We all believe in God. We may not recognize it, but we do. We all submit to a deity to rule us and explain us (career, family, ideology, Facebook); we all worship some almighty power with rituals and sacrificial offerings of money, time and even our lives, or at least the lives of small goats. Those who say that there is nothing believe in something, and even the most meaningless pastime can convert us into ecstatic zealots and scary fundamentalists. Trust me. I know all about getting Lost in a fiction. Have you not read my golden tablets of recaps?
Sorry to get preachy; I have American Gods on the brain. Adapted from the 2001 bestseller by erudite geek icon Neil Gaiman, the new Starz series is the latest act of aesthetic derring-do and sophisticated irreverence from Bryan Fuller, the cult TV producer-god who made Hannibal Lecter mesmerizing and biting again. Fuller’s eclectic work (which includes the more whimsical but no less heady Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies) takes on blockbuster genres in the manner of one of his influences, Stanley Kubrick, possessing it and reinventing it into idiosyncratic, immersive worlds. Working with screenwriter Michael Green and Hannibal helmer David Slade, Fuller uses American Gods to create an ironic hero’s journey epic, a big saga fantasy a la Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead that casts shade on the genre and transforms our country’s checkered history and high-low culture into a richly subversive mythology.
American Gods centers on an anti-hero with a loaded name, Shadow Moon (The 100’s Ricky Whittle), a minor league underworld player fond of sleight of hand grifts. He’s black, which is worth mentioning because it’s rare for protagonists in this kind of saga to be anything but white — and because the show doesn’t let you forget it, with images that dote on his hard-bodied masculinity, an objectification that nurtures a story where America’s racial history is one of many layers of subtext. In fact, Shadow’s present is nothing but white people with two-faced names, treacherous hearts, or who are straight-up evil. We meet him in a prison yard, pumping iron, getting harassed by neo-Nazis, making small talk with his only friend, a peculiar chap with a ridiculous red flag name, Low Key Lyesmith. Shadow, apparently, is neither versed in Norse mythology nor Marvel movies. He’s days away from release, but he’s beset by premonitions and dreams of impending doom. Or maybe it’s just the weather; a sinister, snowy winter is coming in this pay cable fantasy, too. At least he’s got a wife waiting for him, Laurie (Emily Browning), whom he adores. She calls him Puppy. Mersh. She’s white, too. And she’s cheating on him. F—ing white people!
Shadow is constantly working a coin with his knuckles. It speaks to his faith in his own control and a make-your-own-luck worldview. But it’s also a token of the almighty force that regulates American life and determines human value, one imprinted with “In God We Trust.” That motto is about to become the defining irony of Shadow’s life, and a costly one, too. In the aftermath of tragedy that earns him an early release from prison, Shadow takes a job as an all-purpose valet to a mysterious dude who’s something not unlike himself — a vagabond con artist — except he’s nothing like him, because he’s imbued with powers and abilities far beyond mortal men, and because he’s white, and because he’s played by Deadwood’s Ian McShane with wizened charismatic swagger and typical erudite vulgarity. His name is Wednesday, but we come to understand that he’s an incarnation of Odin, the hustler all-father of Norse mythology, for whom “Wednesday” is named for, unless you hold to the view that Wednesday was actually named after Mercury, the fleet-footed valet of Roman mythology. This coded symbolism – and this parallel between Odin and his right hand man Shadow — is no coincidence, and the mere tip of the show’s meta-textual ornateness and hermeneutical fun.
You immediately like the Shadow-Wednesday ‘ship; you don’t want it to be bad, so much so that you might not be suspicious of it. Whittle and McShane generate great chemistry, and McShane, in particular, has a wicked ball with the role. But Shadow’s arrangement with Wednesday has a deal-with-the-devil vibe to it, which illuminates the queasy subtext of their relationship: he’s playing black manservant to a white patriarch. To be clear, American Gods doesn’t ask us to read the text through a lens of race, but it’s there to be interpreted, take it or leave it. In fact, most of the time, I see the Shadow-Wednesday relationship as a nightmare neo-noir frog-scorpion bromance, with Shadow the savvy cynic seduced by a more-savvy homme fatale who might not have his best interests at heart.
