If the first episode of American Gods established the unlikely partnership between Shadow and Wednesday, “The Secret of Spoons” is all about introducing us to the other members of this strange world. And boy, are they strange: There’s the talking television set, which addresses Shadow directly in the black-and-white form of Lucy Ricardo. There’s the slaughterhouse worker with greasy fingers and greasier hair, puffing on an ashy cigarette and rhapsodizing about cattle’s blood. There’s the no-nonsense Chicago fortuneteller, her hair pulled in a tight white bun and vodka on her lips.
But let’s start where the episode does — with everyone’s favorite spider trickster god and what might be one of the most arresting character introductions television has ever seen.
Just like the premiere with those bloodthirsty Vikings, episode 2 opens with yet another “Coming to America” vignette. Contrary to what Ben Carson might say, this is no immigrant tale. It’s 1697, and we’re in the belly of a slave ship, bodies crammed together in the oppressive, cramped space. The men are mostly silent, perhaps still in shock at their situation, but one desperate man begins crying out, a vocal plea to the African god Anansi. In folklore, the trickster god appears sometimes as a spider, sometimes as a man, but always with a mischievous spirit and unparalleled cunning. And above all, Anansi is a storyteller, using smooth words to persuade, deceive, and spark action.
As the slave desperately repeats his plea, an elegant man (Orlando Jones) slowly descends the stairs, and a hush falls over the cargo hold. His purple plaid suit is an impossible anachronism, more 1976 than 1697, but when he opens his mouth to tell them a story, there’s no doubt that this is the Anansi these men know from the stories. You see, Anansi is a performer — and Jones proceeds to put on one hell of a show.
“Once upon a time, a man got f—ed. Now how is that for a story?” he begins. “Because that’s the story of black people in America.”
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As a mournful jazz trumpet wails in the background, Anansi tells the silent slaves what’s waiting for them on the shore — cruelty, violence, subjugation, and oppression. He tells them of the horrors they have in their future, of the horrors their children and grandchildren will face. He talks of discrimination, police brutality, heart disease. It’s the kind of monologue that stops a viewer in their tracks, and Jones delivers it with the intensity of a firebrand preacher, laughing and smiling but with a rage simmering underneath.
“You arrive in America, land of opportunity, milk and honey, and guess what: You all get to be slaves,” he hisses. “Split up, sold off, and worked to death. The lucky ones get Sunday off to sleep and f— and make more slaves, and all for what? For cotton. Indigo. For a f—ing purple shirt.”
As he says this, he runs his hands over his own purple suit and its bejeweled buttons, flamboyant and colorful in the darkness of the slave ship. “The only good news is the tobacco your grandkids are gonna farm for free is gonna give a s—load of these white motherf—ers cancer,” he continues.
As his voice rises, his words start to have the intended effect, turning the slaves’ desperation to fury. They rattle their chains and begin to shout as he urges them to take up torches and overthrow their Dutch enslavers. “Let the motherf—er burn,” he spits, as his head transforms into an enormous, glittering spider. “Let it all burn.”
This scene isn’t in Neil Gaiman’s novel, but it’s an extremely powerful moment — and a fascinating way to introduce American Gods’ Mr. Nancy. (Here, he’s addressed by his true name, Anansi, but he goes by Mr. Nancy in the novel — and presumably later in the show, too.) Anansi has long been associated with slave rebellion, especially because he’s usually portrayed in stories as a small spider who successfully uses his wits to outsmart and defeat much larger, more powerful enemies. Here, we never see him pick up a torch or a weapon, but instead, he uses his words to incite mass rebellion and action. It’s an electrifying entrance, and although Mr. Nancy hasn’t crossed paths with Shadow or Wednesday yet, he’s sure to bring a little fire to the show when he does.
Speaking of Shadow, our poor puppy protagonist is still reeling from the vicious assault at the end of last episode. An unknown savior rescued him and beat up all of Technical Boy’s goons, but he’s still bruised, broken, and more than a little emotionally scarred. “I was lynched,” he tells Mr. Wednesday, still in disbelief. “Strange f—ing fruit.”
