American Gods Episode Eight: “Come to Jesus”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

The episode opens with Mr. Nancy sewing new suits for Shadow and Wednesday and insisting on telling them a story while he does so.  In his tale, we learn the backstory of Bilquis, the love goddess from the first episode of the season.  We see her as a powerful priestess in 864 BCE before jumping forward to Tehran in 1979.  Bilquis spends time at a disco, but soldiers of the Ayatollah crash in and disrupt the gathering.  Fleeing to America, Bilquis finds herself coming face to face with the AIDS epidemic before we see her in 2013, homeless.  She’s found by Technical Boy, who does her a favor by showing her a dating app called Sheba, which allows her to find victims.

Wednesday and Shadow go to Kentucky to visit Ostara, also known as Easter.  They arrive in the middle of her Easter Sunday party, complete with multiple versions of Jesus.  Wednesday makes a pitch to her to join them, and she initially refuses, but Wednesday’s lie about the New Gods killing Vulcan gets her to listening more closely.

Laura and Mad Sweeney show up next, and although Sweeney asks Easter to resurrect Laura, Easter can’t.  She tells Laura that a god killed her, and that’s not something that can be interfered with.  Enraged, Laura forces Sweeney to admit that Wednesday is the one who had her sacrificed so that Shadow would have nothing left when Wednesday made his offer.

The New Gods finally arrive, led by Media dressed as Judy Garland in Easter Parade.  She also offers Easter a partnership, which Easter declines, but Media reminds her that it was she who kept Easter alive in people’s minds as a commercial holiday.  Wednesday steps in to question why the New Gods are there if he, Wednesday, no longer matters.  Both Technical Boy and Mr. World arrive to assert that Wednesday is old news, and that the New Gods only need to wait until the Old Gods fade away.  Don’t start a war, Mr. World advises.  But Wednesday strikes at them with a lightning bolt that kills all of Mr. World’s minions.

Turning to Shadow, Wednesday asks if he has faith.  When Shadow asks who he really is, Wednesday finally reveals his true identity: Odin, the Allfather of Norse mythology.  Then he demands that Easter–Ostara–show her true powers.  Ostara responds by taking back Spring, and Wednesday says that humans can have it back when they pray for it.  Mr. World reluctantly acknowledges that they are at war.  And Laura and Shadow are finally reunited.

Meanwhile, Bilquis is heading to Wisconsin, to the House on the Rock, at the behest of the New Gods, who want to use her as a weapon against Wednesday and Shadow.

Commentary:

Although ostensibly the main thrust of this episode is the start of the war and Odin’s revealing his real nature, this hour was mostly about the power of the women.  Not only that, but it’s about the way men take power away from women when they feel threatened by it.  Mr. Nancy sums it up when he says “And there’s no end to the cruelty of men threatened by a powerful woman”.  Bilquis is forced to flee a regime that relegates women to second-class citizens, and she ends up in one that is fearful of all sexuality because of AIDS.  Easter has had to cede her day to Jesus, and she has to pretend that the skewed versions of her old rituals are enough to sustain her.  Even Laura is merely a pawn that Wednesday removes from the board to get what he wants.

The chess analogy is actually a good one.  In chess, the queen is the most powerful piece in the game, moving the most freely and potentially doing the most damage.  For all three women, their power to move freely and control the game being played around them has been hampered, but we’ve seen them coming back into their own, to the point that Mr. Nancy and Wednesday both acknowledge that both sides will need a queen.

Let’s turn now to the Jesuses, or Jesi, as the showrunners call them.  According to them, there are fourteen different versions of Jesus wandering around Easter’s party.  The characters have mentioned a time or two that there can be multiple versions of a god in existence at the same time, but this is the first time that we’ve really seen it.  Of course, this makes me wonder about the other gods we’ve seen so far.  Is there a different version of Media wandering around, or Vulcan (which would mean he’s not dead after all)?  This opens up quite the can of worms.  But back to Jesus.  It’s the one called (in the credits) Jesus Prime who talks to Shadow about faith, and maybe it’s his words that get Shadow to the place where he can finally believe.  I wonder if this is because, of all the gods we’ve seen, Jesus is the most compassionate and provides a stark contrast to the violent tactics he’s seen from Wednesday and Sweeney and their ilk.

But also, it’s hard not to see Odin’s big reveal and not believe.  That was a heck of a sequence, and it also underscores the “multiple versions of gods” idea–Odin says that he has “as many titles as there are ways to die”.  That makes me wonder if you can create a “new version” of a god by naming it something else.  The fact that Odin kept his name so close to his chest for so long, and the fact that he called Easter “Ostara” when she unleashed her power, suggests that names are extremely powerful.  And that has some interesting implications for our man Shadow, doesn’t it?  He’s still dreaming of the bone orchard and the buffalo, and we have no clue what that means yet.

And speaking of Shadow, the showrunners really need to give him more occasions to smile.  Thinking back, we’ve only seen him smile in early flashbacks of him and Laura in “Git Gone”.  That smile is too adorable to hide!  And how cute is it that Shadow loves Easter (the holiday), and turns into a blushing boy when Easter the goddess pays attention to him?

So now we’re left with questions about next season.  What is Bilquis’s goal at the House on the Rock?  What other gods will be drawn into this conflict?  Will we continue to see more backstory for characters such as Laura and Sweeney?  What portions of the book will be included?  The showrunners found a good stopping point here, but we all know there’s more to explore.

And that’s it for season one!  Thanks for reading, and I’ll see about doing this again for season two.  All pics, as usual, screencapped by me.

American Gods Episode Seven: “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

Much of the episode focuses on Essie McGowan, an Irish girl raised on tales of fairies and leprechauns by her grandmother.  As an adult working in a manor house, she continues telling her tales and catches the eye of the mistress’s son.  When he gives Essie a piece of family heirloom jewelry, the mistress accuses Essie of stealing it, and her son doesn’t speak up and deny that, so Essie is sent to prison.  Rather than facing execution, she’s sentenced to transportation–indentured servitude in America–for seven years.  Even on the boat, she keeps leaving offerings of bread to the “fair folk”, and her luck changes for the better when she seduces the captain.  He returns her to London, where nobody knows her, and promises to marry her.  She, however, runs off with all of his silver when his back is turned.

Essie becomes a skilled shoplifter, taking what she likes when she wants it, whether it’s food or lace or a man.  But her prosperity causes her to forget to leave out the offerings of bread and cream, and her luck turns for the worse.  She’s caught shoplifting and sentenced to hang.  In her cell, she talks to a fellow Irishman–whom the audience will recognize as Mad Sweeney–and tells him that she thinks she could be content in America if she had a second chance to go.  In the morning, the mystery man is gone, the bread that Essie left on the windowsill is gone too, and the prison warden offers to help commute Essie’s sentence if she’ll have sex with him.  A few weeks later, upon discovering that she’s pregnant, the judge sentences Essie to transportation for life to Virginia.

Her indenture is bought by a small tobacco farmer, Mr. Richardson, whose wife just passed, leaving their infant daughter in need of a wet nurse.  Essie raises both his daughter and her son, telling them tales of the fairies and leprechauns until she catches the fancy of Mr. Richardson and the two wed.  Essie eventually has another son with him, and the pair share a decade of married life before he passes from a fever.  Essie runs the plantation from that point onward, but when her stories frighten her grandchildren, she stops telling them.  She never forgets to leave her offerings for the fair folk, though.  And when her time comes to die, Mad Sweeney comes to her, as she’s one of the people who brought him to America.  She takes his hand and passes peacefully.

