Prescience is a word I think of when it comes to Neil Gaiman’s work. It means foresight, foreknowledge- and is a word applicable to Gods, whatever effect they may or may not have on our lives. The new Starz adaptation and breakout hit American Gods seeks to explore just that. Often humorous, and more than a little nihilistic, this series aims to challenge the beliefs of everyone involved.
The story began with a pregnant feeling of anticipation, punctuated with the violence and gore you were subject to at the introduction of the first episode. Anytime you’re expecting something bad to happen, you expect the worst. Well, I do, at least. Shadow Moon couldn’t so much as take a breath without my mind flipping through the images of burning knives popping open the eyeballs of Vikings. These early moments prepare viewers well for the onslaught of suspense, terror, fantasy, blood, anger, blood, worship, blood…
Sinful Celluloid brought us reviews of the first three episodes, in which we were introduced to the format of American Gods, the main characters Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schrieber), and given glimpses into some of the Gods that play a larger role in the lives of Americans. In episode four, we finally see into the life of the mysterious Dead Wife, Laura Moon (Emily Browning). A depressed, suicidal young woman, Laura holds nothing dear in her life until the introduction of Shadow- an inexperienced thief attempting to rob the casino employing Laura. She notices his tricks, and warns him against his con. This intrigues Shadow, and he follows her after her shift. She takes him home, they have some aggressive sex, and their life together begins. Given the tranquility of their domestic life together, it is implied that he gave up the life of crime in order to be with her. His questionably innocent nickname “Puppy” is explained in a scene with the scorned best friend Audrey (Betty Gilpin), who points out that the look Shadow gives Laura is not unlike that of a lost puppy. She said as much at Laura’s funeral as well, but in a heightened state of emotion. Despite her life with Shadow, Laura is a consistently unhappy woman. Other words I thought of when watching her stare longingly at a can of bug spray were unamused, and nihilistic. She is also a character that refuses to change, preferring instead to blame the world: her job, her cat, her grandmother’s house, and her husband. I have been a woman like Laura, and I have been with women like Laura. She believes everything about her life is within her control, despite her refusal to change what she does not like. She likes exacting control over others and insists her actions have justification.
When she begins an affair with Robbie (Dane Cook) she justifies it to herself and later to Shadow as a temporary fling with no real reasoning besides boredom and grief. Robbie offers to leave Audrey for Laura, to which Laura responds with a “no,” and the deadly blowjob. She is given the chance to redeem herself out of pure coincidence with a lucky coin Mad Sweeney unintentionally gifted to Shadow after their bar fight, which buries itself into Laura’s stomach when Shadow flicks it into the soft soil after the burial. In death, Laura knows she loves Shadow. In life, she admits to not having felt as strongly. Considering that a kiss from Shadow actually beats her embalmed heart, “love” in American Gods is likely an entity on its own as well. Dead Laura is considerably more interesting than Living Laura for the sole reason that zombies are awesome- especially super powerful, pissed-off zombie women trying to reconnect and apologize to the love of her life. In death, she was given something to live for, an irony not lost upon those who have had their own near-death experiences. Much of the episodes that follow involve Laura fighting to get back to Shadow, while dragging along Mad Sweeney, who just wants his lucky coin back.
