Last week’s premiere episode of American Gods exploded – in great gory red founts of blood – onto screens, creating a rather polarized reaction among fans and critics. The overall consensus is that the show is good – even excellent – but that, for some, it was a mite too graphic. But if you consider the source material, these complaints seem, to me, to be a little odd. After all, so far there’s really been nothing shown on the screen (save for the opening Viking scene) that doesn’t appear in the book. Perhaps it’s simply the visual nature of the medium, or people’s lack of ability to visualize Gaiman’s words at work. In any case, Episode 2 picked up right where 1 left off, and got almost everything right. Scroll down for my complete review.
[Spoiler Warning: The following article is a review and commentary of this week’s episode, and as such will discuss plot points of American Gods S01E02, “The Secret of Spoons” – read on if you wish.]
Just as with last week, there’s a mixture of the present, following primarily Shadow and Wednesday, as well as another Coming to America flashback. Where the series opener began with blood, this one begins with fire, and an absolutely amazing speech on race delivered by Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones) to a group of followers in chains on a boat taking the Middle Passage. When Nancy (also called Anansi by his followers) answers the summons, he doesn’t succor or save – no, he brings up the passions of the men in chains, encouraging their anger and outrage. He tells them the future history of Africans in America, telling them about slavery, and how, “100 years later? Fucked. And 100 years after that? Fucked.” This speech doesn’t tiptoe around issues that are hugely relevant in a world where the sons and daughters of oppressors would more often rather not speak about the past, pretending “everything’s better now.” Kudos to Starz for not pussy-footing around this very sensitive issue, and further kudos to Orlando Jones who absolutely knocks this one out of the park. It’s telling in the subtext that Anansi appears in the form of a spider, as well – a master builder of traps and of the hunt. What, exactly, is his game here? He encourages his followers not only to kill the Dutch slave traders that have taken them, but to burn the boat into the ocean at the same time. One of the worshipers points out that they’ll all die, too, to which Anansi replies, “You already dead.” Much like Bilquis with her lover, Anansi appears to gain strength from sacrifice.
Speaking of Bilquis, she’s back in a montage sequence wherein we see her take five more sacrifices into her “altar.” She is clearly growing in strength and beauty, and when we see her go to a museum display of ancient artifacts (her artifacts), we see her magic increasing as she is able to manipulate the objects and briefly create a simulacrum of herself. Her development is intended to show us one thing clearly: that as the gods receive more adulation/worship/sacrifice, their powers increase, and their lust for more similarly grows. It’ll be interesting to see if she over-reaches at some point.
In Shadow’s story, he’s introduced to several more unusual “people.” First, he meets and speaks with Lucy Ricardo (Gillian Anderson) while running errands for Wednesday (who suggests Shadow skim a “fair five percent” off the money he gives Shadow, who demurs, only to be asked, “If you can’t look after yourself, how the hell you going to look after me?”). Lucy appears in the electronics department, taking over the TVs and offering Shadow a job, which he declines. When he returns to see Wednesday, a man with fiery eyes passes him – this is a Jinn (Mousa Kraish), who Wednesday appears to be trying to recruit. From there, they head to Chicago to meet with an old family from Eastern Europe, Czernobog and the Zoraya sisters.
Shadow has a hard time dealing with his meeting with Lucy, questioning his own mental health. Wednesday’s more pragmatic – either Shadow’s crazy, or the world is, and either way it doesn’t really matter, so long as Shadow chooses one of the options to believe. Wednesday points out that, “There are bigger sacrifices one might be asked to make, than going a little mad.” In addition to questions raised over Shadow’s mental health, his meeting with Lucy provides a bit more clarity around what’s really going on. When he talks about his beating last week, she laments Technical Boy’s techniques, and then refers to Wednesday and his ilk as the “old guys.” The battle shaping up is one of the old vs. the new, with the presumed “new guys” appearing to be just a little worried about what Wednesday is playing at.
