It’s time to believe in something; and that something is the cast and crew of American Gods. In American Gods 1×01, we meet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), who feels a sense of foreboding in his final days before being released from prison. And with good reason. Overnight, everything about the life he thought he’d be headed back to is shattered. As if that weren’t enough, Shadow gets pulled into the world of the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, somewhat against his will. In his new reality, Shadow sees things are not easy to believe. Perhaps viewers won’t believe every minute either. But believe this: American Gods is easily one of the best new series in far too long.
Coming to America in American Gods 1×01.
The opening sequence of American Gods 1×01 showcases one of the “Coming to America” vignettes from Neil Gaiman’s novel. It’s not enough just to know the journey that Shadow Moon, our protagonist, embarks on with the oftentimes frustrating Mr. Wednesday. We must also understand which people — and which gods — have experienced all the opportunity and suffering America has to offer. Enter the forgotten tale of Vikings who, upon their first trip to the New World, wanted to be anywhere but here.
The new settlers arrive to America’s shores, only to find hunger and sorrow. Rather than the riches they dreamed of while expertly navigating the seas, they find a barren land. There is no food or shelter, “only biting insects and snakes.” After that, it’s violence and death.
And American Gods totally goes there when it comes to showcasing that violence. The overkill with the arrows is a jarring, graphic display of what’s to come, compelling in the way that only a glimpse of humankind’s bloody history can be.
They did not yet have a word in their language for ‘miserable.’ They would have to invent one.
Following their continued struggles, the people want to go home. And so, in an effort to please the Allfather so they may make their journey back, it is time for sacrifices. A burning knife to several settlers’ eyes isn’t enough: The Allfather is a war god, so their only hope of survival is, ironically, a series of bloody deaths.
Make no mistake about it: The bloodshed that opens American Gods 1×01 ought to be enough to sate any god. But despite showcasing so much brutality, the only way to describe this war is to say it’s art. When the bright red melts across the entire viewing area, it becomes obvious that this series is going to be nothing short of a visual masterpiece.
Thankfully, the Allfather is satisfied. The Vikings return home, never to speak of their trip again. And when Leif Erikson begins his journey to the New World over a century later, his god is already there, ready and waiting. The god remembers.
Belief and worship are everything. Even this “small” part of American Gods 1×01 gives that clear warning.
Which brings us to Shadow Moon.
Shadow appears to be your average guy, trying to better himself. That’s not, however, what the universe has in store for him. Just a few days before his release from prison, Shadow feels uneasy but can’t quite pinpoint why:
I’m not superstitious. But I believe in plenty when there’s reason and evidence to believe. I don’t believe in anything I can’t see…I feel like there’s a fucking axe hanging over me. I can’t see it. But I believe it.
Fellow inmate Low Key Lyesmith says it’s just prison trying to keep Shadow. But as we soon learn when Shadow’s world turns upside-down, there’s a bit more to it than that. If seeing truly is believing, then Shadow’s sick twist of fate should make him believe that there are greater forces at work. He’s released several days early because his wife has unexpectedly died. Then, despite initially having trouble getting an earlier flight home, he receives a convenient First Class upgrade when his seat is filled by another passenger. It’s here that Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday, who knows a lot more about him than he ought to.
But Shadow brushes that off. Mr. Wednesday just “guesses” that Shadow is a newly free man. He knows before Shadow does that he has no job waiting for him back home. And when he randomly shows up in the bathroom of a bar where Shadow stops to rest, having traded his interrupted flight plan for a drive across the country, he conveniently has Robbie and Laura’s obituary in-hand. Shadow has yet to see it. Somehow, that, too, is easily explained away.
Apparently, Shadow needs more evidence before he can believe that something is amiss here.
If his weirdly changing luck weren’t enough and the all-too-coincidental appearances of Mr. Wednesday don’t suffice, maybe Shadow ought to be swayed by meeting a leprechaun. Shadow’s not convinced Mad Sweeney is what he says he is, though, all because he’s taller than the stories say he should be.
That’s a stereotype. It represents a very narrow view of the world.
Despite not Mad Sweeney fitting the assumed description of a leprechaun, Mad Sweeney is able to pull gold coins out of thin air. Shadow thinks it’s a trick. Sometimes, though, the only “trick” is the one our mind plays on itself when trying to rationalize the irrational. Our protagonist falls into that trap, repeatedly.
