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…
Some of the scenes from Gaiman’s novel translate easily to the screen: You have your road trips and battles and prison conversations. But how do you portray Bilquis, an ancient goddess of love who craves devotion and subsists by literally devouring her sexual partners with her vagina?
If you’re Fuller and Green, you show it on screen exactly as Gaiman wrote it, resulting in what might be the weirdest sex scene to ever air on television.
Yetide Badaki plays the goddess in a way that’s both predatory and almost shy: We first see her meeting a middle-aged man from online. She timidly asks him whether he finds her desirable, and when he enthusiastically assents, she leads him to her bed in a candlelit red room. She’s a long way from the ancient altars where she first rose to power, and here, we see her struggling to survive in the world of Tinder, finding unsuspecting worshippers online. She’s immensely powerful — again, she literally swallows a man with her vagina — but there’s also something sad and delicate in her eyes. It’s clear that she’s a bit lost in this new world, and she definitely won’t be the last god we meet who’s unsure of how to proceed in this strange, changing America.
An emergency plane landing in St. Louis forces Shadow to rent a car and drive the rest of the way to Indiana, stopping for food at the aptly named Crocodile Bar. It’s there that he comes face to face with Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job. At first, Shadow is angry and confused by Wednesday’s appearance, and besides, he insists, he’s got a job waiting for him back home with his best friend Robbie (Dane Cook). Wednesday cheerfully informs him that Robbie also died in the car crash that killed Laura, so not only does Shadow have no wife, but he also has no job.
Before Shadow can process this, a man named Mad Sweeney (Orange is the New Black’s Pablo Schreiber) arrives at the bar. He introduces himself as a leprechaun — a tall, spindly leprechaun, but a leprechaun nonetheless. Sweeney is, like most of the things Shadow’s seen in the past few days, altogether strange, and Schreiber plays the leprechaun with off-kilter gusto, grinning like a madman and reveling in how uncomfortable he makes Shadow. See, he does coin tricks, too, and while Shadow may be good, Sweeney is better, seemingly plucking gold coins out of thin air. He even offers one to Shadow — if Shadow can beat him in a fight. Shadow is hesitant, but after a series of well-placed taunts, the two engage in an all-out brawl, smashing glasses and trading punches. Gods sure do love violence, don’t they. Amazingly, Shadow wins, walking away with one of Sweeney’s gold coins — although this one seems a little bit different from the others.
(One note about these recaps going forward: We won’t spoil any future plot points from the book, but we’ll discuss them as they happen on the show. After all, we don’t know what sort of detours or alterations the show might make along the way. That being said, you should definitely read the book ASAP. It’s really good.)
It’s here in the Crocodile Bar that Wednesday outlines his offer: Shadow will work as his bodyguard and personal assistant for decent pay (and a decent amount of danger). Wednesday’s on a cryptic mission, you see, and he could use a right-hand man. For unknown reasons, he’s insistent on hiring Shadow. And maybe it’s the recent loss of his wife, maybe it’s the fact that his criminal history will impede any other job offers, maybe it’s something in the beer at the Crocodile Bar, but Shadow accepts. And so, Wednesday and Shadow’s partnership has begun — sealed, as all great partnerships are, over mead.
Wednesday, for his part, is a benevolent employer, and he insists that Shadow attend Laura’s funeral before they get started with their mysterious work. He does, and it’s immediately clear that besides Laura and the now-dead Robbie, Shadow didn’t have many friends or family in Eagle Point. No one comes to console him; no one even speaks to him except Audrey (Betty Gilpin), Robbie’s wife. She’s the one who informs him that Laura and Robbie were having an affair. So add that to the long list of bad news Shadow has received in the last week.
Standing by Laura’s grave, Shadow says his final goodbyes to his wife (and fends off a furious Audrey) before flipping Mad Sweeney’s coin into the grave. As he makes his way back to the motel where Wednesday is waiting for him, he encounters some strange, glowing technology in a field. It leaps at his face, and he soon wakes up in a narrow room, face to face with a callous Silicon Valley wunderkind known only as the Technical Boy (Bruce Langley). In Gaiman’s novel, Technical Boy is described as pale, pudgy, and acne-prone, but here, he’s more vaping villain than socially awkward basement-dweller. Some of the series feels timeless, especially with the classic cars and old-school soundtrack, but Technical Boy is distinctly 2017, one of the most obvious updates the showrunners have made to bring the show further into the 21st century.
Technical Boy has an army of creepy, faceless goons at his disposable, and as he puffs on synthetic toad skins, he asks Shadow to tell him everything about Wednesday and his plan. “We are the future, and we don’t give a f— about him or anyone else like him anymore,” Technical Boy tells Shadow. “They are consigned to the dumpster. We have reprogrammed reality.”
And so, the basic outline of the show begins to reveal itself: the clash between the old gods and the new. We may not fully understand Wednesday’s mission, and we sure as hell haven’t met all the major players yet, but Shadow’s prison premonition is starting to come true: Something is coming. The wheels are only now beginning to turn, and the premiere episode is slow to show its hand, but Wednesday and Shadow (and we, the audience) are clearly headed down a strange and wonderful path.
That is, of course, if Shadow lives long enough to see it. After his confrontation with Technical Boy, he wakes up in the rain, beaten by faceless goons and hanging from a tree. Throughout the entire episode, hanging has been a recurrent theme, from Shadow’s mysterious dream to the white prison thugs who threaten him with a noose. (Viewers versed in Norse mythology will also know that Odin has longtime associations with hanging.) And indeed, the show clearly alludes to America’s horrifying history of racially motivated violence, as Technical Boy’s pale, white henchmen string Shadow up and hang him from the tree: a lynching.
It looks like the end for our protagonist — until blood starts arcing through the air, just like it did on a beach with some Vikings all those years ago. Something is murdering each and every goon, literally ripping their spinal column from their body. Whatever is going on here, Shadow is vastly outmatched. He never sees his savior, but if he’s learned anything in the past few days, it’s probably something — or someone — ancient and unbelievable.
So begins American Gods — and if this premiere episode is any indication, we’re off to a fantastic and strange start. Adapting Gaiman’s novel is inherently tricky: On one hand, there’s a sort of cinematic vivacity to the author’s prose, weaving a colorful tale of gods big and small — the kind of epic story that lends itself perfectly to the screen. Love and death and mischief may be difficult themes to illustrate, but American Gods personifies these ideas by turning them into characters we can actually empathize with. At the same time, the novel is in some ways unfilmable: It bounces around through time and space, shifting between the main Wednesday/Shadow narrative and other strange interludes, introducing characters we may or may not ever see again. Much of the story is told through Shadow’s inner thoughts and reactions, and he’s not a particularly loquacious narrator.
But American Gods the TV show embraces all those strengths and challenges. We’re still only on the first episode, but it’s clear that the series wants to tell a story that feels true to the novel’s epic road trip plot while also expanding this wild world of gods and monsters. (Plus, the show is bringing new relevance to the story’s themes — and updating many of them for 2017.) We may not know where the road will lead us, but we’re more than willing to tag along for the ride.