American Gods is one of my favorite novels by one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. I’ve enjoyed previous adaptations of his work (Stardust, Coraline), but this is the first full-fledged television series to come from one of his novels, and as such, I was both anticipating and fearing what the result might be. If last night’s series premiere is any indication, I think we’re in for a bloody good time – emphasis on the bloody.
[Spoiler Warning: The following article is a review and synopsis of this week’s episode, and as such will discuss plot points of American Gods S01E01, “The Bone Orchard,” and will also be discussing some of the background from the source novel in order to clarify certain key events and characters – read on if you wish.]
If you haven’t read the book American Gods, go do so now. I’ll wait.
Or I can give you a quick rundown of the mythology behind Gaiman’s work. In a nutshell: gods exist. They become gods when we worship them, and they lose power as the worship wanes. In the premiere, we see both gods old and new, and get a sense of a brewing battle between the two camps. Now, even if you haven’t read the book, I suspect you may have already been thinking it was something along these lines.
We open on an extremely graphic and gory sequence showing a group of Vikings arriving in North America 100 years prior to Leif Erikson’s voyage. The purpose of this scene is to show how one of their gods – the all-father, Odin – comes to America. In fact, in the book there are a series of short scenes interspersed throughout that do just this, explain how gods transited from the Old World to the New (the “Coming to America” interludes). This particular scene is based on one later in the book, and is completely different from the original save for the fact that the Vikings bring Odin with them, and leave him upon the new shore. And blood. There’s plenty of blood both in the book and in the show, which is appropriate, given that Odin is also the god of war.
Skip to the present, and we meet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), an inmate finishing up his time for aggravated assault. After seeing him in the yard with the requisite best friend, the interestingly named Low Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker) and enemies (a bunch of muscle-bound white supremacists), Shadow hunkers down in his bunk for the night. Before he falls asleep, he sees a hole appear in the ceiling of his cell, wherein he can see Laura in bed – they say goodnight to each other, and he falls asleep. We enter into a dark dream sequence. Shadow’s in a literal bone orchard, with dead trees surrounded by bleached bones. As he walks forward, several hand-like branches reach out to him, and one cuts him across the cheek. As he winces, he’s wakened by a guard – he has to see the Warden, who has some bad news.
Shadow’s wife has been killed in a car accident, and gets released a couple of days early. We follow him on his attempts to get home in time for her funeral, and along the way we see a bit of his internal life, as he does his best to maintain a level head and deal with various stressors in a difficult time. He remembers words of wisdom given to him by Low Key while still inside – “Do not piss off those bitches in airports.” He breathes deeply, and keeps calm. While waiting for his flight the next day, he sees a feeble old man (Ian McShane) being shuffled off to a First Class upgrade, just so he won’t cause trouble at the ticket desk. As Shadow looks on, it’s pretty clear that he knows it’s a con, and sure enough, he ends up moved to first class beside the man, and sees he’s not nearly so feeble as he made out.
The man acts seriously obtuse – when Shadow asks his name, he asks in turn, “What’s today?” “Wednesday,” Shadow replies. “Today’s my day – let’s go with that.” Mr. Wednesday seems to know an awful lot of things he shouldn’t, such as the fact that Shadow was just released from prison, that Shadow’s wife is dead, and that Shadow doesn’t have a job waiting for him when he gets home. So how does he know all this? He also offers Shadow a job in an off-hand kind of way, seeming to believe that Shadow will jump at the chance – which he doesn’t.
We get a better idea as Shadow slips into a second dream sequence, again in the bone orchard. Approaching the largest tree, Shadow watches as a buffalo with smoking eyes comes toward him, and it whispers one word – “Believe” – in Mr. Wednesday’s voice. He wakes with a startle – the plane’s already landed, although not at it’s final destination – the weather has forced an emergency landing. Rather than waiting another day, Shadow rents a car and drives the rest of the way, stopping at a desolate park to scream his anguish at the universe.
We then go to a different sidestory for a few minutes. Here, we meet the beautiful Bilquis (Yetide Badake), a woman who looks a little unsure of herself meeting a stranger for a date at a bar. She seems almost surprised that he likes her, and we cut to her house, where she has a very red bedroom set up with candles everywhere. He’s hesitant and shy – he’s willing to wait before they jump into bed – but she’s insistent.
