‘American Gods’ is Better Than You Are Expecting

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Editor’s Warning: There are spoilers, if that’s even possible for a book that’s been out for over a decade.

When I first picked up the paperback of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I was still an awkward teenager. The book was full of imagery and subtle details that it took several careful rereadings (and countless times re-listening to the audiobook on long drives) to ever even begin to absorb the intricate world created by Gaiman. In fact, when I moved across country I listened to the audio book from my initial destination of California, to outside of Austin, Texas. In short, I’ve been waiting for this show for most of my adult life with both delight and the deep fear that it would be ruined by corporate executives with no love for the original source material.

The show was announced with great fanfare and then was pushed back to a late April release date. My friends, it was worth the wait. In the first episode, “Bone Orchard”, we meet the main character Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), but only after we are introduced the man himself: Odin. American Gods takes an incredible risk in starting with a scene of intense and grisly bloodlust. Norsemen rend each other limb from limb in a desperate attempt to bring the blessings of the Allfather. The show immediately reminds you that this is not for the faint of heart, nor small children. The show does not let you forget this as it goes along either.  After a few subtle changes from the book (good job not going after the Native Americans, guys), American Gods pivots to Shadow Moon and his prison cellmate, Low Key, as they work out together in the prison yard. In this world, we aren’t shying away from White Supremacist groups in the prison yard, or the fear of lynching; American Gods is playing with not only the source material, but an America visibly unsettled in recent years. Something feels wrong to Shadow, despite the fact that he is in prison and thinks there is nothing worse that can happen to him. Within a few moments, we are informed that Shadow’s wife, Laura Moon (Emily Browning), has died in a car accident. As such, he is being released a few days early for the funeral and to an uncertain future.

American Gods does so many things right that my brain is still spinning from watching the episode. While I was unsure of how Starz was going to get away with a true Bilquis (Yetide Bedaki) “worship” scene, they managed to keep it both sexy and deeply uncomfortable. I’m not sure how many more times I’m going to need to say this, but DO NOT WATCH THIS WITH YOUR KIDS. Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) is inspired as a seven-foot-tall Leprechaun with a serious chip on his shoulder and a love of the fight. Possibly the most surprising sequence is one which involves Audrey (Betty Gilpin), the wife of Shadow’s now deceased best friend Robbie. In the book, it becomes almost impossible not to hate Audrey. In the television show she is on Ativan so severely that you can’t help but want to hug her and tell her everything will be all right, even as she swears and insults both her husband and Laura Moon. The book can keep exact lines of dialogue, but make such subtle word changes that you will find yourself thinking that’s how it has always been.

Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday is worthy of his own paragraph. There is not another actor alive who could do this role justice the way McShane can. With a simple eyebrow raise, a subtle comment, or a suspicious move of his head, he sets the tone for each scene. He takes over a scene just by being in it, and yet manages to avoid being too much at any given time. He captures the role, the very essence of it, with complete “panache,” as Mad Sweeney would say. In one scene he can portray a man barely holding on as he tries to get himself a plane ticket, to being a flirt in charge of all of First Class in another. Let’s just say, Mr. Wednesday and Shadow are definitely not flying United.

My complaints are minimal, and in all honesty are mostly due to time limitations and small things that are cut out. Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” makes no appearance in the show, though it is referenced multiple times in the book during the bar scene.  Technical Boy is a skinny little wisp of a guy, even though he is referenced as a heavier type in the novel.  Of course, somethings needed to be changed.

American Gods is the type of television that makes viewers excited to watch again (probably to Media’s delight). If you haven’t read the book, you will miss more foreshadowing in the first episode than I can name. Some of this is subtle lines, some of it is just iconography in the background.

Grab your mead and remote. Tuck the little ones in bed. Prepare for one of the best hours of television you’ve seen in ages.

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