The American Gods novel isn’t teeming with three-dimensional female characters. Female characters are there — in the form of Shadow’s wife Laura Moon or goddess Bilquis, for example — but they are mostly thinly-drawn, sexualized, and subjugated to the sidelines of the story.
When looking to adapt the Neil Gaiman novel into a Starz TV series, showrunner Bryan Fuller and Michael Green pinpointed the absence of fully-drawn female characters as a way to improve upon the source material. In talking to Emily Browning (who plays Laura in the TV show) and Yetide Badaki (who plays Bilquis), it was also a big part of why they were interested in the project.
“That was the first thing that I talked about with Bryan and Michael when I met them,” said Browning. “There are some really cool, interesting female characters in the book, but they’re tiny. They’re just sort of small parts of the book. And they were saying it’s really important to them to kind of expand the stories of the women, which is great. And, frankly, if they didn’t do that, I think it would just be nowhere near as interesting of a show. It wouldn’t be as fun to watch.”
Badaki echoes the sentiment, reflecting on her reading of the novel when it first came out. “I remember reading Laura and reading Audrey and reading Bilquis and going, ‘Oh, they’re…. Oh, they’re gone,'” said Badaki. “Like, I was just getting into them and then they were gone, so it’s really fun to get to dive in a little bit deeper to what these people are going through and you get to see all these different women in different three-dimensional forms, fully realized with flaws.”
What does this “expansion” look like? The fourth episode of the series is a break from format from the previous three installments, giving us a Laura-centric episode that gives us greater insight into this character we have, up until that point, only learned about through other characters.
“Laura’s Shadow’s wife and she’s sort of integral to the story in the book,” said Browning, “but you don’t get to learn very much about her personally. And, in the show, we get to go back into her past and learn about her history and how she meets Shadow and how Shadow goes to prison in the first place and what made her such an awful person, I suppose … When you see her in her everyday life kind of struggling and going through this mundane routine, I think it’s slightly easier to empathize with her and the shitty things that she does.”
Moving into the second half of the season, Browning said: “Laura kind of ends up with characters that you would not imagine she’s going to end up with, and I’m excited for people to see that.”
As for Bilquis, who is a recurring character in the first half of the series, but who is separate from the main plot, Badaki said: “You get to learn a little bit more about where Bilquis came from and how she becomes integral in this war between the New and the Old Gods.”
For Badaki, Bilquis and Laura aren’t so dissimilar, as they both struggle to find relevance in a world that doesn’t fully appreciate them. “Yes, some of us are playing goddesses, but they’re deeply human,” she noted. “I feel like there are so many parallels even with Bilquis because she’s an ancient goddess of love trying to find relevance in the everyday. And so she’s plodding through everyday like I guess what you were saying is happening with Laura.”
In discussing the female characters in the first half of the season, it’s impossible not to mention Audrey (played by Betty Gilpin). “I think people don’t even realize how much Audrey has been expanded, too,” noted Browning. Audrey has scene-stealing moments in both Episodes 1 and 4 and, for Browning, “she was the surprise standout performance.”
Gillian Anderson as Media and Kristen Chenoweth as Easter are also female characters to look forward to in American Gods Season 1, though characters who get less to do in the first four episodes. (Easter won’t even show up until the final episode of the season, while Media pops up in a truly great scene in Episode 2.)
“There’s so many incredible representations of women,” said Badaki, “And, again, all flawed, all three-dimensional. They’re not any one thing.”
“Yeah, I feel like so often when you have multiple women in a show, it’s like each one is a specific archetype,” added Browning. “And I don’t think any of these women really are. And, finally. It shouldn’t be that hard, really, to create three-dimensional characters.”
To learn more about the American Gods TV show, check out our spoiler-free review of the first four episodes, then head over to our American Gods Season 1 news hub.