Back in the present, Laura, Sweeney, and Salim are continuing their road trip.  On a stop at the site of the birth of a white buffalo, Sweeney’s pee break is interrupted by a raven, and Sweeney tells it that he’s still heading to Wisconsin “per the agreement” and says to pass on the message “Fuck you”.  Laura is watching Salim pray while Sweeney is off in the bushes, and his devotion convinces Laura to release him.  She gets Sweeney to tell her the location of the gods’ gathering, and passes that information to Salim, who speeds away.  Laura and Sweeney then steal an ice-cream truck and resume their journey.  As they drive, Sweeney tells Laura a little of his history: he fled an important battle long ago, and now he owes a battle.  His work for Wednesday is part of his quest to redeem himself.

A ways down the road, a white rabbit darts in front of the truck and causes them to crash.  Laura flies through the windshield, her chest stitches burst open, and Sweeney’s coin falls out.  When he regains consciousness, he sees the coin in the road and gratefully retrieves it, but then he stops.  He remembers the night Laura died, and the fact that he took part in causing her demise.  Guiltily, he puts the coin back in her chest, and the pair get back on the road.

Commentary:

So, let’s tackle that big reveal: Sweeney had a hand in Laura’s death!  While I didn’t see that coming (and neither did anyone else, if the OMG posts on the internet are any indication), it actually makes perfect sense.  We know that Sweeney has been doing things at Wednesday’s behest, such as showing up at the Crocodile Bar to pick a fight with Shadow and test his mettle.  We know that Wednesday wanted Shadow in on his little god war–even in the book, Wednesday’s first words to Shadow are “You’re late” when he gets on the plane that he was only on because of Laura’s death.  It’s not too big of a stretch to believe that Wednesday orchestrated the whole thing.  There were even other tip-offs in the earlier episodes, such as Hugin and Munnin flying over the car right before Robbie and Laura crash.

Not only does this shed some more light onto Wednesday’s machinations, but it gives a poignant glimpse into Sweeney’s character.  Up until now, he’s been nothing but an oversized asshole.  But here, we not only get to see his gentler side in his interactions with Essie at the end of her life, but also in his reaction to having to take part in murder.  In a recent Reddit thread, someone translated the Gaelic that Sweeney was shouting after the ice cream truck crashed, and it translates roughly to “Haven’t I believed enough in your bullshit?”  (Or alternately, “Why does this bullshit keep happening to me?”)  “Haven’t I suffered enough?  Isn’t that enough itself?  I’m not evil!  I’m not!”  He can’t just walk away with his coin, because the fact that it brought her back to life is the one thing redeeming him from her murder.  If he can get her resurrected and then get his coin back, he’ll have his luck and he’ll have her death off of his conscience.  And so, he does the right thing and gives her back the coin.

Something I didn’t know until I saw discussions online today is that Mad Sweeney is partially based on the Irish story of Buile Shuibhne, which translates to “Mad Sweeney”.  Sweeney’s tale to Laura was true–he was a king once, but he fled from the Battle of Mag Rath and was cursed to wander until he meets his death at the point of a spear.  His story has changed over time, especially after he came to America, a land with “no time for magic”, as he tells Essie.  Interestingly, Neil Gaiman has stated that he knows the whole 4000 year history of Mad Sweeney, so I hope that the show chooses to explore him in some more depth.  And kudos to Pablo Schreiber for his portrayal of Sweeney’s emotions in this episode.  The devastated look on his face after he brings Laura back to life is heartbreaking.  Not only has he given up his coin, but he was reliving his guilt over helping to kill her, and possibly also reflecting on how much she reminds him of Essie.

It was a great creative choice to have Emily Browning play Essie as well as Laura.  As the showrunners said in an interview on Entertainment Weekly, they weren’t specifically creating Essie as Laura’s ancestor, but they did say that they wanted to show that the same spirit ran through both characters.  Both find satisfaction in following what they believe is their path in life, even if it’s not what society thinks should be “right” for them.  Both steal and get caught.  And both encounter Sweeney at a time when they must choose to believe in something–Essie in her leprechaun’s as she sits in Newgate prison, and Laura as she realizes just how much she loves Shadow.

I know that Laura/Essie was in the episode much more than Sweeney, but it’s not just the fact that the episode is named for him that makes me focus on his part in the story.  He’s an ancient being, one who can do you “good and ill”, as he tells Essie.  But as an old god, he does the same thing that Anubis does in episode three and helps a believer to their afterlife.  We don’t see where Essie goes, but the final shot of the lighthouse at Bantry Bay, her former home, seem to suggest that she found peace.

A few odds and ends…

The showrunners said in the same interview mentioned above that Essie’s last name was changed from Tregowan, which is Cornish, to McGowan, which is Irish, to facilitate the connection to Sweeney.  It was also done, though, because Browning says that her Cornish accent is terrible!

Supposedly, Sweeney is wearing the same boots that he wore the night before the Battle of Mag Rath, and the showrunners said they were designed to look like they could have been worn hundreds of years ago.

The same actress, Fionnula Flanagan, plays both Essie’s grandmother and the old version of Essie.  She’s also the only Irish actor in this episode.

Although I didn’t mention it in the recap, Ibis and Jacquel show up in this episode as well.  Their interaction was cute–kind of like an old married couple or a pair of very old friends who have been roommates for a long time.  I liked how Jacquel brought Ibis a fresh bottle of ale while Ibis is writing, without even needing to be asked.  Now that’s a good friend.

Basically, this episode just made me love Mad Sweeney even more than I already did.  He’s cantankerous, quixotic, foul-mouthed, and utterly without social graces, but underneath that exterior is someone who is trying desperately to do the right thing, even if he gets tripped up trying to do it.  It was heartbreakingly sweet to see his final interaction with Essie, because you can tell that he loves her for keeping the belief in the old stories alive.  It’s comforting to think that someone will come to bear us company when we die, and although an overly-tall leprechaun might not be everyone’s first choice, in this episode it’s perfect.

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me.  Comparisons to the novel were made using the tenth anniversary edition of the book.

American Gods Episode Six: “A Murder of Gods”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

This week’s “Coming to America” sequence focuses on a group of undocumented Mexican immigrants.  After a fervent prayer, they start across the Rio Grande, which is running fast from morning rains.  One man can’t swim well enough to gain the other side and sinks, but he’s pulled back up by someone unfamiliar–someone who walks on water: Jesus.  Before the group can move on, several vehicles arrive and the men driving them open fire on the helpless people on the riverbank.  Jesus is hit with two bullets and falls to the ground, dead.

Fresh from their encounter with the New Gods, Wednesday and Shadow make their way back to their motel.  Wednesday is all for getting the heck out of town immediately, moreso when Shadow tells him that Laura came back from the dead.  As they drive out of town, Wednesday realizes that Shadow is bleeding from where the tree-creature at the police station stabbed him.  Worse, there’s something left in the wound–a writhing root-like thing that Wednesday pulls from Shadow’s side.