Once in Chicago, they head to the Zoraya household. It’s made up of three sisters: Zoraya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), the eldest (she appears to be in her eighties) who is gifted – and chugs down – a bottle of Kettle One vodka; Zoraya Utrennyaya (Martha Kelly), the middle-aged sister (around 50 or so), who loves to read romance novels, appears to be enamored of Shadow, and who speaks nary a word; and Zoraya Polunochnaya, the youngest, who is sleeping in the day and whose gift is a pair of binoculars. The women, led by Vechernyaya, are not happy to see Wednesday and his man, but invite them for dinner nonetheless. It appears that she and Wednesday have a bit of a history, and he turns the charm up to eleven. But all of this is simply preparation for the arrival of Czernobog (Peter Stormare). Our introduction to this chain-smoking maniac is a scene of him using a bolt pistol to kill a cow. When he comes home, he’s in a blood-soaked undershirt, and you can almost smell the stench of old blood and stale cigarettes emanating off the screen.
He’s angry that Wednesday, whom he calls Wotan (further confirming for viewers unfamiliar with the book who Wednesday really is), has disturbed his peace, but he accepts that they’ll stay through dinner. During the meal, he explains in gory detail the art of slaughter, upsetting Vechernyaya, but seeming to spark some interest in Shadow. He also comments on race. This is not as powerful as Mr. Nancy’s earlier speech, but is still a strong statement in its own right. He talks about his brother, who was blonde and light, and himself, dark – in his country, he says, he was the black man, and people thought he must be bad – so he became bad. Now, he says, he is grey, and his brother is grey – “So much for fighting about color,” he says. In his own crass, inappropriate manner, he is connecting with Shadow and expressing an understanding of – and disgust with – race politics in America.
The evening ends with Czernobog challenging Shadow to a game of checkers. Wednesday doesn’t seem surprised, and when talk of a wager come up, Wednesday looks smugly satisfied. As they play, the stakes are laid out – Shadow wins, and Czernobog will aid them; lose, and he gets to crush Shadow with his sledgehammer. He shows him the weapon, and smacks it on its end “10000 deaths” he claims were taken there, and he clearly rues the day he was forced to put the hammer down. The game plays out, and ultimately Shadow loses. “Too bad,” Czernobog says, “You’re my only black friend.”
There were moments in the episode when things seemed to slow down, to take their time. On my first viewing, I found this a little annoying – I wanted things to happen at a faster pace; but on second viewing, I realized that this is a very conscious decision on the parts of showrunners Fuller and Green. They’re clearly wanting to include everything from Gaiman’s novel, and in order to do it justice, they’re slowing the pace to allow us to enjoy the build-up. Shadow is learning about this new way of being in the world as he goes along, and the show is willing to allow us to learn right along with him, rather than shoving too much information down our throats with overly heavy exposition and the like. For readers of the book, this is a real treat.
The focus on race was done without any kid gloves, throwing injustice and inequity right in our faces from the opening scene, and ending on Stormare’s “only black friend” statement. In a world where it appears that literally everything ever worshiped or believed in (from old gods like Czernobog and Wednesday/Wotan through magical beings like Mad Sweeney’s leprechaun, to modern focuses of worship such as technology and television) takes on a personified form, a clash of cultures and beliefs is the inevitable outcome. Race issues will be just one aspect of the war between the old and the new, and it’s particularly interesting that, in a world where most viewers, on a personal level, would clearly choose the new technologies over ancient beliefs, it’s the old gods that we’re expected to be sympathetic with, at least for now. This is also reflected in modern sensibilities about race in general – most people will voice a distaste for racial discrimination, and yet it’s something that is still endemic in most every society on Earth, and one that has been growing a frightening amount of political traction as a mainstream “normal” in recent years (everything from Trump’s talk about immigrants and Muslims, to Brexit’s focus on immigrants, to Marine Le Pen’s recent (failed) run at President in France). Starz and the showrunners of American Gods appear willing to address the tough topics, and this makes the show much stronger for it – and an excellent adaptation of an excellent novel.
Steve’s Rating: (8.5 / 10)
Another strong outing, focusing on race and introducing several excellent characters into the fold.
Airdate: May 7, 2017
Directed by: David Slade
Showrunners: Bryan Fuller & Michael Green
Written by: Neil Gaiman (based on the novel by); Bryan Fuller, Michael Green (teleplay by); Maria Melnik (staff writer)