Shadow’s own dreams aren’t enough to wake him up to the reality that something is different. How often to we dream of the exact same place, especially when that place is a massive boneyard? Does he not realize that actually drawing real blood in his dream is odd? What about the flaming buffalo? Dreams are just dreams, right? Well, how about explaining Mr. Wednesday’s ability to correctly call a coin toss in opposition to Shadow’s planned, rigged outcome?
Shadow Moon is all of us: When something doesn’t fit with his worldview, he simply explains it away. Even Technical Boy’s grand entrance, complete with demands to know about Wednesday’s plans (which Shadow doesn’t even know, despite having been roped into a deal with him), is somehow ignored. Seeing, apparently, is not believing.
Americans have become faithless to a fault; and Shadow Moon is the quintessential proof. Religion is, after all, “so much fucking spam,” as Technical Boy says.
Maybe with a little bit of faith, we’d have a better chance of survival.
At least the man who is, quite literally, sexed to death by the goddess Bilquis might have had a better chance. American Gods 1×01 does not remotely shy away from this horrifying scene. Much like everything else with this series, the craziness of it is not only embraced but heightened.
Humanity has completely forgotten Bilquis; yet all she wants is to be worshipped. Even if that worship means…that. Let’s spare the details but applaud everyone involved in the scene — particularly Yetide Bataki, who makes Bilquis sympathetic, yet terrifying as hell.
If…that…is what Bilquis does when she’s getting the praise and pleasure she craves, I’d hate to see what she’s capable of when angry.
“If there isn’t some kind of life after death, I’m going to be so pissed.”
When Shadow finally makes it back to Eagle Point for his wife’s funeral, there’s a moment of startling realism in the midst of American Gods 1×01’s fantasy world. Shadow’s needed time to collect himself before entering the church, followed by the slow-motion moment-of-truth when he finally walks in, is perhaps the most relatable part of the whole episode. Just as powerfully human is Shadow’s graveside monologue, delivered by Ricky Whittle with the perfect mixture of feelings. His grief and anger are fully on display, as is his shock at the entire situation.
I just wanted to come back better than I went in.
Of course, Laura’s untimely demise is not normal. When Betty Giplin’s Audrey reveals the cause of death to Shadow, complete with the perfect mixture of bitterness and empathy, it’s yet another weird experience for him. It’s impossible to reconcile the calm woman on the phone, who was planning him a surprise “Welcome Home” party, with the news of her affair or its impact on her death. But the bizarre nature of Laura’s death is the truth, and both Shadow and Audrey must come to terms with it.
Make no mistake about it: Audrey, yet another “minor” character in Gaiman’s book, is a major point of interest in this series. Not only is Giplin’s performance undeniably entertaining, but her character also happens to raise some good points — some of which will be put to the test later on. She asserts, “there is no closure from the dead,” but maybe with a little bit of faith, that might be debatable. And then there’s this:
Anger makes you feel like you can change the outcome. There’s no arguing with the dead. No debate.
She’s right about the anger. We’ll see about the rest.
Additional thoughts on American Gods 1×01:
- If the use of blood in the opening “Coming to America” sequence was art, then whatever created all the carnage to save Shadow from a death by lynching was fine art. Wow. Just wow.
- In my advance review, I mentioned that I’d be more than happy to watch American Gods in IMAX 3D. Technical Boy’s entrance alone was the reason. What a magical, fun, in-your-face display.
- Everything about this series combines to create a masterpiece. Even the unsettling way the music blends against the action is remarkable.
- “Wednesday is history. Forgotten and…old. He should just let it happen. We are the future, and we don’t give a fuck about him or anyone else like him anymore.” American faithlessness at its modern-day worst.
- The instant chemistry between McShane and Whittle is everything a good series needs between two leads — and more. It brings a levity to the Shadow-Wednesday relationship that, at times, may be seemingly absent in Gaiman’s novel.
- Shadow versus Mad Sweeney: A+. Would watch 100 more times. Better than Fight Club.
- “This country went to hell when they stopped hanging folks” from Low Key in the beginning of American Gods 1×01, versus everything going to hell when Shadow is hanged at the end. Love it.
- Shadow expected a storm to come, and it did: Big time. But still, he’s not even considering a supernatural cause for his insane circumstances. He’s stubbornly rational.
- Also, that lightning? From the storm? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: This is all a work of art.
- The scream when Shadow stops to have a quiet rest along the road: Yes. Just yes. Ricky Whittle, you are amazing.
- “The worst has already happened.” Not even close.
Make sure to watch more American Gods Sundays at 9/8c on Starz.
Believe this, if nothing else: The best is yet to come.1 of 1