The pair arrive in Vulcan, Virginia, a town ruled over by the god of the same name.  They show up in the middle of a funeral for a man who worked in the munitions factory that is the city’s lifeblood.  Once the crowd is gone, Wednesday and Vulcan meet cheerfully (although Vulcan is noticeably cooler towards Shadow), and they return to Vulcan’s house.  There, Vulcan explains that he has associated himself with guns and ammunition, and as such he’s not hurting for prayers.  He promises to stand with Wednesday and the other old gods, and at Wednesday’s request, he forges the old man a sword.  But things Vulcan says during their conversations tip Wednesday off to the fact that Vulcan has betrayed them to the new gods, and he uses the newly forged sword to decapitate Vulcan and kick his body into the molten iron vats.

Meanwhile, Laura and Mad Sweeney embark on the oddest road trip ever, joined by Salim, whose cab they try to steal in order to leave town.  Sweeney figures that if he can find someone to truly resurrect Laura, she won’t need his coin, so he offers to guide her there.  Salim is searching for his jinn lover, and Sweeney says that if he drives them to get Laura help, he’ll tell him where the gods are gathering.  On the way, they return briefly to Indiana, because Laura wants to check in on her family.  Realizing that she can never talk to them again, she leaves without them ever seeing her.

Commentary:

This morning I looked around online to see what other commentators had to say about this episode, and the majority of them said things like “It was my least favorite episode so far”, and “The episode was unfocused and rambling”, and “It was about as subtle as a hammer to the head”.  (These aren’t direct quotes, but you get the idea.)  And I have to wonder: how much of this is because “A Murder of Gods” tackled subjects that are, at best, uncomfortable in American today?  There are two definite points that might bother people, so let’s look at them in turn.

First we have the opening sequence with Mexican Jesus.  The showrunners talked in a behind the scenes clip about how they wanted the scene to portray the dichotomy between Christianity in its purest form–the immigrants thanking God for the chance at a new life–and the most corrupt form–the men who shoot them down while carrying rosaries.  And where I think this hits a nerve is in the idea that people can so twist the doctrine of Jesus that they can use it as justification to kill.  Worse, they use it as justification to kill the very figure they purport to follow.  With such a radical divide in belief in America today, both religious and political, I’m pretty sure that there are those who were shocked to see that idea staged so directly.

Second is the idea of guns in America.  The scenes in Vulcan put me in mind of the idea that Terry Pratchett so often played with in his Discworld novels–namely, that every bell curve has an extreme end.  Vulcan’s city, where even children and older ladies in wheelchairs carry guns and the symbolism is unashamedly Nazi-ish, is an extreme depiction of a community that cleaves to the Second Amendment.  And of course, the idea of guns (and gun violence) as a religion is sure to put up more than a few backs.  Vulcan’s dialogue in this episode, while possibly somewhat ham-handed, leaves no room for doubt as to where this idea is going.  I was especially chilled by his line “Every bullet fired into a crowded theater is a prayer in my name.”  Having the volcano on your hip may keep you warm at night, but volcanoes can also burn.

Wednesday also says something that gives this sequence a different kind of depth: he tells Shadow that people are devoted to their idea of what America is, even if it crumbles under scrutiny, because they like the “warm, safe feeling” they get from their America.  This doesn’t necessarily have to apply to guns, as there are plenty of other “kinds” of America running through this series.  In a way, the New Gods seem to epitomize the compartmentalization of America.  Where Wednesday is the god of knowledge and storms and sacrifice, each of the New Gods is locked into a single aspect of American life, and while those aspects may have many facets, they still only have one broad encompassing idea.  Vulcan sacrificed his older self, the god of the forge and of volcanoes, to become the god of factory-made firearms.

The theme of sacrifice runs through everything in this episode.  Jesus sacrifices his life for his followers.  Wednesday tells Shadow about Mr. Wood, the god of the forest who had to sacrifice what he was at the advent of industrialization.  Salim sacrifices his old life to follow his jinn and look for happiness.

Speaking of Salim, his presence provides a gentle counterpoint to all the violence of the rest of the episode.  He’s compassionate to Laura and quietly tolerant of Mad Sweeney (who could try anyone’s patience).  The scene at the end of the hour that shows him praying at sunrise is lovely, and it’s a great example of showing a sometimes misunderstood religion in a positive light.  Personally, I’d love to jump into the show and give Salim a hug, because he’s one of the truly good people that we encounter.

Some odds and ends:

Note that the bullet that killed Jesus was a Vulcan-made bullet.  I didn’t notice that until the behind the scenes vignette after the episode.  Does that mean that version of Jesus is permanently dead?  Can god-made weapons kill a god?  Is Vulcan permanently dead after being beheaded by the sword that he himself made?  Supposedly only lack of belief can truly kill a god, so will we see either of these gods again?  (Note that Wednesday talks about Mexican Jesus in the third episode in the present tense, so presumably he’s still around during the timeframe of this story.)

Vulcan mentions Wednesday’s original sacrifice of himself for knowledge, which foreshadows certain other things that are coming down the line, so take note of this.

I wonder who Mad Sweeney is taking Laura to for a resurrection.  This entire episode was created specifically for the show, so we can’t go to the book for answers on this one.

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me.

American Gods Episode Five: “Lemon Scented You”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

This week’s “Coming to America” story is set in prehistoric times, as a tribe that worships the mammoth-skulled god Nunyunnini traverses the Siberian land bridge into North America.  Their leader, Atsula, foresees a sacrifice ahead, but eventually realizes that she must sacrifice her life to the god of a different tribe–a god that appears as a bison.  As her tribe is absorbed into the new one, Nunyunnini is forgotten forever.

Shadow and Laura finally meet face to face as he enters his room in the Starbrite Motel to find her sitting on his bed.  Shadow is clearly in shock, but he demands that they talk about what happened with Robbie.  Laura initially tries to deflect the questions, preferring to dwell instead on the fact that she’s back from the dead, but eventually agrees to discuss her infidelity.  She asks Shadow to get her some cigarettes, and while he’s gone, she gets into a hot bath, wanting to warm her cold flesh.  Shadow gives her the cigarettes (which she says she can’t taste), and also her wedding ring.  Although she says that she didn’t love Robbie and never intended for things to go as far as they did, she also says that her love for Shadow is greater now.  But when she asks if Shadow is still her puppy, he says “No.”

At the same time, Media (appearing as David Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust) has a chat with Technical Boy, informing him that he has an image problem with Mr. World, and warning him to apologize to Shadow for attacking him.  She doesn’t quite threaten him, but it’s clear that she feels in control of the situation.

During Shadow’s conversation with Laura, Wednesday receives a feathered visitor.  Upon hearing its message, he beelines to Shadow’s room to ask him to go out drinking.  Before they can leave, several police cars arrive and arrest them for bank robbery.  Worse, at the station, the pair find out that the tip-off that led to their arrest was specific down to the GPS coordinates of the motel.  During a lull in the questioning, Wednesday and Shadow hear sounds of a fight in the police station, and are then approached by Media in the guise of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven-Year Itch.  Behind her comes the mysterious Mr. World, who greets Wednesday respectfully and summons in Technical Boy to make his apology to Shadow.  These new gods want to recruit Wednesday to their cause by “re-branding” his image to bring him more recognition.  Wednesday refuses.

