Celebrating season 1 of American Gods as we wait (a long time) for season 2
American Gods debuted on Starz one year ago today. Some year it’s been. Life in the United States these past 12 months has been a sputteringly apocalyptic carnival. It’s now possible to criticize American Gods season 1 for being a little too normal, maybe not crazy enough.
And this is a show that starts with transatlantic Vikings blood bathing each other to get wind in their sails. And this is a show where the god of the Internet lynches people. And this is a show where a cuckolded housewife promises oral sex to her husband’s mistress’ husband on the mistress’ fresh grave. And this is a show where the tallest character is a leprechaun. And this is a show where a mysterious woman swallows people mid-coitus via vulva.
That all happened in the first episode of American Gods, one of the most boldly weird series premieres in recent memory. The show’s concept was a bit complicated, and the pilot obscured the concept even further, confusion gone lysergic.
Some clarity up front: The Starz series was adapted from a beloved novel by Neil Gaiman, which is broadly about a conflict between old gods and new gods. The former appear as immortal immigrants, with long memories of how things were, in countries far away, in days gone by. (Think war deities, matriarchs or patriarchs, the old wives that the old wives told tales about.) The new gods are globalized techno-spiritualists. (They rule anything anyone has ever written a press release about: Media, Information, Technology, the Future.)
I’ve never read Gaiman’s book, though I love him forever for creating The Sandman and hater-shielding George R. R. Martin. I assume I’m not the only person who watched the pilot for American Gods with tremendous excitement and no clue what the hell was happening. A man named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) gets out of prison. He meets a man named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). His wife (Emily Browning) dies. He agrees to work for Mr. Wednesday, and they drive places. Right, got all that, willing to go along with the name “Shadow Moon” as the heaviest name on TV since Christian Shephard.
But American Gods‘ eight-episode first season spun in multiple directions, with regular tangents away from Shadow and Wednesday. The dead wife was a constant presence, arguably the main character. A leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber) kept looking for his lucky coin.
A man named Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) regularly interjected with American immigrant stories, thrilling sketches that played like counter-myths to any official history learned in school. There was a slave ship uprising, a long walk across the prehistoric land bridge. One of these “Coming to America” short stories consumed practically a whole episode. We saw the complete life and curious times of Essie McGowan: working class maid in a grand house, thief, convict, seductress, servant, farming matriarch, Irish-born, American-made. (Or, more precisely, America-making). Essie was also played by Browning—a casting decision that was either a clue to some deeper mythology questions, or just a cool idea someone had.
American Gods was full of stuff like this. It was just full. In a scene I can only describe as “typical,” Mexican immigrants cross the border into America, are rescued from drowning by Jesus, and their Jesus is a Mexican man, and then a bunch of American dudes shoot Mexican Jesus dead. This wasn’t the only Jesus in American Gods. By the finale, there was a flock of Jesuses, with Jeremy Davies stuntcast as “Jesus Prime.”
At one point, Shadow and Wednesday go to an American town that worships guns. Like, really, worships guns, like imagine if the NRA had a Vatican and its Vatican was even more ornate than the actual Vatican.
In February, a church in Pennsylvania conducted a mass blessing of its celebrants AR-15 rifles, a surreal “rods of iron” ceremony. There were a lot of American Gods moments like that this past year. Randomly, in the middle of season 1, someone suggested hurling a nuclear bomb at North Korea. This happened in late May—and then somehow the whole rest of the year was about big buttons, little rocket men.
American Gods‘ first season was showrun by a pair of my TV gods. Bryan Fuller is a minor Comic-Con deity, Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me and Hannibal. Michael Green, my own personal Jesus Prime, was the creator of 2009’s woefully shortlived Kings, and was more recently employed as the fellow who screenwrote 2017 (Logan, Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049, Murder on the Orient Express.)
Fuller and Green took Gaiman’s concept as license for endless stylistic excursions. They hired rabid visual thinkers as episode directors: David Slade, Craig Zobel, Vincenzo Natali, Floria Sigismondi. They had a big budget, seemed quite willing to blow it every couple scenes. The action sequences of American Gods season 1 were frequent, always unusual—rivers of blood, weird killer shadow things, an ancient orgy where everyone turned to sludge. But the mood of the show was dreamy, leisurely, sometimes impenetrable—very different from the typical giganto-budget TV show of this decadent age. The main character of American Gods is Shadow, maybe, but through the first season, he was a passive character, with no clue what was happening to him. By the end of the finale he was left staring at everything the gods hath wrought-ed around him.
He looked half-stoned—not the worst way to watch American Gods, which felt less interested in plot-prosaic momentum than in the possibilities of hyperbolic minutiae, in Gillian Anderson playing Lucille Ball and David Bowie, in the notion that “Lucille Ball and David Bowie” could be two halves of a coin with infinite halves.
The season finale featured an extended tangent about Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a character I assume any hardcore American Gods fan knows a lot about, and a character who I will always remember as The Woman Who Keeps Reverse-Birthing People Into Space. We saw her in a temple millennia ago, and we saw her at a dance club in Tehran, and then the AIDS crisis happened, and then someone invented online dating, and somewhere in that montage Debbie Harry and Shirley Manson were singing a brand new disco song—all of the above shot by Sigismondi like an epic music video about human gender in the Cenozoic period.
If this all sounds messy, boy it was. (If it sounds thrilling, ditto.) I don’t think American Gods was the runaway success Starz wanted. Fuller and Green departed the show, or were forcefully departed—unclear. A second season will appear next year, with a new showrunner and what seems to be more all-hands involvement by Gaiman. The series can only change going forward. I’ll wait, intrigued, to see what American Gods becomes. Its first season is already one for the books. Here’s a big-budget nerd property filmed like a Monte Hellman road-trip odyssey. And here’s a hysterical epic for our times, deconstructing a hundred ideas America has about itself, as flawed and fascinating as its country.