None of this is actually happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.
Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.
So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true. Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this…
— Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Welcome to the first recap of American Gods!
This program is based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, which I had read and reviewed some years ago, so I have been excited about the idea of this show since before they announced there would be one. The description of the first episode from the network is as follows: “When Shadow Moon is released from prison early after the death of his wife, he meets Mr. Wednesday and is recruited as his bodyguard. Shadow discovers that this may be more than he bargained for.”
Well, that’s to say the least. The premise of the novel was that all Gods really do exist, and only because people believe in them. As a result of the mass immigration in the past to the United States from other countries, America has become the ultimate hodgepodge of old world Gods – leprechauns, piskies, dwarves, Old Norse Gods, Roman Gods, Greek Gods, Hindu Gods, Native American Gods, etc. Over the years as the belief in these Gods has waned, new ones have come to take their place – Gods of technology and progress, media and drugs. The new Gods seek to obliterate the old ones, and a war is imminent. Shadow, of course, is unaware of all of this. Let’s jump right into the episode! I do highly recommend the book, however, if you haven’t read it.
Note: As this is an adult show, these recaps will occasionally use adult language in describing it.
After all, their God was a war God…
We open on a scribe, detailing the old Gods’ arduous journey to a new land. The land was barren, rocky and not what they expected. “They did not have a word in their language for miserable. They would have to invent one.”
The Vikings try to leave, but there is no wind. They start making sacrifices in order to attract some; each more extreme than the last. They gouge out each of their right eyes. No dice. They sacrifice a man and get a breeze, so they decide that what they need is an all-out war, which is fantastically over-the-top in the execution. Finally, the wind starts blowing, and they return home, never to speak of the new world again.
“Waiting for the sky to fall is going to cause more bother than the sky actually falling.”
Cut to present day, Shadow is working out in the prison yard, talking philosophy to his odd friend, “Low Key Lyesmith,” played by Jonathan Tucker. Shadow (played by Ricky Whittle, kazow!) is scheduled to be released in a few days. Shadow has a feeling of foreboding, and says as much to his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), over the phone. It’s fairly clear that Shadow is sensitive to things most people are not, even if he doesn’t seem to be aware of it.
That night, Shadow dreams of a vast forest of bones, of trees reaching out to scratch his flesh, and of his wife. He dreams of a noose. The guard wakes him unexpectedly.
“There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll put it plain…”
The warden informs Shadow that he’ll be released a few days early because his wife has been killed in a car accident. He will be allowed to attend her funeral. Whittle is fantastic in this scene – his expression never changes, but when he hears about his wife, his eyes wet just the tiniest bit, his jaw clenches, and you can suddenly see his pulse in his left temple. Shadow cleans up, dresses in his civilian clothes, adds his wedding ring, and hits the road.
Right away, he runs into difficulty changing his flight. He flashes back to advice from Low Key: “Do not piss off those bitches in airports.” At this point, I’m enjoying the Baba Yaga metaphor – in the old Russian fairy tale, the little girl gets something useful from everyone she meets because she is nice to them, and thus is prepared to meet Baba Yaga, the witch. Low Key = Loki, anyone? Maybe I’m reading too much into this. I must admit, I don’t recall the book as well as I had hoped. Shadow holds his temper and gets things sorted out.
“Guess this must be your lucky day…”
Shadow watches a “helpless” old man con his way into first class. As luck would have it, he ends up sitting next to him on the flight. Ian McShane beautifully plays the wildly eccentric and diminutive Mr. Wednesday, whose one-liners alone make the show worth watching.
Shadow: You’re the first person I’ve talked to who wasn’t an asshole.
Wednesday: Give me time.
Shadow commends Wednesday for the con job, and Wednesday lets on that he knows more than he should about Shadow’s circumstances. He remarks somewhat ominously that he usually ends up getting what he wants, and has a particular talent for it; that’s it’s about getting people to have faith in you.
“What should I call you, if I was so inclined?”
“Oh, my boy, that is one outstandingly improbable name. Goddamn hippie parents.”
Wednesday offers Shadow a job, who declines. “I already have a job waiting for me; my buddy…” “No, you don’t.” Mr. Wednesday interrupts. He gives him the hard sell, then immediately falls asleep – one of his professed “other talents.” Shadow is a lot less curious than I would be after such a revelation. He falls asleep and dreams again; this time of a bison with flaming eyes. “BELIEVE”, the bison bellows.
Having given up on airports after an unscheduled landing, Shadow decides to drive to his wife’s funeral. In the only emotional display we’ve seen from him, he stops to scream at the edge of a cliff.