Back at the motel, Laura waits for Shadow’s return, but instead, Mad Sweeney arrives.  He wants his coin back, but Laura (who’s carrying the coin in her body), won’t give it up.  Mad Sweeney can’t take it by force, but swears he will have it back once Laura rots.  She breaks a few of his bones to get him to tell her who he is and how he knows Shadow.  In return, Mad Sweeney shoves Laura into the tub, but his pained screams while having his bones broken has gotten the police called, and they drag him away.

Shadow and Wednesday creep through the police station, which is now splattered with blood and staffed only with corpses.  The officer who questioned Shadow has a tree erupting from her body, which chases the pair out the side doors.  Outside, Mad Sweeney arrives in a cop car, and when the officers go into the station and don’t come out, he breaks the car windows and runs.

Commentary:

This episode is all about image: the bison god appears stronger than Nunyunnini and therefore gains his followers; the Technical Boy’s mishandling of his encounter with Shadow puts him in hot water with Mr. World; the new gods try to tempt Wednesday with a refresh to his image; and even Laura is trying to rebuild the way her husband sees her.  This all seems to tie into the attention that the gods need in order to survive.  Like Nunyunnini, if they are forgotten, they will die.  One of the more vivid scenes in the novel is Shadow’s dream of the hall of forgotten gods–he sees an endless chamber with statues of deities whose worshippers no longer exist, and it was a stark look at the fate in store for Wednesday and the old gods if they are completely forgotten.  Of course, the new gods are at the same risk, as none of them are immune to lack of belief.  There’s an interesting point that Wednesday raises with Mr. World, though: the old gods gave back to their followers in the form of comfort and guidance, and the new gods do nothing but take.  Think about it.  The new gods (Media, Technology, Transportation, etc.) have no stories associated with them, no tales that offer lessons, no rules to live by.  They have no mythology, and so not only are they new gods, they’re a new kind of god.  I wonder if the showrunners will play with this concept more as the series goes on.

There’s an interesting video up on ew.com featuring Bruce Langley and Crispin Glover, the actors who play Technical Boy and Mr. World, respectively.  In it, Langley talks about his character as someone who is always new–he describes himself as being like an app, always updating, and so that’s why you always see him in different outfits as he changes himself to reflect what’s new.  But that is a stark contrast to Media, who appears as older, iconic characters who have endured and who have a type of mythos surrounding them that is not unlike the tales told about the old gods.  As I mentioned a bit earlier, that’s the one thing that the new gods don’t have, that mythos.  Nobody tells stories about the internet or about iPhones, but they do talk about Marilyn Monroe’s flying dress.  Further, characters in media live in the human imagination, whereas the type of delivery for those characters doesn’t carry the same cachet.  Consider: the character of Harry Potter is a living, breathing being to many, whether he’s encountered in books, movies, fanfiction, drawings, or websites.  And yet, in almost all ways, Media needs technology to survive, just like technology is used by many people to consume media content.

And where does Mr. World fit into all of this?  He is the avatar of information.  He talks to Wednesday about systems and patterns, which makes him sound like one of the things he thrives on is the data mining done to such an extent in current times.  As such, he would know what technology is best suited to recent events, which media might help to spread the mythos that he wants.  We have met him here much sooner than in the novel.  Narratively, it’s a good idea to bring him in at this point.  Up until now, we haven’t seen Wednesday’s ultimate opponent, and now we have an idea of what he’s up against.  We see what kind of god could be pulling the strings of Media and Technical Boy, although there are hints that the new gods may not all have the same agenda.

The sections with Laura and Mad Sweeney are more straightforward in this episode, returning to the earlier theme of something being given willingly and as a result being powerful.  Sweeney’s coin is an artifact of that type of belief, and it underscores Wednesday’s point that the old gods not only take, but give.  In this case, Laura has been given life, for however long she can hold onto it, and Mad Sweeney isn’t allowed to take it by force.  On a purely entertaining level, watching these two characters, who are both openly jerks, was great fun.  And as far as Laura being a jerk, I think Shadow is getting a good idea just how much of a jerk Laura really is.

In some random observations, for the first time the show has mentioned Odin by name.  It’s appropriate that his name was plastered on a guided missile, since as we saw in the first episode, Odin is a god of war.  We also saw one of the ever-present ravens interacting with Wednesday for the first time.  (Is it bad of me that when it tapped on Wednesday’s door, my first thought was that the Night’s Watch had sent a message via raven?)

The motel featured in this episode is called the Starbrite, and returning once again to Tarot imagery, the Star signifies hope, faith, and a connection to the divine.

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me.  Comparisons to the novel were made using the tenth anniversary edition of the book.

American Gods Episode Four: “Git Gone”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

Laura Moon finally gets a fully fleshed-out backstory in this episode, which explores her life from just before meeting Shadow to the moment she shows up in his hotel room at the end of episode three.  She works in the 26th Dynasty Casino as a blackjack dealer, getting through her days before going home to her cat and a lonely house.  At one point, she take a can of bug spray out to her hot tub and gets into it with the cover on, breathing in the spray in a sort-of suicide attempt before coughing her way back out again.  But one night, Shadow shows up and tries to grift her with his sleight of hand.  She stops him and lectures him on what a bad idea it is to rob a casino.  When she finds that he’s waited to talk to her after her shift, she takes him home and has sex with him.

Over time, we see the pair in their relationship, eventually getting married and hanging out with another couple, Robbie and Audrey (yes, THAT Robbie).  Shadow goes to work for Robbie, and Laura stays at the casino, and apparently to Laura’s view, nothing really ever changes.  She begins contemplating suicide again, and in a last-ditch effect to change her life, she convinces Shadow to help her rob the casino.  They get caught, and Shadow takes the full blame and the jail time.  He asks Laura to wait for him, and she agrees.

However, many long nights later, when Laura comes home to find her cat dead, she calls Robbie to help her bury it.  The two begin an affair that culminates in the mid-drive blow job that ends in a car crash.  Laura finds herself looking at her own body as Anubis arrives to collect her.  She refuses to let him weigh her heart, believing it is too heavy for the feather, and so he says he will cast her into darkness for not believing anything in life.  He starts to lead her to her own hot tub, but Laura is violently yanked back to her body.  Crawling out of her grave, she follows a shining light and finds Shadow hanging from a tree.  She kills the Technical Boy’s henchman, losing an arm in the process, and hides as Shadow stumbles away.

Needing to reattach her arm, she goes to Robbie’s house to use Aubrey’s craft supplies to do the job.  Interrupted by an understandably freaked out Audrey, the two talk about what happened with her and Robbie before Audrey drives Laura in search of Shadow.  They first encounter Anubis and Thoth (Jacquel and Ibis), who take her back to their funeral parlor and spruce her up before sending her on her way.  She sits and waits in a motel room until Shadow arrives.

Commentary:

Well, that was quite a departure from the book!  Up until now, the show has stuck pretty closely to its source material, but Gaiman didn’t give us much about Laura except in the context of how she related to Shadow, so this is almost all new material.  And it’s an interesting portrayal of the woman that Shadow loved so much that he was willing to go to prison for her.  The big thing is that Laura is quasi-suicidal.  It’s actually a hard judgement to make, because she could be doing her bug-spray-in-the-hot-tub routine to get high, or she could be doing it to flirt with death and feel (even if only momentarily) alive.  In the latter case, she’s not actively suicidal, but she’s doing dangerous things to try to jump-start herself out of the pit of nothingness in which she exists.