She asks him to light a candle, and they quickly undress and begin to have sex. At first it’s hesitant, almost sweet, two people out of practice rediscovering something they love, but it quickly begins to ramp up as Bilquis gets more and more intense. She switches positions with the man, and then tells him to worship her as his goddess. She slaps him and continues to move, and suddenly the man begins to speak what sounds eerily like a liturgy. As he does so, he keeps repeating how amazing it feels, and how he worships him with everything he is and owns. As he speaks, he begins to slide up the bed – inside Bilquis. As they consummate, he disappears inside her completely, and Bilquis gives a satisfied sigh, laying back on the bed spent.
The scene is quite intense and graphic, and it may feel almost gratuitous (much like the blood in the earlier Viking scene). But it serves here to make a few key points. First, and most importantly, it states quite clearly what the show has been hinting at so far – the gods are real. Bilquis – who is based on the Queen of Sheba – is clearly no ordinary woman. Hesitant and lacking confidence at first, she feeds on the man’s body and soul, taking energy from his worship of her. She is much healthier looking after the sex than before. Second, it tells us right up front that Mr. Wednesday is only one of the players in the game, whatever that may turn out to be. And finally, it confirms that there is more than one pantheon involved. While Wednesday is pretty clearly Odin, a Norse god, Bilquis/Sheba is an African goddess. And that’s not even taking into account the buffalo from Shadow’s dream, who, despite Wednesday’s voice, is symbolic of American spirituality.
After, we rejoin Shadow. He’s at a restaurant (with a very cool crocodile themed bar), and who happens to show up again but Mr. Wednesday. Shadow finds out from him that his friend, Robbie, also died in the car accident, so not only does he have no wife to come home to, but no job either – and he’s broke. Wednesday offers him a job once more, but Shadow tells him to take a hike, and then seems to have second thoughts. He knows there’s something strange about Wednesday, and really wants nothing to do with him, but he tells the old man that he’ll flip a coin – if Wednesday calls it, Shadow will work for him. In the air, Wednesday calls heads, and Shadow tells him it’s tails – he rigged the toss. “It won’t always be heads,” Wednesday says, as he heads to the bar.
Sure enough, when Shadow raises his hand, he sees that the coin has fallen heads up. As he looks, a tall red-headed man (Pablo Schreiber) leans over and asks if he’s working with Mr. Wednesday. “Who are you,” asks Shadow. “A leprechaun,” the man replies. Shadow comments on his size, but the man calls that a stereotype. Wednesday comes back with drinks for all of them, including the newcomer (whom he identifies as Mad Sweeney), and hands three shot glasses to Shadow. He drinks the first, and Wednesday explains that it’s honeyed mead, the better to seal their deal. “You’re getting hustled,” Sweeney warns Shadow, but he works out a deal with Wednesday that seems good enough (no fighting on command, $2000 per week, benefits). As soon as the third mead is thrown back, Sweeney tries to pick a fight with Shadow.
Starting by mocking Shadow’s own coin tricks, Sweeney starts to produce gold coins seemingly out of the air. “Stuffing your sleeves with coins?” asks Shadow, but Sweeney says, “That sounds like too much work – easier just to grab them out of thin air.” He gets in Shadow’s face, smacks him on the head, calls him names, but Shadow resists valiantly. He even offers Shadow a pure gold coin, win or lose. Nothing does it until Sweeney brings Shadow’s dead wife into it – this strikes a cord in Shadow, and he decks Sweeney – they start to brawl. Sweeney’s confident he’s going to win, and although Shadow holds his own quite well, we cut from the scene before the fight is over, to find Shadow waking up in the back of a mid-70s Cadillac, Mr. Wednesday at the wheel. He’s taking him to Laura’s funeral.
Inside the chapel, Shadow shuffles up to the front, and sidles in beside Audrey (Betty Gilpin) who, it turns out, is Shadow’s friend Robby’s wife. And she is angry, laying into Shadow right away. As she’s insulting him and being plain horrible, she suddenly gets a look of surprise on her face. “You don’t know?” she asks – and then she tells him how Laura and her husband died – with Laura performing oral sex on him in the car. Shadow’s devastated, but holds it together through the service. He stays into the night, and then has a one-sided fight with Laura’s cold grave. When he’s done, he tosses the gold coin he won from Mad Sweeney onto the grave.
Audrey approaches – she’s completely blotto, and alternates between hatred and sympathy with both Shadow and the world. “There’s no arguing with dead,” she laments, before she comes up with the perfect revenge: give Shadow a blowjob in front of the graves of her husband and his wife. Shadow holds her back, and finally she calms a bit as he holds her. As he does, the camera pans down to the freshly covered grave, and we see the gold coin suddenly sink into the earth. This scene provides for both some excellent character building for Shadow, as well as some foreshadowing. From his refusal to allow grief and anger to cloud his judgement, we can clearly see right away how, despite his three years in prison, Shadow is an honorable man. And that coin sinking down? Money for the dead? Coins to pay the boatman? If the gods are real, it definitely portends something.
