This American Gods review contains spoilers.
American Gods Season 2 Episode 8
One of the biggest moments in mass media history has never even been hinted at on American Gods, and it took New Media long enough to latch on to one of Old Media’s most successful stunts. On October 30th, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air program scared Americans to no end with a realistic, gripping take on an alien invasion the likes of which never happened before and has never happened since. October 30, 1938, a young dramatist and his company of actors took an adaptation of H.G. Wells and made history, scaring the daylights out of Americans coast to coast and causing a panic in those unlucky enough to catch the program after the opening.
Whether War of the Worlds caused panic doesn’t really matter. Some say it did, some say it didn’t, some say the story was invented by newspapers the next day and perpetuated by the mythologizing Welles. What matters is it’s the newest effort by Media and an improved Technical Boy to shake up the world, throw the Old Gods off their trail, and get Shadow Moon, Salim, and Wednesday hauled off to jail for long enough to make Wednesday’s war yesterday’s news. In a sense, Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds is one of modern America’s most popular myths; indeed, it put the idea of alien invasion in the minds of Americans in a way nothing ever could have, and it’s held on to this day. More importantly, it’s a reminder of the power of the media over the thoughts of the mass audience; if the media wants you to be afraid, you’ll be afraid.
That, more than anything else, is Mr. World’s biggest weapon in this fight. If he can turn the people against the Old Gods and their human accompaniment, so much the better. You can’t win worshipers if people revile you. Unless, of course, they fear you, but it’s clear that World and Media are going to walk a fine line with that in the script from Aditi Brennan Kapil and Jim Danger Gray. It’s mostly about a high-tech version of “swatting” someone, though with a computer paper trail to back it up. It’s an escalation of the war between the Gods, and it also kind of plays into Wednesday’s hands. Odin has always been one not to shy away from fear in his worshipers, and certainly, it’s a tool he’ll be able to use, assuming they’re not constantly hassled by cops along the way.
The episode is focused mostly around Mr. World speaking to camera and Shadow and Laura coming to terms with the death of Mad Sweeney, with a little other talking besides. The segments with Mr. World, and the War of the Worlds, work well because I still haven’t tired of Crispin Glover’s measured, careful delivery of his lines, a rictus grin on his face that doesn’t mask his malevolence. For all the show’s faults, World is still mostly effective, thanks to Glover. Emily Browning also has some good moments in the episode, and Omid Abtahi does a great job with Salim’s lighter moments. he’s able to make sheer terror funny, and he’s a great response to World’s media blitz as someone who would naturally be afraid to hang out with killers and possible terrorists, if only because he’s a Muslim man in post-9/11 America who is actively being called a terrorist on the news.
However, that element aside, the episode is lacking, especially in comparison to last week’s “Treasure.” Of course, anything short of revelatory would pale in comparison to that episode, so that’s not a surprise. “Moon Shadow” is a much more mixed bag, with lots of visual flair from Christopher J. Byrne and not a ton of substance. The War of the Worlds cold opening was nice, as was the bookend alien abduction willed into existence by Americans (who similarly willed into existence Mr. World’s Men in Black sidekicks).
However, it gets a little cluttered, and tries to push a little too far into artistic territory at the cost of storytelling clarity. The first manifestation of Shadow’s powers is impressively staged, but what happened to the cops that were outside when he swept his toys off the game board? Or the fact that he, Wednesday, and Salim are all wanted criminals? That will undoubtedly come up in season three, but as shown in the ending coda of the episode, it’s going to create complications for travel purposes. (Laura sneaking off with Mad Sweeney’s dead body will undoubtedly attract attention, too.)
If nothing else, it’s clear that the gloves are coming off, and that the pleasant-ish diversion in Cairo is over, and Cairo itself seems to have been burned for Wednesday’s purposes. That’s just as well, American Gods the book is a road novel, and it’s necessary for the show to be a road show, too. The show was at its best when it was on the move in the first season, and settling in Cairo seemed to take some of the sparkle out of things (as well as stretched belief in how quickly characters traveled from Cairo to New Orleans, for example; that’s an 8-hour drive, which seems like a long drive for a day trip).
The second season of American Gods was shaky, to put it charitably. There’s still a lot of good to be said for the show, and if the creative crew can cut down on off-screen distractions and have a more unified plan on how to tackle season three (which is already confirmed), it should improve back to the quality of the first season. Though that might be a bigger ask than expected, given just how badly the second season went and how many cast members had to be juggled. That kind of thing can create hard feelings, though hopefully the strength of the source material helps restore order on all sides of the camera.