Before we see any great convening of the old gods, episode 5 of Starz’s American Gods treated viewers to a family reunion of new gods in the bleakest of settings.
Shadow has once again found himself in trouble with the law, hauled into the station for his and Wednesday’s preternaturally planned bank robbery. Before the cops can really dig into the pair’s otherworldly motivations, a threat arrives much scarier than jail time: Mr. World (Crispin Glover), a big bad businessgod who wants to see faith turned into one globalized product — a mega-sized merger uniting one branded belief for all of mankind.
Whether it was Mr. World’s Rainbow Brite demonstration for unification that left you scratching your head, or his ultra-violent disposal of the local police force, EW caught up with co-showrunner Michael Green to properly document the data of episode 5 of American Gods.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The cops who interrogate Shadow — are those your take on Mr. Town, Mr. Road, etc. from the book? Or were they just cops?
MICHAEL GREEN: No, those aren’t the Misters. What was fun about the two cops is that we really wanted to just briefly bring in a bit more humanity. There’s so much strangeness. I mean, for a while, Laura’s the most human thing in there, and she’s not quite alive anymore. So we wanted to meet some credible people and have them react, to some extent, to this absolutely baffling situation. There’s also the very real deep-seated fear for Shadow of being caught by authorities again, because the idea of going back to prison is extremely unappealing. He’s put so much faith into Wednesday that there was no chance of that, so this was a nice fun reminder that you could end up with your freedom not just being taken away from you, but your life becoming quite average again — and there’s nothing less magical than being in prison. Bryan [Fuller] had worked with Tracie Thoms before and I’m a huge fan as well, and we were trying to think of where we could put her into the season. And like we realized with Scott Thompson [who played the cranberry-toting ‘Kind Man’ in episode 3], this seemed like a perfect role but it did have to mean she’ll die. But we also reminded ourselves that in American Gods, death need not always be permanent. So don’t rule out seeing Tracie Thoms again.
Please unpack that death reveal for me. The visuals alone were horrifying.
Yeah, some strange s— goes on in there, and there’s a lot left to the imagination as well. But we wanted to give the first sense of just how terrifying what they’re up against can be. We knew that one of the pivotal emotional moments was going to be seeing Mr. Wednesday be afraid for the first time. I remember when Ian McShane saw that script for the first time, he said, “Well, it seems Mr. Wednesday here is quite frightened, and we had him say recently — performed quite well by me, mind you — that he’s afraid of nothing. So why is he afraid here?” And we talked about how we are about to meet the one entity that Mr. Wednesday actually would well be afraid of, and there are a number of reasons for that. He doesn’t have every arrow in his quiver quite yet. But I also think one of the reasons Mr. Wednesday would be frightened of Mr. World right now is, I believe he is afraid that he might start to listen, that there is something very compelling about Mr. World. We had a very interesting experience watching those scenes for the first time in the editing room, and even on the day listening to Crispin deliver it. He’s very compelling, and not just because he’s magnetic and iconic and hilarious. But because he makes a very strong, nearly reasonable argument! So it’s an interesting thing to be afraid of being convinced, because it shows that perhaps you believe erroneously, too.
What drives Mr. World to want to smooth things over with someone who is so afraid of him and vulnerable already?
The surprise of Mr. World is how compelling and how potentially reasonable he sounds. We talked a lot about the strategy of ancient Rome — that when they would conquer, they wouldn’t necessarily destroy. Their favorite move would be to go to the governing parties of the lands they were invading and say, “Well, we’d prefer you not die. What we’d rather is that you prove your fealty to us monetarily, you give us your taxes and tithes, and we’ll let you continue on. You may worship as you worship. You may govern as you see fit. But we need to know that your fealty is to Rome.” In exchange, they could continue. Not only continue, but flourish. And only if you rebel against that reasonable, terrifying offer do you then see the backhand of that kindness and punishment, cruelly and severely and instantly. So we get the sense from Mr. World that yes, this is a legitimately kind, open-handed offer, but there is a lot of unkindness if you dare refuse it.
Now that we’ve met all three of our key new gods, how might the motivations of each one be different from the others?
The point of view of the new gods doesn’t really allow for the type of model that the old gods represent. [Individualism is] more an irritant that gets in the way of their dominance. If the currency is the attention of humans, they can see expansion for everyone in working together. What doesn’t work for them is anyone going it alone — Tech Boy would call it becoming a unicorn. They are a tech company that wants to acquire every company they see. Whereas Wednesday wants to be a unicorn and remain independent, independence is anathema to Mr. World, who also represents globalization at a terrifying degree.