“Pit of nothing” is a great metaphor for Laura.  Kudos to actress Emily Browning for nailing that blank look, getting pitch perfect the expression of someone numbly coasting through life.  It’s a chilling portrait of chronic severe depression, in my opinion–the common perception of depression as overwhelming sadness is accurate, but only for some people.  It manifests differently, and it can show up as numb, detached affect and thrill-seeking behavior.  Her initial tryst with Shadow can be seen in that light: she doesn’t know him as anything more than a guy who accosts her in a parking lot to chat her up.  It’s a pattern of self-destructive behavior that will show up through the episode as her life with Shadow proves to be no different (for her) than life before he showed up.  The thrill has worn off and she needs a new fix.  It leads to the casino robbery, which she characterizes as something she needs to do.  It leads to her affair with Robbie, as we see her slowly descending into that pit again with Shadow in prison.  And it leads to her death.

This is not necessarily the kind of character that many audience members will be able to get behind.  Browning herself calls Laura a “jerk”, an “a-hole”, and “verging on sociopathic sometimes” in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.  But this is a vital contrast to who she is after death.  It’s only after her surprise resurrection that she really displays any emotion.  She cusses out Anubis, shows distress to Audrey, and is clearly enraged at the creatures trying to kill Shadow.  And obviously, her love for Shadow is greater now that she’s dead–he is literally her shining beacon.  Maybe this is because, in a sense, love brought her back, but we don’t know for sure yet.

The symbolism in this episode was pretty straightforward: the casino that Laura works in heavily features both Thoth and Anubis; the casino itself is called the 26th Dynasty, which is the last dynasty before Egypt was invaded by the Persians; and flies feature prominently throughout the episode.  So, it’s all about death.  I think the episode was lighter on the symbolism because most of what happens is about normal life, untainted by the supernatural.  The feature of this episode is character development, and even when Laura comes back from the dead, she is still a person–not a goddess or anything like that.  She’s just a woman in a highly unusual circumstance that has turned her worldview upside down, and we get to ride along as she deals with it.

The episode doesn’t forget the other old gods, though.  If you look carefully, you’ll see Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin, flying over the car in which Laura and Robbie will die.  Makes you wonder how much of a hand Wednesday had in Shadow’s life, even before they met.

On a purely personal note, I loved Anubis/Mr. Jacquel this week.  His obvious annoyance at Laura’s shade is ominous until Laura gets pulled away, and then his befuddled look is priceless.  During that scene, he tells Laura angrily that he will not remember her once his task is done… but upon encountering her after her resurrection, he says “You, I remember” with all the solemnity of the god that he is.  One of his lines gives me pause to wonder what he means: he tells Laura “The circumstances of your death commit me.”  Is it because she died doing something wrong?  Or something else?

I also loved Audrey, because the actress playing her was so convincing in both her panic and her astounded conversation with Laura.  The exchange where she tells Laura that she was going to revenge-fuck Shadow on Laura’s grave because it “seemed fair”, and Laura answers, “Yeah, it does” is several flavors of awesome.  Re-watching the episode with Scott, I got a lot of enjoyment out of seeing his reactions to this scene.  The absolute absurdity actually seems to lend a weird reality to the conversation–kind of along the lines of “Nobody could make this up, so it must be real.”

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure at first if I enjoyed this episode.  It’s a clear departure not only from the books, but from the series as it has gone up to this point.  I think this is one of those episodes that needs to marinate in the back of one’s mind for a bit in order to be appreciated.  This may be especially true for book readers, since Laura was much less fully realized in the book, and now we’re having to integrate this much more complex version of Laura into our minds.  That’s good, though… and if there’s one thing this show is good at, it’s that it challenges you.

One last note: in the first recap, I asked who saved Shadow from being lynched, and now we know it was Laura.  But DAMN, girl, kicking out someone’s spine is a little extreme!

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me.  Comparisons to the novel were made using the tenth anniversary edition of the book.

American Gods Episode Three: “Head Full of Snow”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

We rejoin Shadow in the hours after his disastrous checkers game with Czernobog.  Awakening in the middle of the night, he climbs the fire escape to the roof and meets the final Zorya sister, Zorya Pulonochnaya.  From her, Shadow finds out that the Zorya sisters are guardians, always watching the sky to ensure that the beast trapped within the Big Dipper never escapes.  If he does, the world will end.  Pulonochnaya sees that Shadow has given his head to Czernobog, observing that Shadow believes in nothing (although he is moving towards everything) and that he keeps throwing his life away.  She appears to pluck the moon from the sky, handing it to Shadow in the form of a silver dollar meant to protect him.  He wakes on the couch, realizing it was just a dream, but finding the coin in his pocket.  Emboldened, he challenges Czernobog to another checker game, and when he wins, the old god promises to go to Wisconsin with Wednesday before killing Shadow.

In the morning, Wednesday tells Shadow that they’re going to rob a bank.  Shadow is understandably freaked out by this, having just gotten out of prison, but Wednesday promises that he’ll remain free.  While prepping for the heist, Wednesday tells Shadow to think of snow, which Shadow does, more and more deeply, until Wednesday points out to him that it has indeed started snowing.

Meanwhile, Mad Sweeney appears briefly, having realized through some fairly nasty accidents that his luck is gone.  The coin he gave to Shadow after their night drinking at the Crocodile Bar was his lucky coin, and he needs it back.  Shadow informs him that he dropped it on Laura’s grave, and Sweeney sets off to retrieve it.

Wednesday then commits the most leisurely bank robbery imaginable: he poses as a security guard taking money at a non-functioning ATM.  He’s gotten deposit slips from the bank, made business cards for himself and Shadow, the whole nine yards.  Shadow’s role?… stand by the pay phone and pose as Wednesday’s “boss” when the cops inevitably show up and ask to verify that he’s supposed to be there.

That night, the pair check into another roadside motel, and Shadow enters his room to find Laura waiting for him.

The episode has two side sequences this week, both of them “Somewhere in America”.  The first concerns Mrs. Fadil, a woman who dies in a fall in her apartment and is taken to the afterlife by Anubis.  Although she’s Muslim, he came as a way of thanking her for remembering the old stories that her Tita told her.  After climbing an endless fire escape to a vast desert plateau, he weighs her heart against the Feather of Truth and finds her worthy.  He leads her to five doors that open onto different parts of Duat, the Egyptian afterlife.  After asking Anubis to choose for her, she enters a door and vanishes.

The second sequence follows Salim, a salesman peddling cheap trinkets who waits all day for a meeting with a man who never bothers to speak to him.  The driver of the taxi he hails to take him back to his hotel turns out to be an ifrit, a type of jinn.  The two are immediately attracted to each other and end up in bed.  Although the jinn pointedly says that he does not grant wishes, the next morning finds Salim in possession of the keys to the jinn’s taxi and his licenses, granting him the ability to start a new life.

Commentary:

After two episodes of heavy, almost manic, activity, “Head Full of Snow” slows the pace down to give us–and incidentally, poor Shadow–a little breathing room.  There are certainly things that happen, such as the bank robbery and Shadow meeting Zorya Pulonochyaya, but overall, this episode feels more contemplative.  It even allows for some flights of fantasy, such as the image of Shadow and Wednesday’s car driving on top of a giant marshmallow, or the ice crystals spreading across the glass of a copy machine.