Wednesday is on a cryptic quest that is never quite spelled out but you quickly glean in a serial that takes the form of a road trip, with storytelling that aspires to lucid dreaming. It’s the apocalyptic revelation of an increasingly feverish prophet. (Slade and Fuller continue to work in the burnished pop-grotesque style, a blend of Baroque religious art, Lynchian horror-noir and Giallo pulp, supported by dense soundscapes and evocative, abstract score by Hannibal composer Brian Reitzell.)
Wednesday is recruiting other deities like him, ancient gods living among us, brought to this country long ago by immigrants, conquerors, or slaves, now living lives of quiet desperation. (The premiere opens with a dynamite prologue about Viking warrior-explorers who reach the continent that plays like a darkly comic scold of manifest destiny colonization; it is in this fashion that Odin reaches these shores.)
There’s a nomadic leprechaun who lives by luck, fists and an endless supply of coins named Mad Sweeney, played by a terrific Pablo Schreiber, completely shedding his Pornstache character from Orange Is The New Black. In another part of the country, an African fertility goddess known throughout the ages by many names, seeks vitality and adoration in the most degrading way possible, toiling as a prostitute, her temples now lounges and roadside motels. She is Bilquis (a bold, poignant Yetide Badaki), and her sexual powers are extraordinary; her lovers get caught up with her — they’re literally consumed by her. She loves this; she hates this. In a telling beat, she visits a museum and pines for ancient queenly vestments that once belonged to her, now locked behind glass.
And in Chicago, blue collar and fairy tale as a Carl Sandberg poem, a set of Slavic gods is presented as an immigrant family with weird relational dynamics worthy of a Tennessee Williams play. When Wednesday brings Shadow over for a suppertime visit, we get a two-part episode that’s sort of like a psychotic Grimm’s fairy tale version of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? or Get Out. Peter Stormare is a ripe hoot as Czernobog, a brutal dark god in the old country, a lowly “knocker” on the kill floor of a slaughterhouse here in America. He bemoans innovations like the bolt gun. He’d rather be braining cattle – or people — with his gory sledgehammer, and before long, the foul white butcher starts flashing hungry eyes at his strapping black guest. Cloris Leachman steals every second as one of three women of varying ages and mental states – avatars of morning, evening and midnight, spliced with the Fates of Greek mythos — who reside with Czernobog, a struggling, doomed pantheon as a whacky-sad sitcom family.
Wednesday seems to be trying to gather these imported, near-derelict deities to do battle with a set of stronger, homegrown gods that are young, petulant and full of takeover gumption. It’s a premise that can be read as timely allegory about American culture in any number of ways, from generational conflict to the tension between religious and secular world views, or spiritual and materialist values. They seek Shadow’s loyalty or his death, and their fixation makes us wonder if Shadow means more to Wednesday than he’s saying.
Crossing Shadow’s path first is Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), petulant god of the Internet. He’s a punchable twit, part Silicon Valley punk billionaire, part cyber-bully. He vapes, he’s got a dumb haircut, and he travels the superhighways of America (ethereal and literal) in a super-duper stretch limo. His Oompa-Loompa thugs resemble the droogs of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, remade as old school video game avatars. They pixelate out of thin air, downloaded from some electro-mystic cloud of collective media consciousness. These allusions add layers of meaning to the scene that ends the premiere, in which Technical Boy’s faceless, white-uniformed hoods gang up on Shadow and hang him from a tree, a lynching; it fulfills a vision that haunts Shadow like a nightmare or a genetic memory of wandering through an orchard of sickly pale trees, guarded by a fire-snorting buffalo. This transformation of Shadow into “strange fruit,” this irreverent allegory for both America’s racial terrorism and racist Internet trolling, is all pretty heavy, but I dig its subversive complexity.
Similarly, there’s The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson, that great goddess of cult TV and modern nerdery, cast in the role of Media, goddess of screens. In her flickering debut, the salacious siren calls to Siren by manifesting on televisions at a warehouse supermarket, taking the form of Lucille Ball, but max naughty. She beckons to Shadow like a commercial, or maybe a Starz show, bidding for his attention with a wicked wink and a promise to flash him some T&A (actually, just the T), to worship her with his eyeballs, with his viewership, for our worship. It’s a brilliantly impish moment.
The show incorporates a device from the novel, chunky cutaways to other gods “Somewhere In America” that serve to introduce characters we’ll get to know more downstream. Each profile is imbued with atheist complaint of gods as monsters: they’re tribal, not true; they exist only because we believe in them, not because they’re real; they take on lives of their own and become exploitative trickster-hustlers; they negate individual identity; they make terrible, dehumanizing demands. But this critique becomes much more interesting per the show’s contention that anything can be a god, and that a purely secular America is ruled by idols and myths, from techno-capitalism to consumerism, from our careers to the thing we call the American dream. Pay attention to how the show dotes on themes of work, of jobs, of money.