Shadow has only been out of prison for a few days, and he’s about had enough of Wednesday’s world of grudges, violence, and eccentricities. Wednesday offers to placate him by doubling Shadow’s salary, seeming remarkably calm about the fact that his newly hired assistant was kidnapped and almost murdered by a pasty punk who likes to smoke toad skins. He’s still not eager to answer all of Shadow’s questions yet (or all of the audience’s questions, either), but he rewards Shadow for his loyalty — and reassures him that he has his back.
“An assault on you is an insult to me,” he tells Shadow. “Don’t think because I didn’t lose my temper I’m not angry — or am lacking a plan.”
That plan involves giving Shadow a little bit of time to pack up his house in Eagle Point before hitting the road and heading out on their quest/journey/whatever the hell Wednesday has in the works. That night, Shadow once again dreams of his wife, Laura, and although dream Laura reassures him that she’s not dead, he wakes up alone. And for the first time, we see Shadow really break down and cry. He’s been imprisoned, learned of his wife’s death, attended her funeral, learned that she was cheating on him with his best friend, and been attacked and thrown into a wild world he has no understanding of. We’ve seen him face these things with disbelief, anger, stoicism… The dude deserves a few minutes to break down and truly weep.
When he finally heads back to his and Laura’s house, he’s even more overwhelmed by emotion. It’s a depressing scene: The balloons from his welcome home party have all deflated, and he’s the first person to set foot in the house since Laura left for the last time. He proceeds to pack up his things and put them in storage, but he leaves Laura’s stuff for last. When he finally brings himself to go through her things, he can’t help himself, and he scrolls through her phone. There, he finds an extremely graphic dick pic from his best friend, Robbie, who died alongside Laura in the car crash. (In interviews leading up to the premiere, the showrunners promised to take full opportunity of American Gods’ cable home and show plenty of equal-opportunity nudity. They weren’t kidding.)
It’s a gut-wrenching moment for Shadow, and not just because of how unpleasant that picture is. A small part of him must have been holding out hope that Laura and Robbie’s fling was a one-time thing, a last-ditch rendezvous before Shadow got out of prison. Instead, he’s discovered proof that their affair was going on for quite a while — and that Laura was not the perfect, faithful wife she appeared to be.
As Shadow leaves his and Laura’s house for the last time and the storage van pulls away, Mr. Wednesday is standing there, leaning against his car like Shadow’s own personal Jake Ryan. And with that, they officially hit the road.
Wednesday is still maddeningly cryptic about what their big mission is, but he does tell Shadow that they’re going to take a little trip around the country, meeting with various persons of importance before gathering together at an undisclosed location. Shadow’s first task is to go shopping, and the shopping list Wednesday gives him is sure to turn any checkout employee’s head: highlighters, state maps, ear muffs, a clipboard, a carton of cigarettes, romance novels, a wheel of Havarti herbed cheese, vodka… Shadow dutifully makes his way around the store, only for someone to call his name as he passes the electronics aisle.
There’s an old I Love Lucy rerun airing on the TVs, and Lucy herself (the inimitable Gillian Anderson) is calling out to Shadow in crisp black and white. He says there’s no way he can be talking to Lucille Ball, and she corrects him: She’s Lucy Ricardo.
Well, sort of.
“The screen’s the altar. I’m the one they sacrifice to,” she explains, perfectly aping Lucy’s wide eyes and lopsided grin. “Then ‘til now, golden age to golden age. They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me. Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or in the palm of their hand so they don’t get bored watching the big one. Time and attention, better than lamb’s blood.”
And so begins our introduction to Media, one of the most powerful and omnipresent new gods. If Technical Boy was all holograms and vaping, Media is far more charming — and seductive. She’s the personification of television, of film, of every piece of content we devote our time to. Every TV show we binge, every teaser trailer we dissect, every, um, recap we read — we’re worshiping her. She was a powerful character in Gaiman’s novel, a sort of perky PR person for the opposing team, but she’s taken on new importance as American Gods has made the jump from the page to the screen. Media is an antagonist, sure, but there’s something a little more meta about her than the other gods. She’s now a character on a prestige show at the height of peak TV, and the way this scene is shot, she isn’t just addressing Shadow: Anderson is speaking directly to us, the viewers, watching her at home on our TV or our laptop or our phone.