But it also allows for something that I think is important–we get to see the gods being compassionate and gentle.  Anubis comes for Mrs. Fadil out of gratitude, and he leads her almost reverently to the Scales of Justice.  The scene between Salim and the jinn is less a sex scene and more of a love scene, where two souls make a connection beyond just merely physical.  Zorya Pulonochyaya has the innocence and sweetness of a child.  And I had to smile at Wednesday flirting with Zorya Vechernyaya, tenderly brushing her hair and kissing her to remind her of “when they were young”.  Of course, it’s not all sunshine and flowers–Mad Sweeney’s run of bad luck causes a horrible death for a hapless good Samaritan, but moreso than in previous episodes, the gods are not something to be feared.  I had to wonder if some of this might be a consequence of lack of belief in these gods: does waning belief make them closer to mortals, and therefore more able to empathize with them?

A couple of thematic motifs ran through this episode.  One was the idea of ascent.  Mrs. Fadil and Shadow both climb fire escapes to reach the heavens, an image that is firmly rooted in the modern cities of America.  Also, both Mrs. Fadil and Salim recount how their grandparents told them of the old gods and beings, which is what leads to their encounters with Anubis and the jinn, respectively.  Another very powerful idea is that of knowledge and truth being important.  Wednesday even says that he wants knowledge above all else, and viewers get it in the form of pointed foreshadowing.  Those who have read the book know that characters in this episode tell you exactly what’s coming down the road.  Zorya Vechernyaya tells Wednesday that he will be killed in the war.  Mad Sweeney declares that he’ll never make it to Wisconsin.  And Zorya Pulonochyaya gives Shadow “the moon” for protection, and Shadow will soon find out that his wife, Laura Moon, is watching over him throughout his travels.  “The moon” may also reference Shadow taking protection from his very identity, as events to come will shake him and his views of the universe to the utmost.

But the lifeblood of this episode (and of the series) is belief.  Wednesday and Shadow have a very pointed conversation about belief as they drive through the snow-covered night… a conversation, by the way, which is directly from the novel.  Shadow is literally surrounded by his own magical influence on the world–the snow–and yet he still can’t make himself believe what is happening.  Wednesday asks him if he believes in love, and when he answers yes, asks him if he always believed in it.  When Shadow answers “Not before Laura”, Wednesday points out that “you didn’t believe until you did, and then the world changed forever”.  On the one hand, it makes belief sound so simple–just believe and everything is different!  But it also makes it sound incredibly difficult, because what tips you over that cliff into believing?  And belief creates some interesting things.  The conversation in which Wednesday begins listing all the versions of Jesus currently living in America is hilarious, but it also underscores the idea that the gods can exist in many different forms, depending on belief.

A few odds and ends:

Mrs. Fadil’s cat is a Sphynx, which is associated with Egypt.  I laughed when I saw it following her up the fire escape, because that’s so what a cat would do.  I wonder if the cat was channeling Bast or actually was Bast, since she shows up briefly in the novel.

I posed a question in my last recap about the meaning of the picture on the wall at the Zorya sisters’ apartment.  It turns out that it depicts the three sisters as dogs guarding a bear, representing the Big Dipper (Ursa Major).  As another clue to Wednesday’s identity, Zoyra Pulonochyaya gives one of its alternate names: Odin’s Wain.

But now I have a new question: who the heck is the person in the hat seen in the security camera in the bank?

I have to give a shout-out to the Legion of Leia recapper for catching something interesting about the jinn in last week’s episode.  I won’t tell you what, just go here and read it.

Since I’ve been running with the Tarot symbology thus far, I took Shadow’s room number at the motel (55) and looked up card number five.  That’s the Heirophant, the builder of the bridge between deity and humanity.  Shadow is certainly caught between those states of being, as is Laura, caught between living and dying.  Also, Salim is in room 318, and card eighteen is the Moon, which is the card of mystery–and obviously the moon is referenced in other places in this episode.  Other than this, I didn’t see a heck of a lot of hidden symbolism in the episode.  Believe me, I was looking!

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me.  Comparisons to the novel were made using the tenth anniversary edition of the book.

American Gods Episode Two–“The Secret of Spoons”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

Our “Coming to America” story this week takes place on a Dutch slave ship.  In a hold packed with people, a man prays to Anansi, the trickster god, to help him get out of his captivity.  Anansi actually appears in the hold, a tall man in a purple plaid suit, and proceeds to inform the slaves of their fate–and the fate of Black people in America for hundreds of years.  He feeds their anger and encourages them to burn the ship.  His reasoning?… they’re all dead already anyway, so their sacrifice might as well mean something.  Some time later, wreckage from that ship washes ashore in America, and a spider crawls off onto his new land.

We catch back up with Shadow in the hospital after his near-lynching.  After getting patched up, he limps back to the motel to confront Mr. Wednesday, who is currently keeping company with a half-naked woman and a pizza.  Angrily, Shadow demands answers, only to be brushed off calmly by Wednesday, who then doubles his salary as “hazard pay”.  He also informs Shadow that his calm doesn’t mean he isn’t angry and that “an assault on you is an insult to me”.  That night, Shadow has a disturbing dream that Laura is still alive.

The next day, Shadow goes to the house he shared with Laura to pack his belongings.  He avoids looking at Laura’s personal effects from the morgue for a while, but ultimately opens the box, finding her ring and her cell phone.  Opening her chat app, he finds that her last conversation with Robbie included a dick pic.  Wednesday bluntly tells Shadow that he’s only obligated to feel bad about Laura for so long, which Shadow furiously takes in silence.

A side trip to check in with Bilquis shows her continuing to take victims, both male and female.  In a museum, she studies a statue of of the Queen of Sheba in a display about the Aksumite Empire.  A display case of ceremonial jewelry subtly rearranges itself to lie as if the pieces were on her body.

Off on a road trip to Chicago!  On the way, Wednesday stops to meet with someone, and he sends Shadow off to the local superstore with an odd shopping list.  While filling his cart, Shadow passes a bank of TVs and is somewhat freaked out when Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy begins speaking directly to him.  She offers him a job, which he rejects, thankfully with no immediate negative consequences.  Upon returning to Wednesday, he confesses that he thinks he’s going crazy, and Wednesday is less than sympathetic.

Their destination in Chicago is the home of the Zorya sisters and Czernobog, Slavic immigrants who make a living reading fortunes (for the sisters) and killing cattle for a meat company (Czernobog).  Wednesday tries to convince Czernobog to come to a meeting with him saying that “everyone will be there”, but Czernobog refuses.  After dinner, though, he challenges Shadow to a game of checkers, with some unusual stakes.  If Shadow wins, Czernobog goes to Wednesday’s meeting.  If he loses, Czernobog will crush his skull with his hammer.  And as Czernobog sings a Slavic folk song, he takes Shadow’s last piece.

Commentary

Let’s start with that angry, in-your-face speech by Anansi as portrayed by Orlando Jones.  If you have any doubt that this show is going to take a no-holds-barred look at race in America, those doubts should be gone by now.  Neither this speech nor this scene are in the novel, but the writers knocked it out of the park, giving Anansi some of the best lines in the show.  I actually gasped out loud when he said, “You all don’t know you’re black yet.  You think you’re just people.”  There is so much summed up in that statement that it would take a whole separate article to unpack it.  Suffice to say, Anansi doesn’t pull any punches, and it occurred to me that this is the first look we’re getting at a god who is, in role playing parlance, chaotic neutral.  He’s willing to sacrifice the captive Africans if it serves a greater purpose, and he has no qualms about manipulating them so that they willingly participate in their own destruction.