Mad Sweeney seems altogether useless without the help of his coin, though he is perfectly capable of producing multitudes of other, less lucky coins. He goes as far as to dig up Laura’s grave to find it, then just follows her around in the hopes she willingly relieves it. Doing so would render her corpse inanimate, so she tastefully declines his groveling. His response lands him in the custody of police, who take the Dead Laura to the morgue, and Mad Sweeney to a precinct that unbeknownst to them, has been wiped out. New Gods Media (Gillian Anderson), Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), and Mr. World (Crispin Glover) have been there, and spoke to the arrested Shadow and Mr. Wednesday. Their bank con was not as cunning as they thought, but a few “God’s Eye-View” photos prove that they were turned in to police, not discovered. At this revelation, the police leave the interrogation room for Wednesday and Shadow to speak amongst themselves. Media chooses at this point to make a grand entrance as a floating Marilyn Monroe, her previous incarnations being David Bowie and Lucille Ball, utterly stunning Shadow Moon. You would imagine that Shadow could deal with a floating Marilyn Monroe at this point, but true to form, he is angry at the concept that people can float. Technical Boy also waltzes in, and following closely behind them is Mr. World, a quietly sinister if outwardly unintimidating man in a fedora. Technical Boy apologizes for the lynching of Shadow after their initial meeting in a VR limo in his slimy, entitled-teen manner, and Mr. World offers Shadow the chance we all wished for when presented with the personification of the internet and personal devices- to punch him in the face. The three Gods seem to attempt reconciliation with Mr. Wednesday, a God we have been told may be the devil. Mr. World even takes Technical Boy by the collar to demand he show some respect for the Old God.
Therein seems to lie the problem- there are Old Gods, and there are New Gods, and a giant conflict between the worship of either. Shadow rightfully describes their conflict as the storm that has brewed overhead, above the clouds long before he ever knew of Gods, or the pervasion of fantasy within reality. Wednesday insists on continuing a journey to Wisconsin, and Shadow is still his bodyguard. In a grim, Nazi-reminiscent portrayal of second-amendment America, the two venture to Vulcan, Virginia as a pitstop to recruit another God in what has become apparent as Wednesday’s army. While there is no end to the remarkable quips memorable from American Gods, Mr. Wednesday has one to think about for us: “You are what you worship.” In this case, the Vulcan citizens worship violence, guns, bullets, and freedom: their own America, as Wednesday remarks, and the America of old where ironworkers and weapons factories were prominent establishments on American soil. Vulcan is their God, the Roman God of fire and metalworking. He is an Old God, like Wednesday, but has come to terms with his relevance in the lives of the Virginians, and is not interested in a battle. Wednesday goads Vulcan into forging a sword for him, and subsequently beheads Vulcan with it. In what I can only assume is Wednesday’s style, he also pushes Vulcan into a vat of lava and relieves himself on the lava. There is no reference to the consequences of this act on the people of Vulcan, VA or the other Gods.
In a true test of Emily Browning’s acting ability, she is also Essie McGowan in a story told by our narrator Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes), one in which an Irish woman is wrongfully accused of theft. She is sentenced to “transportation,” a punishment Mr. Ibis described earlier as another form in which America came to be populated with criminals rather than “pioneers.” Essie doesn’t make it to America, and instead seduces the captain of her transportation ship. He takes her back to London, where she drops the hardly believable act of innocence and caring and decides instead to turn to theft. Just as she had as a little girl in Ireland, she leaves offerings to the Leprechauns for luck. When she is arrested for theft once again, and for leaving her original sentence of transportation, she is sentenced to hang. In prison, she encounters Mad Sweeney. A Leprechaun himself, he is responsible for her change of fate while imprisoned, as a guard offers her sex in exchange for better food and their actions result in a pregnancy, sparing her from hanging and sending her instead to indentured servitude in the Americas. Older, happier, and ready to accept the inevitable, Mad Sweeney encounters Essie McGowan on her farm and leads her to her peaceful death. This sweeter, more subdued version of Mad Sweeney is present when Laura crashes the vehicle they acquired to follow Shadow and Wednesday, expelling the coin from her body and rendering her inanimate. Rather than take his coin and get on with his mission, he places it on her once more. The cruel Laura reappears, and is much more convincing.
