American Gods: Neil Gaiman breaks down 'House on the Rock' and the Old Gods' war in season 2
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport,” William Shakespeare wrote more than 400 years ago. And turns out, little has changed as American Gods returns for a long-awaited second season on Starz on Sunday, where the deities of old and new are up to their mischief, but this time in a fight for survival.
The episode, titled “House on the Rock,” picks up a couple of hours after the events of episode 8 in season 1, where Wednesday (Ian McShane) reveals himself to be the great Norse god Odin to the confused protagonist Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) at the home of Easter (Kristin Chenoweth), where Wednesday faces off Media (Gillian Anderson) to recruit the centuries-old Easter goddess to his side. He succeeds as Easter casts a drought over the land.
The new episode finds the rag-tag group of gods, humans, and Shadow’s undead corpse wife Laura all heading to the House on the Rock, one of the most eccentric attractions in America (check it out here), where Shadow and the deities ride a giant carousel that takes them into Wednesday’s mind, where he rallies them together for a war against the New Gods. Afterward, Shadow wakes up in a diner surrounded by the gods and wondering if what he experienced was real. As he grapples with his new reality, the diner comes under attack on orders from the nefarious entity Mr. World (Crispin Glover) — Shadow saves Laura and runs out to find the sniper, only to be abducted by the New Gods. In the diner, Wednesday finds Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman) fatally shot, and the Old Gods come together to say goodbye to one of their own.
American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, has gone through quite a journey of its own to get to season 2, after the first season’s showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green departed over reported creative differences and Jesse Alexander, the showrunner for season 2, left after completing the eight episodes.
“I think Bryan and Michael’s vision was huge and was very much all about having Shadow at the center of something that just got bigger and bigger and brought on more gods,” Gaiman told EW. “One of the things Jesse wanted to do was get deeper into the gods and human characters that we have, so we spend more time with them in more places.”
This means season 2 will focus more on Shadow and his backstory, which will be central to the second episode. Now that he is a believer in the gods, how that will impact his journey as Wednesday’s right-hand man?
Gaiman, who co-wrote “House on the Rock” with Alexander, breaks down the episode for EW and what the second season has in store for the characters as war looms over them.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like to be at the actual House on the Rock and bring that scene that you had written so many years ago in the novel, to life on screen?
NEIL GAIMAN: My part as a writer on that episode is fairly minimal but the most important thing that I brought to it, which I knew and Jesse didn’t because Jesse tried to get out there but a certain snowstorm meant he was unable to, was that I’ve been and spent time in the House on the Rock, so I understood the layout and knew what one was describing, whereas Jesse had seen photos but no photos can prepare you for the utter bugf–k weirdness of the House on the Rock. It’s what J.B.S. Haldane said about the universe, that it’s not only weirder than you imagine, it’s weirder than you can imagine. So filming there was astonishing, there’s something about actually looking at a bunch of actors who are allowed to ride the biggest carousel in the world that nobody is allowed to ride, but there they are, on it. Walking around, what I loved best was, because all of the actors are all intimately familiar with the novel, they were all fascinated by the House on the Rock and they read that sequence, but now they’re in the actual place and I asked them, “What do you think?” and they said, “We never thought it was this weird. We read the novel but here we are and it’s the weirdest place in the world.”
You get to finally bring all the Old Gods together in this episode, so what was crafting that reunion like?
It was enormously fun. That was, of course, where season 1 was meant to end, we were meant to get to the House on the Rock, but that was (when) it was meant to be a 10-episode opening season and it was meant to end at the House on the Rock, but for reasons, it never got there. So it was really fun that this is where we were heading all the way through season 1, all the gods were meant to come together and ride together and Shadow was meant to see this and Shadow is going to get Backstage and understand what’s going on — that Wednesday is Odin and he’s hustling the old gods. I also love that we have Bilquist (Yetide Badaki) in the story, and that’s a glorious thing that we have Yetide, who is an absolutely fabulous actor and who really makes Bilquist somebody that you care about. She’s hovering, she’s an old god working for new gods, but is she? That in itself is fascinating.
Tell us more about Mama-ji (Sakina Jaffrey) and what role she’ll have in this season?
Mama-ji, I love her, and I’ve explained to people when they ask, “Is she Kali?,” and I say “No, she’s not Kali, she’s an American incarnation.” She’s the American idea, she’s the Kali who has been brought to America and abandoned, and she’s scraping by. It’s very much worth remembering that she’s a warrior goddess and as things go on, she’s the goddess of death and endings and she’s immensely powerful, but she also is the voice of reason and sanity, she doesn’t believe Wednesday’s bulls–t, if it is bulls–t.
You’ve mentioned before that we’re not getting to Lakeside this season, so where does everyone’s respective journeys take them to?