These short stories – some of which are set in the past (like the Viking tale), some of which are set in the present – together form a new myth of America that speaks to issues of race, gender, sexuality and other issues that define us and roil us in the here and now. The result is episodes that feel incredibly rich and meaty, working with the show’s tremendous visual style to counter a failing of many Starz shows, a feeling of smallness even as they’re trying to be so very big.
In one audacious tale, set aboard a slave ship and tailored to our Black Lives Matter moment, Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), the West African spider god, appears to the shackled souls sporting a fedora and colorful suit. He tells them of the degrading life that awaits them and generations of descendants in the new world, a dismal revelation set to a blues saxophone score that triggers a doomed revolution. In another, fable-like tangent set in modern day Manhattan, a man from Oman (Omid Abtahi) who tries to make a living selling trinkets and novelties, meets a once-vibrant Arabic Jinn (Mousa Kraish) who now drives a cab and keeps his fiery natured hidden – closeted – behind sunglasses. The story is a few complex things at once: An ironic Death of a Salesman homage writ with magical realism, about a pair of lonely, alienated Middle Eastern immigrants and/or gay men, beaten down by an American society that hates them, finding recognition and comfort in each other.
While American Gods has the right stuff to be a The Great American Dark Fantasy Television Novel, I’m not ready to rule yet on whether the show can be TV’s next great big saga serial. Fuller and co-showrunner Green appear to be restricting themselves to the confines of Gaiman’s book; the first season will reportedly cover just the first third. The adaptation is largely faithful. There are tweaks, elaborations, and rearrangements, all blessed by Gaiman, who has participated as an exec producer. Still, time will tell if the show can stretch the material, or if the material lends itself well to the kind of entertainment some viewers (or Starz) wants it to be.
The showrunners patiently unfold the premise like a map and take their time exploring it. As he did on Hannibal, Fuller plays with time and expectations of serial narrative. The resolution of the first episode’s cliffhanger isn’t fully explicated until episode four. Major characters are introduced in big beats or little bits, then remain off stage for long stretches. Episodes bring you to places and sit there, marinating in characters, milking scenarios for mood and subtext. The show is in love with its own sensual image-making in ways that I find interesting, but others might deem indulgent. American Gods is always looking for some neat, nifty, new way to illustrate something, no matter how trivial. If someone is going to unlock a door, chances are we’ll get a shot from inside the deadbolt, watching the key penetrate the chamber and turn. Shadow has to clean his old house before selling it? You’re going to get a montage of vigorous housecleaning. I can write you micro-essays about these scenes; I happen to have a theology of stain removal I’ve always wanted to explicate.
That said, it wasn’t until episode four that I went from liking American Gods to loving it. Breaking from the main Shadow-Wednesday narrative to expand upon it, deepen it, and bring a few things together, “Git Gone” zips back a few years to deconstruct and reconstruct Laura. It tells the story of a deceptively mild mannered young woman going through the motions of an average American life, cultivating desires that can’t be met by her education or her current job, bringing her to a spiritual dead-end. Her place of employment — an Egyptian-themed casino somewhere in small-town Indiana — becomes a symbol for American culture, and her fate becomes a metaphor for her life. The episode starts sullen, turns romantic, becomes tragic, then gets delightfully absurd and really, really funny. It’s Peak Fuller, an episode that implicitly nods at different pop texts, including his own: The show is basically a Franken-homage to Dead Like Me, with a Wonderfalls protagonist, some of Pushing Daisies’ romance and random magic, and gushes of Hannibal’s acidic humor and ridiculous blood-letting. It leaves you hoping the show can be more about Laura – and presents a way it can.
Some might want a quicker pace from American Gods. Yo, po-mo Clash of the Titans, gets to the clashing! But I was consistently engrossed. The characters, the concept, the deeply considered filmmaking captured my imagination. I might like its textures and tangents more than its plot. But I’m fascinated to see where Shadow’s anti-hero odyssey leads, which side of this American Ragnarok he chooses, or if he rejects the gods and bidding to bind his mind, heart and soul once and for all. But hopefully he keeps Media around. I’m not sure I can live without her. A-