Maybe the difference isn’t in endgame motivation but in the attitudes towards it. Tech Boy, for instance, seems more inclined to dispose of Shadow and Wednesday faster than Mr. World.
There’s a brattiness to Tech Boy. You see it on the Internet every day. That which we don’t understand, we troll. We trash. We attack. Tech Boy is, for someone who might just exist in a computer anyway, awfully emotional and capricious. But he also has a lot of insecurity for a lot of reasons. Like tech, he is constantly looking to prove how great he is because he fears he is not. Meanwhile, one of the things we spent a lot of time thinking about for Mr. World was, where and how should we meet him? And we went through every possible Bond villain model for what his lair might look like. What we landed on, that made us giggle, is that we would meet him in the blandest, plainest, least interesting room we’ve ever seen in the show. It’s a cinder block box. In a show that’s as rococo as it is, to see a place that bland is a choice, and it’s a strange one. [Laughs] But we also knew that it was going to be a long scene and it was going to get arguably as bonkers as anything we’ve ever done. For a strange show, that is a strange scene, so there was some perverse delight in starting it with as plain an aesthetic as possible before it kept getting stranger.
The first scene in the episode is something we’ve been working toward all season long: Shadow’s confrontation with Laura. How many ways could this have gone, and why did you decide to play it this way?
We shot this scene twice because it’s a very delicate scene. There’s a lot of anticipation of their reunion. We now understand more of the conditions that led to Laura’s death from her perspective, so had there not been the previous episode, we would be imagining it entirely with anticipation for Shadow’s reaction. But now we’re concerned for both of their reactions. From Shadow’s angle, we were very interested in grounding it. We’ve seen people scream and yell and shout and threaten to call the cops, like Audrey. Shadow’s seen enough strangeness in the world that he can actually believe for a moment it’s real, although he’s certainly going to be questioning it. We talked a lot about the different stages of what it would look like: There’s the initial shock, followed by a careful connection, followed by questions, followed by anger. Shadow is being blindsided by this. But for Laura, she’s come with an agenda. Laura was prepared for every question he might ask and is fully prepared to dominate this conversation the way she’s familiar with dominating every conversation with him. She expects her puppy to come to heel. And Emily [Browning]’s performance in the scene is very sly and very sharp in that she is slowly and patiently dismissing his concerns about her death and her infidelity so that she can just start again. She’s here to rekindle the relationship. So what’s interesting about the scene in that respect is, she’s the one who approaches it with a concrete goal, whereas Shadow is once again forced to absorb the sublimely ridiculous and impossible. He surprises her, and us — and I think this is a tremendous testimony to Ricky [Whittle]’s performance — by regaining some control over the scene and of their interaction. He has more of a point of view than Laura’s used to him having. And that’s the result of everything he’s experienced. His time in prison. His brief but concrete period of mourning her. And everything he has experienced in being with Mr. Wednesday.
How did you decide to animate this week’s prehistoric Coming to America sequence?
The decision to animate that Coming to America was partly practical. We very much wanted to tell the story of, what’s the worst thing that can happen to a god? How do we understand what they’re afraid of? Because for a god, death is almost tolerable. It’s understandable. They live for a very long time and understand death, and they can have a comfortable relationship with death. But something worse than death is being forgotten, becoming obsolete. And we wanted to explore that and see a demonstration of it.
There’s a very beautiful version of this story in the novel that we hoped to tell — the idea of going to a time before time, something that’s more mytho-historical than historical. Rather than being cheekily funny like some of our other Coming to Americas, [this one is] not quite reality because it is so strange and beautiful and mythic. It was very appealing. We wanted to try to experience human condition before any of our current conditions existed.
So we looked at the story from the book and we started breaking it on the board [in the writers’ room] and it became very apparent very quickly that there was no way to actually film that. I think it was Bryan who said, ‘Well, why don’t we just animate it!?’ And we realized in that moment that this is a show that can do animation. Or at least, when you add animation to your program, it suddenly becomes a show that can do animation. We were working with Vincenzo Natali, who directed the episode, and he has an animation background, so we immediately called him and asked how we could approach it, and he took his usual can-do and will-do attitude and said, ‘Here’s how.’ We wrote the story, he helped storyboard it, and he introduced us to a wonderful company named Tendril that did it. We told them our budget parameters, which defined what type of animation we were able to employ, and every time they showed us visuals from it, it looked even better than we expected. We originally talked about doing a really raw, scritchy-scratchy, almost cave painting-like fable, and they brought something that was just beautifully rendered. We were really able to tell the exact story we wanted to in a much better way than we ever imagined we’d be able to pull off.
Should we draw any link between the tribe’s buffalo and Shadow?
I’d rather not say. But I will say, that tribe has reached America.