Our world is much bigger — and much stranger — than we know.
So posits American Gods, the new must-see drama series that’s ready to receive your worship. It’s been 15 years since Neil Gaiman first published his original novel, and this strange, supernatural tale has finally arrived on the small screen, with help from showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. The basic premise is simple: When the people of the world moved to America, they brought their gods with them. Centuries later, these deities live and walk among us, jockeying for relevance as the old traditions fade and new ones take their place. It’s a simple thought, but one that opens itself up to a whole host of questions about American identity, faith, and ritual — and if this premiere episode is any indication, American Gods is eager and ready to dive into those questions with gusto.
Part road trip saga, part surreal meditation on faith, American Gods kicks things off by introducing the show’s themes with a violent opening. In case you had forgotten that Fuller is the same guy who brought Hannibal to television in all its twisted, gory glory, the first few minutes should serve as a stark reminder. A brief interlude introduces Demore Barnes as Mr. Ibis, a mysterious funeral parlor owner who puts pen to paper and recounts a centuries-old “Coming to America” story of a few ancient Vikings. (We’ll see many more of these “Coming to America” vignettes in the coming episodes — the show is quick to remind us that most Americans and their gods are immigrants.) From the moment these Vikings set foot in the New World, things start to go wrong: The new land is no paradise, but a barren wasteland plagued by bugs, disease, and hostile Native Americans. When one Viking is pierced by literally hundreds of arrows, it’s both horrifying and hilarious — a decent indicator of what American Gods’ tone will be like going forward.
RELATED: Watch American Gods: Inside the Episode “The Bone Orchard”
It doesn’t take long for the Vikings to decide to return to their homeland, but the wind refuses to cooperate, and they soon turn desperately to their god the All-Father, a.k.a. the one-eyed Odin. Fire, bloodshed, and voluntary blinding are not enough to attract their god’s attention, so instead, they engage in the show’s first example of bloody, violent worship: a massive beachside battle. It’s shocking, sure, and certainly not for the faint of stomach, but there’s also something beautifully mesmerizing about watching a severed arm arc through the air, sword in hand, before falling and piercing another man in the throat.
It works, and the wind picks up, and the Vikings leave, but not before leaving something more than blood on the beach.
Centuries later, we meet our hero and our everyman entry into this strange world: a prison inmate named Shadow Moon (played by The 100’s Ricky Whittle). As we see in a few brief prison scenes, Shadow mostly keeps to himself. He spends his days perfecting coin tricks and avoiding some of the more confrontational inmates (several of whom make threatening gestures and allusions to a noose — more on that later). One of the very first things we learn about Shadow is that he’s not a superstitious man, and he says he values science and reason above all. Oh, honey. You’ve got a big storm coming.
A literal storm, too! Shadow may not believe in signs or premonitions, but even he can tell something is off with the weather. “I smell snow,” he says, unintentionally channeling Lorelai Gilmore.
Shadow’s only real friend in prison, if you can even call him that, is his cellmate Low Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker). The, ahem, notably named Low Key is prone to sharing words of wisdom like, “This country went to hell when they stopped hanging folks,” or “Do not piss off those bitches in airports.”
When Shadow goes to sleep that night, he experiences his first real brush with the unnatural, dreaming of a strange, dead forest — the “bone orchard” of the episode’s title. The trees are pale and bare, the ground is littered with bones, and above, the stars spiral outward. There’s a buffalo with eyes of fire, and he dreams of a noose, hanging from a massive tree.
He soon wakes to a far more disconcerting nightmare: He’s being released from prison a few days early, as his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died in a car crash.
With nowhere to go but home, Shadow leaves the prison in Oklahoma and books a flight to Eagle Point, Indiana, for his wife’s funeral. His trip home puts him in first class, next to a mysterious, whiskey-swilling man with a glass eye and a nose for trouble. He introduces himself as Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), and he seems to know a lot more about Shadow than he should. Wednesday and Shadow are the show’s central pair, and although American Gods is fleshed out with all sorts of other fantastic deities and colorful characters, the series rests heavily on McShane and Whittle. Thankfully, the pair have excellent chemistry, with McShane laying on just enough charm and Whittle providing just enough skepticism.
Speaking of other fantastic deities, it’s time to talk about Bilquis…