We cut to a bar, where a nervous man (Joel Murray, perhaps best known as Freddy Rumsen in Mad Men), is picking up a woman he met on the internet. The woman, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) is demure, but wastes no time dragging him back to her lair for some of the weirdest sex you’ve probably ever seen on TV – known by fans of the book as “The Orgasm of Death.” She seems to regenerate somehow from his sacrifice, indicating that she’s not entirely human (although if you thought she was human after the sex, you weren’t paying attention.)
“You’re creepy, and you’re forward, and I don’t like it.”
We cut to another bar; this one even seedier than the last. Shadow walks in to order food and who should he run into in the restroom but Mr. Wednesday, who picks up their conversation from the airplane right where they left off. Shadow declines the job more harshly, but Wednesday indicates that his best friend Robby (who offered him the job he’s waiting for) is dead, and points out that Shadow has literally nothing better to do than work for him.
“You’re my man now.”
Shadow tosses a coin, and Wednesday calls heads. Before he looks, Shadow says “Tails. I rigged the toss.” “Rigged games are the easiest to beat,” says Wednesday. “It’s always gonna be tails, because I don’t want to work for you,” Shadow scowls. “It’s not always going to be tails,” Wednesday smirks, as he wanders off to fetch more drinks. Shadow looks, and surprising nobody but himself, the toss was heads. He tosses the coin a few more times to make sure, and who should snatch it out of the air, but a leprechaun.
“Mad Sweeney, as I live and breathe…”
The leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber, whom you might know best as “Pornstache” from Orange is the New Black), is a bit of a nasty customer. The three drink as Wednesday details the job. “He’s hustling you,” remarks the Leprechaun. “Damn right, I’m a hustler, swindler, cheater, and liar!” Wednesday replies triumphantly. Shadow negotiates his own terms of employment, and the bargain is struck. Mad Sweeney goads Shadow into a fistfight, and Shadow wakes up the next day (after having apparently won) in the back of a car being driven by Wednesday.
“I feel like I recently agreed to something stupid…”
“It’s not every day a man gets to bury his wife,” Wednesday quips as they speed towards the funeral. Once there, Shadow speaks with Robby’s wife, Audrey, who gives him some unpleasant news about Laura and Robby – they died in the car accident together, because – and I’m putting this far more politely than Audrey did – they were having an affair. (Audrey is expertly played by Betty Gilpin, perhaps best known for her role in Nurse Jackie as Dr. Roman.) Audrey is furious and devastated, and pulls no punches telling Shadow about it.
Shadow sits at Laura’s grave until long into the night, talking to her. He is eventually joined by a very drug-addled Audrey, who makes an indecent proposal, then dissolves into tears. Shadow comforts her as the gold coin he has tossed onto Laura’s grave sinks into the dirt.
“Religion is an operating system, and prayers are just so much fucking SPAM…”
As Shadow leaves the graveyard, he is kidnapped by Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), presumably one of the new Gods. He is questioned about what Mr. Wednesday is up to, and when he refuses to comply, is beaten and hung by Technical Boy’s goons. Hence the precognitive dreams with the noose imagery, no doubt. At the last moment, Shadow is rescued by an unseen force as the goons explode into a lot more CGI blood.
Stray Observations (to borrow a phrase coined by the A.V. Club):
- One thing this show is doing really well is “blink and you’ll miss them” details. I particularly enjoyed the Viking in the first scene scratching himself with an axe, and the detail of Audrey in the background pulling up her panties as she approaches Shadow in the graveyard.
- Another thing this show is having fun with are the cameos. Siobhan Fallon Hogan makes an appearance as the “airport bitch.” You may remember her particularly from Men in Black, as the woman married to the cockroach in the Edgar Suit. The bartender in the negotiation scene is Beth Grant, whom you might know from literally everything, although I especially liked her as Kitty Farmer in Donnie Darko.
- The dream sequences and flashbacks are in letterbox, and the rest of the show is full-screen. I wonder if it is a purposefully made choice so that when things get really weird, viewers can tell the difference.
- The soundtrack choices have been excellent as well. As Shadow agrees to the job, the Dixie Cups’ “Aiko Aiko” is playing. Fun fact about that song – it’s not gibberish they’re singing, it’s Creole patois – and the song is about a battle between two Indian tribes. Foreshadowing? Another great musical choice was during Laura’s funeral, when they played “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
- Paunch’s pickup line to Bilquis is objectively terrible. “You’re the sexiest goddamn thing I’ve ever gotten to touch for free.”
- Technical Boy is vaping the whole time he talks to Shadow. “Synthetic toad skins,” he says.
- Moscow, Idaho gets a shoutout from the leprechaun. I’m from Idaho; I notice these things.
Join us next week for Season 1, Episode 2: The Secret of Spoons.
All images: Sweatpants & Coffee / Emily Parker