In fact, willing sacrifice is a major theme running through the episode.  The Africans willingly die to send a message to others to resist captivity.  Bilquis’s victims may not know what awaits them, but they willingly go to her bed and offer themselves up to her in their pleasure.  And of course, Shadow gambles away his life to Czernobog, who even states baldly that Shadow will kneel willingly before him to receive the blow that will kill him.

So, what are we to make of all of this?  If you’ve read the book, you know where Shadow’s path is leading him: to Yggdrasil, the world tree, and his willing acceptance of Wednesday’s vigil.  A sacrifice gains more power if the subject does so of their own accord.  It’s a point made by Media (played by Gillian Anderson) when she says “Time and attention–better than lamb’s blood.”  People are more than happy to sit in front of the TV, or obsessively look at their phones or tablets.  “The screen’s the altar, and I’m the one they sacrifice to,” Media gloats.

Speaking of Media’s first appearance, I liked that they set the scene in the store rather than in Shadow’s hotel room.  The ability hop from screen to screen, filling them with her image, and surrounding Shadow with her voice, underscores the omnipresence of media in our modern lives.  It’s not something you can get away from–not easily, at any rate.  Who knows if Media can see through security cameras, hear through phones, or other creepy possibilities?  As much as Technical Boy, she’s a deity of information, and of disinformation, which makes her powerful.

Jumping to Shadow and his growing exposure to the supernatural world, Whittle has a line during his checker game with Czernobog that gave me a hint as to the purpose of a couple of scenes in these first episodes.  In “The Bone Orchard”, we see the workings of the jukebox as it selects a record in the bar.  In this episode, we see the inner workings of the door lock on the Zorya sisters’ door.  Shadow makes reference to a world under our own, which one could translate as seeing “behind the scenes”, as it were.  Each of these glimpses precedes a major interaction with an old god, so they could be metaphorical and/or symbolic references to the fact that there are things that we don’t see about how the world works.

And on the subject of symbolism, I decided to run with the Tarot imagery when I noticed the room numbers at the motel.  Wednesday is in room 109, and the ninth card in the Major Arcana is the Hermit card.  On one level, this fits Wednesday at that particular moment, as he hid in his motel room as things went down for poor Shadow.  But another meaning is that of guidance or mentoring, which he certainly is for Shadow, and in a way for the gods he wants to gather.  A card that stands in opposition to the Hermit is the World card, and as book reader’s know, Mr. World will become a major character very shortly.  Shadow’s room number is 113, and beyond the “unlucky” nature of the number thirteen, the thirteenth card in the Major Arcana is Death.  This card rarely means physical death; rather, it’s a card of endings and transitions that cannot be ignored or sidestepped.  And a couple of cards later, you get the Devil card, which can signify confronting darkness and ignorance… and by the end of the episode, we have Czernobog, a Slavic god of darkness who will make major steps towards curing Shadow of his ignorance of the supernatural world.

Some more symbolism to ponder.  In front of Shadow’s house, there are dandelions growing, which symbolize love.  You may be laughing at that, given Laura’s infidelity, but we know that Shadow did love her, and when she comes back from the dead she tries to protect Shadow out of love.  Later, Wednesday releases the dandelion seeds out the car window, symbolic of letting go.  Laura’s phone background seems to be storm clouds, which definitely fits the theme set down from episode one.  While in his old house, Shadow is wearing a t-shirt with a bison on it, calling back to his vision of the bison in episode one.  Shadow’s reading by the Zorya sisters shows the figure of a bird, which could be a raven, but knowing what I know about the book, could be the Native American thunderbird.  And speaking of birds, Wednesday’s two ravens Hugin and Munin both appear: one of them on the weather vane on Shadow’s house (possibly, it could be an eagle), and the other seen merely as a shadow flying over the car.

And finally, the showrunners have said in interviews that STARZ was cool with equal opportunity nudity, and boy, did they mean it.  All I can say is, holy hard-on, Batman!

A couple of stand-out quotes: “Strange is the new language and what we’re doing here is vocabulary building.”–gotta love Wednesday.  “It’s a shame–you’re my only black friend.”–oh, Czernobog, you wonderful politically incorrect being.

A couple of questions: Who saved Shadow from the lynching?  (This is different from the book.)  I’m sure the old fashioned star chart in the Zorya sisters’ house means something, but what?

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me.  Comparisons to the novel were made using the tenth anniversary edition of the book.

American Gods Episode 1: “The Bone Orchard”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

The episode opens on Mr. Ibis (not identified until the end credits) sitting at a desk writing a story he calls “Coming to America–813 C.E.”.  In a voiceover, he narrates a tale of a group of Vikings who landed on our continent looking for treasure.  They were met with biting insects, inhospitable terrain… and a hail of arrows.  Realizing that there was nothing to hold them there, they attempted to leave but were thwarted by lack of wind.  In an attempt to get the attention of the All-Father (Odin, although not blatantly named as such), they carve his image, put out everyone’s right eye, burn one of their number alive, and finally play the harshest game of “Shirts and Skins” ever with severed limbs and crushed skulls.  The wind finally returns, and the Vikings beat a hasty retreat.  One hundred years later, Lief Erikson arrives to find his god waiting for him.

We move on to our main character, Shadow Moon, during his last days in prison.  He’s looking forward to seeing his wife Laura, who in a phone call tells him that she and his friend Robbie are planning a surprise party for him.  But Shadow feels something hanging over him, a storm that has yet to break.  That night he dreams of a forest carpeted with bones, and a giant tree in the center with a noose hanging from its branches.  When he awakens, he is summoned to the warden, who tells him that he’s being released early–his wife Laura died that morning in a car accident.

After arriving at the airport and changing his flight plans, he watches as an older man, apparently confused about his ticket, is escorted to first class.  A mix-up in seating arrangements lands Shadow in a first class seat next to the man, whom Shadow recognizes as a grifter.  The man introduces himself as Mr. Wednesday and offers Shadow a job, which Shadow turns down.  Disconcertingly, Mr. Wednesday seems to know much more about Shadow than he should.

After a storm forces the plane to land ahead of schedule, Shadow rents a car to drive the rest of the way to his wife’s funeral.

The focus shifts to “Somewhere in America”, where a middle-aged man is meeting an attractive African-American woman for a drink.  After talking for a while, she takes him to her room for sex.  As they make love, she tells him to worship her.  As he praises her, she gradually absorbs him into her vagina and he vanishes.

Shadow has stopped at a place called Jack’s Crocodile Bar for dinner.  In the bathroom, he runs into Wednesday, who again offers him a job.  Shadow turns him down, more angrily this time, insisting that his friend Robbie has a job for him.  But Wednesday hands him a newspaper and tells him that Robbie is dead.