The episode ends on Shadow walking alone down a darkened highway, when he notices something sparkling in the long grass off to one side. He investigates, poking the small glowing box he finds with a stick. Suddenly, the box unfolds, and a VR headgear suddenly shapes itself, and then leaps into the air and over Shadow’s head. Just as suddenly, he finds himself in the back of what appears to be a limousine, with a young man (Bruce Langley as Technical Boy) sitting facing him. He tries to find out from Shadow what Wednesday is up to, but Shadow doesn’t know anything, nor, he makes clear, would he tell if he did. As they speak, the young man’s body seems to change shapes, going from vector graphic to hologram to pixelated mush to normal appearing person and back again.
Shadow, talking back to him, get punched in the face by a faceless mannequin-like minion that magically appears on the bench seat beside him, another to his other side. Tech Boy pulls out a vape, and offers Shadow a smoke. Shadow refuses, and when he doesn’t recognize the smell of the smoke, asks what it is – “Synthetic toad skins,” is the reply. When Shadow outright insults the strange young man, Tech Boy tells his strange, faceless minions to kill Shadow, and Shadow flies out through a hole that suddenly appears in the roof of the limo, the mannequin/minions flying after him.
A group of six of them begin to lay the boots to Shadow, a la Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange. They drag him further into the field beside the highway, to a large tree. Putting a noose around his throat, they pull him up into the air, where he begins to strangle to death. Just as he’s losing consciousness, the rope above his neck suddenly parts, dropping him to the ground, and the mannequin/minions suddenly begin to explode in giant gushes of blood and gore, bones and internal organs flying everywhere as blood stains the ground with a thick, viscous red. Regaining his senses, Shadow looks around him at the suddenly bloody field, confusion and fear warring on his face. Before we can see what caused the mayhem, the shot smash cuts to black – cue credits.
So, for anyone approaching this show without the foreknowledge provided by the book, I suspect that there are a lot of holes to fill here. It appears that gods are real, and that Mr. Wednesday associates with them on a regular basis (and in fact appears to be the Norse god Odin). In addition, there are not only old gods (and magical beings, such as Mad Sweeney), but new gods as well, as evidenced by the petulant and demanding Tech Boy.
In my reckoning, we meet at least five gods or magical beings in the flesh in this episode, as well as one in a dream sequence: Shadow’s friend Low Key, Mr. Wednesday, Mad Sweeney, Bilquis, Tech Boy, and the buffalo from Shadow’s dream. And whose to say what, or who, Shadow is as well? Why all the interest from supernatural agents? And the fact that he’s able to stand toe-to-toe with the magical Mad Sweeney bespeaks of a certain innate, and perhaps magical, strength that Shadow also has.
The episode was visually stunning, capturing Gaiman’s wonderful word pictures in vivid, living scenes. The blood and gore (not to mention the sex scene) are almost over-the-top, verging on pornography, but given the source material and the way that Gaiman describes things, they work perfectly with the source material and my expectations as a fan of the novel. Production values are very high, with the CG mostly seamless (although in the first dream sequence, the bones and dead trees looked a little painted in, to be honest, jarring somewhat with Shadow as he walked through them).
Speaking of Shadow, Ricky Whittle is excellent, and should have no problem carrying the show through it’s first eight-episode season. The always amazing Ian McShane is perfectly cast as Mr. Wednesday; I must admit I was a bit concerned due to him not physically equating to the literary Mr. Wednesday, but he pulls off the role with his usual panache. He’s going to be rather enjoyable to watch. Yetide Badake’s Bilquis was sensual and powerful, and I look forward to seeing Fuller and Green (the showrunners) develop her character further. And Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney) was an absolute delight, despite having a strange sort of mush-mouth Irish accent that missed a little here and there.
Despite its early departure from the source material in the new Coming to America interlude to open the episode, this was an excellent opening to the series, and bodes well for a strong new entry in the urban fantasy genre. If you don’t have Starz (in the US) or Amazon Prime (in Canada), now is the time to subscribe.
Steve’s Rating: (9 / 10)
A strong debut episode with an excellent cast suggests that American Gods is a worthy addition to anyone (over 18!)’s viewing schedule.
Airdate: April 30, 2017
Directed by: David Slade
Showrunners: Bryan Fuller & Michael Green
Written by: Neil Gaiman (based on the novel by); Bryan Fuller, Michael Green (written by)