If you’re the kind of person who reads TV recaps, you’ve spent a fair amount of time worshiping at her altar.
Anderson delivers a performance that’s both seductive and sinister, and although there’s something distinctly Lucy Ricardo in her performance, she makes it clear that this ain’t the Lucy who stuffs chocolate in her mouth or tries to market Vitameatavegamin. She tells Shadow that she’s impressed with how he handled the Technical Boy, and she wants him on their side. After all, Wednesday and his motley crew are no match for the power of Media.
He rebuffs her, but he heads back to Mr. Wednesday a little shaken. He can deal with dead wives and leprechauns and angry vaping teenagers, but apparently, Lucy is the breaking point.
Wednesday responds in the most Wednesday way possible, telling Shadow: “It’s an onset of strange. Fair cause for consternation, unless strange is a new language, and what we’re doing here is vocabulary building.” Which is basically Wednesday-speak for: “You think Lucy Ricardo talking to you through a television is strange? Honey, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Finally, Wednesday and Shadow arrive at their first destination: Chicago. Specifically, a walk-up apartment in Chicago, belonging to one Zorya Vechernyaya, played with style by the legendary Cloris Leachman. She’s steely and no-nonsense, and she brusquely introduces Shadow to her other, more timid sister, Zorya Utrennyaya. A third sister is sleeping when Shadow and Wednesday arrive.
It isn’t long before someone else stomps up the stairs, a greasy slaughterhouse worker by the name of Czernobog (Peter Stormare). He greets Wednesday as Votan, before promptly chucking a lamp at his head. Wednesday never loses his smile, but it’s clear that he’s not welcome here. Czernobog wants no part in whatever scheme Wednesday is cooking up.
Over an extremely uncomfortable dinner, Czernobog proceeds to open up a little bit — while still steadfastly refusing to come with Wednesday on his quest. The slaughterhouse worker doesn’t get quite as dynamic an introduction as Anansi or Media, but he does tell Shadow a little bit about himself. In Slavic mythology, Czernobog was known as a black god, or a god of darkness, and he’s widely considered to be the counterpart of the white god Bielebog. (Indeed, our Czernobog mentions his fair-haired brother.)
Czernobog isn’t a particularly well-known god in modern America, and really, the only popular depiction of him is from Disney’s Fantasia, where he appears as the devil in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. The Czernobog of American Gods isn’t quite as outright evil, but he does revel in bloodshed. Despite Zorya Vechernyaya’s insistence on “no cow-killing stories during dinner,” Czernobog proceeds to tell Shadow of how he delights in working in the slaughterhouse on the killing floor — preferring to use a sledgehammer instead of the more modern bolt gun. “Now every monkey with a thumb can kill,” he says ruefully.
His bloodlust continues after dinner, where he challenges Shadow to a game of checkers. It starts as a fairly innocent game, but Czernobog proposes a wager. If Shadow wins, Czernobog will come with Wednesday. If Czernobog wins, he gets to knock Shadow’s head in with his hammer. At first, Shadow is taken aback, but he slowly resigns himself to the idea. After all, he’s spent the day packing up his dead wife’s house and talking to Lucy Ricardo on television. A checkers game for his life isn’t even the weirdest thing that’s happened him in the past 24 hours. His acceptance of Czernobog’s wager is a turning point for Shadow, and Wednesday can sense it, too: Shadow may not fully understand this world he’s stepping into, but he’s going to accept it as it comes.
Unfortunately for him, he loses. “It’s a shame,” Czernobog says. “You’re my only black friend.”
And so episode two of American Gods ends with Shadow’s life once again hanging in the balance (and, once again, commentary about Shadow’s race). Czernobog doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would willingly walk back a bet, but here’s hoping that next week’s episode doesn’t also end with Shadow in mortal peril. The poor guy deserves a break.