Shadow, Wednesday, Laura, and Sweeney all arrive in Kentucky for “one last stop” before Wisconsin and “The House on the Rock.” It is Easter, and Wednesday is after the allegiance of another Old God, Ostara (Kirstin Chenoweth).Ostara is sharing her holiday with the Christian belief in Jesus Christ’s reincarnation, and is hosting a party with every incarnation of Jesus imaginable. The multitude of Jesuses is exactly the kind of humor you come to expect from American Gods, and is probably the least offensive portrayal of Jesus Christ, ever. Zombies and Easter have always been an appropriate combination in my opinion, but Ostara wasn’t having Laura’s stench at her nice party. Despite Ostara’s best efforts, she sees that not only did Sweeney have something to do with her death, but that a God ordered her execution. Careful viewers might have guessed a few episodes back, as Sweeney spoke to a raven to communicate a job well done, and Wednesday spoke to ravens as well. The dramatic irony aside, Laura takes certain matters of Sweeney’s into her own hands to extract Wednesday’s name from him, and goes off in search of the God with an inexplicable interest in her husband’s life. He had also ruined her “perfect” casino robbery, the catalyst for Shadow’s involvement with Gods. For any viewer still confused as to Wednesday’s identity, plans, beef with the New Gods, and Ostara’s power- all are tied into a neat little bow with a choreographed finale so satisfying I forgot it wasn’t actually an ending.
The cast are as impressive as they are proficient in their work, Emily Browning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sleeping Beauty), Gillian Anderson (The X Files), and Ian McShane (Snow White and the Huntsmen, Hercules) utterly convinced me. Actors such as Pablo Schrieber (Orange is the New Black, Law and Order SVU) and Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked, Glee) are well known for the characters they play here. Kristin was perfect for a role as a bubbly Easter Goddess, and it made me smile to remember her as Glinda the Good in Wicked.
Visual intensity in this series includes the saturation of color. The neon lights in the title sequence are accurate depictions of the lighting in the rest of the episodes, ranging from deep, dark hues of blue and purple in the first episode, “Orchard of Bones” to the bright pinks and yellows of the last episode, “Come to Jesus.” The show makes frequent use of animation, and while ubiquitous, it never ceases to amaze. In an intimate scene between Salim (Omid Abtahi) and a Djinn (Moursa Kraish) and the power and sexuality of their coupling is made as impactful visually as it is conceptually through the animation of their bodies- something I can’t describe as well as you can take it in for yourself. Blending horror and fantasy is an artful undertaking in American Gods, with flawless execution.
So much of the cinematography and creative choices in American Gods reminded me of comic books (American Gods even has a graphic adaptation of the novel), and scenes such as the bloody slaughter of Technical Boy’s henchmen and the coin toss into Laura’s grave reminded me specifically of the 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen. Another prolific author well versed in comics, Alan Moore also considered the relevance of his works to the modern day using popular American culture and history in his most famous graphic novel, Watchmen. Though Moore detested the format, Director Zack Snyder’s creative decisions in shooting Watchmen followed the novel’s panels closely, but American Gods Director David Slade seems to have not only read Neil Gaiman’s work, but also appreciated the attention to detail present in comic book presentation. The Vulcan, Virginia scenes were also great parallels of Watchmen in humor and filming. Both directors used slow motion depictions of violence, macro camera shots on details, and frequent depictions of violence. Both authors Moore and Gaiman have a considerably difficult time bringing their work to the big screen, but the success of TV with American Gods is unequivocally present.
The show raises several questions, besides the obvious “What is going on?” Some I wrote down in the first episode pondering the title was, “who do we pledge allegiance to?” and “what makes a God American?” There were many questions leading up to that, but Neil Gaiman’s work won’t leave you hanging. It is difficult to remain objective and detached from American Gods when it sweeps you into itself so easily. Even having read the book, you are bound to have a different experience through this adaptation. It can be terrifying, at times, to consider the possibilities Gaiman explores, such as that everything you believe in is true, and if you believe in nothing, you will be sentenced to nothingness of your own creation.
So, what is American Gods? A love letter to the United States? A scathing review? Satire? Most likely, all of the above. Gaiman and Slade incorporate American history with present-day events and flaunt our dirty laundry right alongside the American flag. While I’m sure there are those people who view American Gods as an over-exaggerated view of American religion, spirituality, and life, there is also me, who thinks that the only “extreme” American Gods reaches is nihilism.