We are heading to Cairo, Illinois, where Jacquel (Chris Obi) and Ibis (Demore Barnes) have a funeral home, it’s where Shadow gets to hide out for a little bit, it’s a place where he has his final confrontation with Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) in the book. So we got to do a lot of that and more, because it isn’t just Shadow who’s heading to Cairo in the TV show, it’s also Bilquist, Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), and there are other forces as well, and the question of whether or not the New Gods know where Shadow is.
We’re also going to take some side journeys. There’s a wonderful side journey that Wednesday takes with Shadow in episode 6, which partly exists in the present but partly in the 1930s, and it is Shadow being told by Wednesday about Wednesday’s burlesque house that he used to run and how Thor died, and you get to see the marvelous Rachel Talalay direct the episode mostly set in the 1930s as a look back at how American Gods would have worked then. And then episode 7 is Mad Sweeney’s episode again — in season 1, episode 7 was Mad Sweeney’s episode “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” — and this season, we go further back. We get to learn the history of Mad Sweeney over the last several thousand years and how he began life as a god and wound up as a very tall leprechaun, and it’s getting much deeper into who Mad Sweeney is, what the darknesses are on his soul, what it was like to be a god and worshipped as a god in ancient Ireland and now be a joke. It also takes Laura and Mad Sweeney’s story to some interesting places.
It’s been so fun to watch Laura (Emily Browning) and Sweeney together on screen. What have you been surprised to discover about your own characters through the TV show?
What’s lovely about making television is that you have to be aware of what’s happening on the screen and good television is a weird process of positive feedback to what is happening on screen and being aware of what works and what doesn’t work. Pablo Schreiber was not originally available as Mad Sweeney so we went with another actor. The other actor lasted a day but had personal and family problems and had to leave, and I look back at that now and had that other actor — I will not obviously name — stayed in that role, I can’t imagine the Laura-Mad Sweeney plot would have happened, because he would have played a very different kind of Mad Sweeney, a much more down-heel, dirty, grungy character. The glory of Pablo’s mad Sweeney is just the moment that you watch Laura and Sweeney in the same television screen hating each other, loving each other, being this weird mad unity through time, and you go “Okay, I want to see more of you, you guys are amazing,” but that’s not something that any of us knew when we started, it wasn’t something I knew or Bryan and Michael knew, but it was something that we learned, and you have to be open to learning as you go.
It feels like the show gets to work as a complementary companion piece to the book?
I really like that, I’m very fond of the Technical Boy in the book, and in the book, it’s the best Technical Boy I could have written in the year 2000, at a time in the height of the tech bubble, and the coolest thing he could have done would have been figuring out how to get a pizza delivered to his mum’s basement where he lived without actually having to talk to a human being. It was 1999 and modems made screeching noises. The idea now is that the Technical Boy is going to be a Mark Zuckerberg, right now he’s going to be a lot more powerful than he was, when he was more or less a curiosity, because now where we give our attention is to these blocks of metal and plastic and glass that we carry around with us. I’m really interested to see what happens in season 2 and beyond with the New Media character (Kahyun Kim), I’m fascinated — Jesse brought her on and I’m interested in seeing where the new showrunners take her next season.
Speaking of New Media, what about Gillian Anderson’s Media and Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter — will their characters be resumed with new faces?
We all loved Gillian, she was amazing and she was only ever signed for one season. If Gillian wanted to come back as Media — we’re not saying New Media is Media anymore, because obviously, New Media isn’t. But the fascinating thing for me is when I wrote American Gods, if you go to a motel in the middle of the evening, you turned on the television because that was what you did for entertainment and there would be a black and white wasteland and color wasteland of ancient television that lived forever, shows like I Love Lucy and the Dick Van Dyke Show, it was part of everyone’s common cultural knowledge. If you talk to kids today, they don’t turn on the television, they don’t know who Lucy was or Dick Van Dyke or any of those people, it’s fallen out of that common cultural white knowledge, the stuff that you don’t ever notice yourself learning, it’s just there for you and that in itself I find completely fascinating. They do know exactly how Instagram works, they know how to put any filter on Snapchat you could possibly care for, and they will explain memes to you that you absolutely are unable to understand yourself for why something is funny or why something is offensive, and you go “Okay, this is very interesting, this is a very short space of time for this to have happened.” So I don’t think Old Media is dead but I love the idea of following New Media for a bit. And I love Gillian, if she ever wanted to come back and do anything in American Gods, I can’t imagine any of us would say no, we’d happily write something for Media.
As for Kristin, there’s nothing actually for Easter to do in the plot for several seasons at this point, so I figure in several seasons when it’s time for Easter, we’ll go and talk to Kristin.
What is the full arc that you foresee for American Gods? Could it wrap in 3 seasons?
American Gods the book is about 750 pages long and essentially the first season covered the first four chapters, around page 135, which is around one-fifth of the book. So I think the second season covers chapters 5 to the end of chapter 8, which is part one of the American Gods novel, and then takes you on the way to Lakeside. On that basis, it would look like three seasons after, so seasons 3, 4, and 5 if you go by the novel, but obviously anything is possible in television.
Take an exclusive look at what American Gods has in store for its second season below.