This American Gods review contains spoilers.
American Gods Season 2 Episode 5
“The Ways of the Dead” is a tale of two dead girls, all centered around a man who gets them into trouble. One of these dead girls is an anonymous white woman found dead at the turn of the 20thCentury, who gets a man into trouble and then gets a man killed. The other woman cheated on her husband, was killed, and came back driven by a mission to save and protect a man from danger.
One of these women is, of course, Laura Moon, who features prominently in the episode as her trip to New Orleans with Mad Sweeney starts getting out of hand. The other isn’t named, and her story doesn’t particularly matter in the grand scheme of things, but the story of the lynching of Will James (Warren Belle) takes up the bulk of the episode just the same.
To be quite honest, I’m not sure what the point was. Typically, when we’ve seen these sorts of stories, it’s because someone brought their God to America and then ended up dying in some sort of way, leaving the God behind. In this case, Will James is essentially something of a ghost, who Shadow sees in the mirror and who “infects” Shadow with the memory of his tragic killing and the tragedies faced by black Americans throughout history. (Will James is a real person who was lynched in Cairo. The lynching of white man Henry Salzner that night by the very same mob is unmentioned.)
It’s a side story of a side story, in other words. Shadow acts weird, learns about lynching—not having grown up in America, he’s got some distance from America’s history and apparently needed an education from Nancy and Ibis—and delivers a brief message to camera in a dubbed or digitally altered voice reminding people of the medieval philosophy of “memento mori” and after delivering that message, he is apparently freed. Other than a few brief clashes between Ibis and Nancy—the relationship between the Gods seem to change at the drop of a hat—that sums up that whole plot.
Certainly, Will James’s lynching strains to wring beauty out of tragedy. There’s a lot of slow-motion bloodshed, slow-motion shots of people yelling about the lynching, and a few interesting effects like Froggie’s smoking, burning head on a stake talking to Shadow, but there doesn’t seem to be a point to it all. At least in Sweeney’s segment, Salli Richardson-Whitfield’s directorial and visual flourish serves to show that the two of them, wrapped up in some sort of ritual, are confused and manipulated by Baron Samedi (Mustafa Shakir) and Maman Brigitte (Hani Furstenberg) into possibly having sex with each other.
To what end? That’s not clear, either. Perhaps it falls under Baron Samedi’s admonishment of needing a truth from Laura before she could get the potion to restore her life; Rodney Barnes builds on the fact that there’s something between the two of them by having Sweeney step out of his lane for Laura under the guise of getting his coin back, but it’s more than that. Even Brigitte is able to sense that before overcoming Sweeney’s hesitance to get him into bed.
At least Laura and Sweeney’s side trip to New Orleans has something to do with the characters. Ditto Wednesday and Salim’s trip to Alviss (Lee Arenberg) to attempt to get his spear reforged and its runes refreshed. Wednesday is preparing for war. Laura wants her life back. Sweeney needs his coin and has caught feelings for Laura. What exactly is Shadow doing, aside from learning about the history of Cairo, Illinois? Why do Bilquis and Nancy care so much about the fate of Ruby Goodchild? That character must eventually have a point, but at this point, who could possibly be invested in her? All she’s done is being talked at by Gods and her minister, and express her desire to leave Cairo behind.
Perhaps she’ll join up with the crew and come along as a new friend for Salim. Perhaps she’ll trigger some sort of revolt where Nancy and Bilquis will square off against Wednesday and Mr. World at the same time. Maybe she’s just an interesting diversion for an episode or two with further use later on in the series. For the moment, she’s just… there.
Most of the characters are simply there. Anyone involved in the orbit of Sweeney and Laura takes on a little more life, and Ian McShane and Orlando Jones are trying desperately to bring a little life to their scenes, but it’s not working. Nancy’s shifting patois is distracting, as his accents vary wildly in quality. McShane is clearly riffing in certain scenes, without anything of actual substance to go under his words. Any hard feelings between Wednesday, Ibis, and Nancy disappear the moment the three characters are together, because they all seem to enjoy tormenting Shadow more than they enjoy tormenting one another, further highlighting a general inconsistency from episode to episode and scene to scene.
Like Cairo, Illinois, American Gods feels like a place that’s fallen on hard times, and is struggling to get back not to a former glory, but simply back to a station of being functional. And like Cairo, it’s not very successful in this mission. The bones are there, but there’s nothing to make the skeleton dance. The best it can manage is a rattle now and then.