This review contains spoilers.
2.2 The Beguiling Man
In any good hero’s journey, there’s always a side-quest. You have to recover this artifact in order to defeat that demon, you have to recover this holy weapon, or that magical key, or that MacGuffin to continue on with whatever the larger journey is. Given the solid cast of characters of American Gods, it’s not surprising that characters will be given a side quest or two along the way, usually at Wednesday’s behest. The gang is dispatched to a variety of places; Salim and the Jinn get sent to retrieve Odin’s spear, Laura and Mad Sweeney get sent to track down Shadow, Wednesday and Nancy go for a drive, and Mama-ji gets a chance to swap shifts at the diner in order to participate in the war.
The official declaration of war, such as it was, took place at the end of the last episode, in which Zorya was shot and killed by assassins dispatched by Mr World. Mr Town (Dean Winters) grabs Shadow, either on orders or simply due to availability. Technical Boy gets sent off to recover the missing Media. Both sides, clearly are gearing up for combat, with the Old Gods going for weapons and the New Gods going for propaganda and information, two weapons that can win any modern conflict no matter what the boots on the ground might do or not do. After all, the Tet offensive was a military disaster for North Vietnam, but it changed how the war was perceived thanks to television coverage, and made all the difference.
That quest for information is what drives Mr Town to torture Shadow, the act of which causes Shadow to lapse into lengthy glimpses of his own back-story—his arrival in America, formative experiences on the streets of Bushwick, the death of his mother (Olunike Adeliyi), and the appearance of a mysterious older man who sounds suspiciously like Mr Wednesday who teaches Shadow how to do his signature coin pass.
I’m not certain if this information is shared with Mr World, but it’s informative enough for the home audience and it serves well to establish Shadow’s rootlessness in the world. The scenes involving Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney work well in Tyler Dinucci and Andres Fischer-Centeno’s script, better than perhaps anything else in the episode. The bickering is still there, but rather than a constant back-and-forth, things seem to be settling into more companionable, amiable grousing, like between siblings, rather than active hatred. Indeed, when Laura and Sweeney have their conversation about God and Laura’s atheism (despite being surrounded by literal living Gods), their push and pull feels comfortable, and natural, and serves to heighten the dialogue to something funnier than it might be on the blank page. Ditto the interactions between Nancy and Wednesday; Orlando Jones brings his comic timing to bear on this episode, and has several laugh-out-loud moments based solely on his body language and delivery alone.
That, and director Frederick E.O. Toye’s solid direction of the action sequence on the train, elevates the material. Like last episode, it still feels a little bit listless, as if something is missing. Nancy seems more accurate to the way the character was portrayed in the first season, and the scenes with Salim and the Jinn were cute, thanks to Omid Abtahi’s expression as he gets into the sidecar of the motorcycle. It’s as funny as anything Nancy does in the episode, and helps further establish the character as a sweet, well-meaning sort of optimist in a strange situation (he’s an opposite Laura Moon).
However, Shadow’s torture sequences feel unnecessary as a framing device for his flashbacks, and while the device he’s hooked into looks cool, most of the episode feels a bit flat. It’s just close-ups of Ricky Whittle screaming or grimacing, and then flashbacks to Brooklyn and his time spent with his mother as a child. The interaction with Wednesday does add a little interest to the scene, but it feels a little overly long, and it’s not exactly necessary information, at least for the moment. Perhaps it will come back into play later, but for the it just feels like filler. Shadow’s “man without a country” state has already been pretty well established by this point, as has his general attitude and demeanor. What this adds remains, for the moment, a mystery.
Of course, with a show as heavily influenced by mythology as American Gods, it makes sense that even the more grounded characters have a bit of personal mythology. Shadow, the eternal outsider, fighting for a place in the world is as good a story as any for Mr Nancy’s next tall tale. It would certainly explain how he’s drawn into the bigger stories of those around him. Like the Old Gods, he’s rootless in this new world, even as he’s brought into being by it.
Now it’s up to the show’s creative crew to find a place for that information in the show’s larger narrative.