This American Gods review contains spoilers.
American Gods Season 2 Episode 6
It’s hard to see the true person behind the character being played by Wednesday. He talks fast, he’s charming, he’s glib, and he’s funny. But behind that mask of humor is a core of what seems to be actual pain, as Odin’s time in America isn’t without trouble and loss. Granted, it’s trouble of his own making, but at the same time, the Allfather’s experiences as an actual father have brought him significant pain, as explicitly shown during “Donar the Great” and hinted at in previous episodes.
Wednesday’s past as a burlesque leader named Al Grimnir is an amusing nod to both one of Odin’s many names (Grimnir) and Ian McShane’s most famous non-Lovejoy character, Al Swearengen, who was a similarly greasy, yet intimidating, huckster of booze and women and lascivious entertainment. Of all the threads that have been unraveled during American Gods Season 2, the flashbacks involving Wednesday and his son Donar AKA Thor (Derek Theler) are the most effective bits, and some of the better writing thus far.
Full credit to both Ian McShane and Adira Lang, whose script stays true to the character of Wednesday while imbuing the character with more pathos than he’s had so far. Yes, he’s still a tricky devil, manipulating others and trying to work his plans to keep Donar around while getting rid of Thor’s pesky girlfriend Columbia (Laura Bell Bundy, playing the pre-Liberty personification of the United States of America).
Donar, Columbia, and Wednesday can scratch out a meager living drawing the worship of a few hundred theatergoers in a ramshackle burlesque revue, but that’s not enough for any of them. When Donar gets an invitation to be the face of American muscle courtesy of an American pro-Nazi group, he jumps at the chance (with Odin’s encouragement). When Columbia gets an invitation from Technical Boy to become the face of the war movement, she jumps at the chance (with Odin’s encouragement) after being told that Donar was heading off to be the face of the American Nazi movement.
It’s not true, of course, and it ends tragically for all three parties, but it establishes that the old God, for all his sadness, hasn’t really learned a lesson. He concocts a similar plan to get Laura out of the way, giving him access to Shadow in a vulnerable enough state to agree. He still has bigger dreams than to simply scrape out a worship existence thanks to a few neo-pagans. In this case, he wants to ride Donar’s coattails to greater worship, to restore the whole pantheon, but his attempt is unsuccessful. Now he’s turning to war, and using Shadow to work cons on people to get Lou Reed’s leather jacket and restore the runes to his famed spear.
The con scene is good, solidly performed and well put together by director Rachel Talalay, but where she shines is in the song and dance number Wednesday and the girls do at the burlesque show. It’s fun and zippy, and it’s kind of a reminder to some of the more interesting scenes of Talalay’s Tank Girl. Tonally, that particular movie was all over the place, but the tonal shifts in “Donar the Great” work because of the split in settings. A lot can happen in a hundred years, and while Wednesday is still Wednesday, he’s carrying around bad memories and old wounds beneath his surface, and McShane does a wonderful job of portraying that, dropping character only enough in his scenes with Shadow to elicit sympathy from both his sidekick and the viewing audience.
There’s not a lot of visual trickery here, but it’s not needed, because shooting straightforward does service to both the performances and the material. When you have a big song and dance scene, there’s no need to clutter it up and get in the way of choreography. When you have an actor like Ian McShane looking sad and singing depressing music, there’s no need to make it too flashy. It’s heartbreaking to watch Ian McShane sing, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” in an empty theater, with the weight of the world on his shoulders and the pain of loss etched on his features.
Unlike the scenes in Cairo, this carries both dramatic weight and advances the character of Wednesday just a bit more. You don’t really see Odin without thinking of Thor, especially in a post-Marvel Cinematic Universe world, and this is a good explanation as to just why Thor isn’t involved in Wednesday’s plotting and Shadow is. Perhaps Shadow is Wednesday’s chance to undo the mistakes of the past, or perhaps Shadow is just a way for Wednesday to make the same mistakes twice.
It remains to be seen just how Shadow and Wednesday’s pairing will play out, but “Donar the Great” is a step in then right direction for American Gods. It is smarter and more moving than previous episodes, and it felt more tightly plotted in both terms of script, editing, and direction. In a season with a lot of filler, “Donar” was substance, and quite an improvement as a result. Not all of the comedy was successful, but enough of it worked to lessen the impact of the more dramatic flashbacks. Not all of the acting performances in the flashback moment work as well as McShane, but they’re a nice blending between the stylized acting of classic Hollywood musicals and modern acting choices that work better than possibly expected.
American Gods isn’t quite back to first season form, but it’s a step in the right direction. The hard part is taking a second, third, and fourth step.