain character beats felt wrong. Perhaps this is just a case of a new creative crew trying to get on their feet, establishing a slightly different variation on the tone of the first season. Things seem to be a little more serious now, in any case, and even the silver-tongued Mr Nancy appears to be tempering in the heat.
This may be the point in the preparation for war that things really start getting real. The New Gods aren’t just out for blood, they’ve drawn it. Now it’s up to the Old Gods to prove their worth.