Shadow offers to take the job if Wednesday can win a coin toss.  Although Shadow rigs the toss, Wednesday wins anyway, and goes to get them drinks.  While he’s gone, Shadow is approached by Mad Sweeney, who claims to be a leprechaun and taunts him with coin tricks.  Wednesday returns with drinks, including three shots of mead for Shadow.  After dictating what he wants in return for his service, Shadow drinks the mead and seals what Wednesday calls their “compact”.  When Wednesday returns to the bar, Mad Sweeney resumes his coin tricks, unnerving Shadow by producing gold coins from thin air.  He offers to teach the trick to Shadow, but only if Shadow can beat him in a fight.  Shadow refuses to fight until Mad Sweeney taunts him about Laura, and then the two brawl.

Shadow awakens the next morning in the back of a car being driven by Wednesday.  They arrive in Eagle Point for Laura’s funeral, which Shadow goes to alone.  At the church, he stands next to Audrey, Robbie’s wife and Laura’s best friend, who tells him that Laura and Robbie were having an affair.  At the cemetery, Shadow says goodbye to his wife and tosses Mad Sweeney’s gold coin onto her grave.  As Shadow fends off Audrey, who wants revenge sex with Shadow, the coin sinks into the grave.

Walking back to his hotel, Shadow finds a strange piece of technology in a field that latches onto his face and pulls him into a virtual reality world.  There, he meets Technical Boy in the back of a limo, who questions him about Wednesday and his motives.  When Shadow refuses to answer his questions, Technical Boy tells him that Wednesday is “finished” and orders his minions to kill Shadow.  They throw him from the limo, beat him, and hang him from a tree.  As he approaches death, the rope snaps, and an unseen attacker kills all of the minions, leaving Shadow lying n the rain covered in blood and surrounded by eviscerated corpses.

Commentary

The juxtaposition of old and new gods starts right away with the opening credits.  Several recognizable figures from religion and classical mythology are shown, but they’re skewed: a menorah has electrical sockets where the candles should go; Medusa’s hair is not only snakes but fiber optic cables; a mummy is covered with a mesh of computer wires; Ganesh has syringes protruding from the petals of the lotus that he sits on; and an astronaut replaces Jesus on a crucifix.  The entire sequence is bathed in neon light, and there are also neon figures that you might see on the Las Vegas strip–a prominent one is a cowboy drawing his six-shooters.  The whole thing gives the feeling of the new gods overlaying the old ones but not being able to completely obliterate them.  It also has the psychedelic feel that lets the audience know that their perceptions are about to be challenged.

In an interview, showrunners Michael Green and Bryan Fuller stated that the Viking sequence was originally set to be the beginning of episode two, but they decided to start the series with what they called a “tonal land grab”; however, beyond the sheer scope of that sequence, they also felt that it spoke well to the “overall themes and arc of the series” and so moved it to episode one.  I agree with them that it really sets the tone well.  The final shot of the sculpture of Odin lying neglected on the beach is a huge clue to Wednesday’s identity if you know Norse mythology.  And having Ibis telling the story not only introduces him to the audience, it gives an idea of just how far-reaching the tale really is.

Ibis isn’t named in the episode, although he is credited as such at the end of the show.  Another character who goes unnamed but credited is Shadow’s cellmate, “Low Key” Lyesmith.  Say his name out loud and you might figure out who he is–and I have to wonder if the character has a mustache to conceal the scarring on his lip!  He seems to function as a kind of guide for Shadow, and the showrunners have said that they set him up as such so that they could continue to have him “haunt” Shadow and bring his energy to the show.  The script also gives Low Key a monologue from the book about what not to do in an airport–a story that originally is conveyed in Shadow’s internal monologue in the novel.  It lets the show drop the character of Johnny Larch, who in the book was Shadow’s first cellmate, and still convey the airport story,which suits Low Key perfectly.

 All the actors are good, but I have to give the most credit to Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon.  He portrays the character as a man who is restrained, but more because of cultural constraints than by nature.  This is a change from the book, in which Shadow is much quieter and more taciturn.  I do like the change, though–Whittle is a master of subtle facial expressions.  In prison, you see him reining in his anger during his talk with the warden, and that anger changing to shock at the news that his wife is dead.  In his visions of the bone orchard, his expression conveys both terror and wonder.  When Mad Sweeney starts producing gold coins from nothing, Whittle goes from annoyance to shock to fear to feigned nonchalance in the space of about ten seconds.  And his scene at Laura’s grave was actually kind of heart-wrenching as he plays a man who didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to his wife, when at the same time, he’s finding out that his wife isn’t the person he thought she was.

I feel that the most important part of the episode was the lynching sequence.  One of the enduring themes of this book is of racial issues in America, and it looks as if the show is going to do the same.  Even though the book was written in 2001, it still resonates, and the state of our country today makes this an even more vital theme to explore.  We as a country are just now becoming painfully aware that the racial divide in our country is much deeper than we wanted to think, and Shadow as a character epitomizes this.  He’s an African American ex-con, constantly reining in his emotions so as not to alarm those around him.  He has to remain in tight control at all times lest he be seen as dangerous.  It’s played subtly through the episode, but it is there.

The thing that I really want to touch on here, though, is one brief image in the final scene of the episode, because it encapsulates so much of the novel’s arc and Shadow’s journey as a character.  I’ll admit, I have no clue if what I’m about to discuss was done deliberately, but if it was, kudos to everybody who made this happen.

Look at the image to the left.  It last about a second and a half on screen, but it caught my eye immediately on first viewing.  Shadow is in an almost perfect replication of the pose of the figure on the Tarot card of the Hanged Man.  I feel that this is significant because of the card’s symbolism.  It is meant to signify a letting go, a release of control, a leaving behind of what has come before.  But here’s another twist: on the Tarot card, the Hanged Man is hanging upside down.  If the card shows up such that you see the man right side up, it’s called a reverse card, and the meaning is changed.  In this case, it signifies the struggle against losing control.  And up to this point, Shadow has resisted accepting what he is seeing around him.  Even though he says early in the episode that he believes what he can see, when faced with seeing the impossible, he fights it.  (It’s worth noting that Shadow’s interpretation of Low Key’s airport story is that behaviors in one situation may be detrimental in another, as this can certainly be said of Shadow and his disbelief at this point.)

Shadow is now he’s confronted with, essentially, his own death and miraculous rescue by an unknown force.  It will be interesting to see where the show goes from here, especially since the novel’s portrayal of Shadow’s encounter with the Technical Boy didn’t end in violence.

A few other crumbs:

I noticed that the Viking story takes place in 813 C.E., and at Laura’s grave, Shadow says he read 813 books, mostly history.

There’s a superstition regarding hangings, that if the rope breaks, you are considered to have actually given your life.  While the story has no validity, that would be appropriate for Shadow at this juncture in the story, and I think it’s a common enough belief that it could have been used deliberately here.

In one of the bone orchard visions, a branch slashes Shadow’s face beneath his right eye, which is the same eye that Odin lost and which the Vikings all put out to get Odin’s attention.

In the bar, the jukebox plays the song “Iko Iko”, which is the same song referenced in the original novel.

The state park where Shadow stops to vent his emotions is Shakamak State Park in Jasonville, Indiana.

The Technical Boy sequence was in the real world in the novel, but it takes place completely in a virtual reality in the show.

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me (and my screen is having some issues, so please excuse the line in the pics).  Quotes from the showrunners were taken from this article here on Entertainment Weekly.  Comparisons to the novel were made using the tenth anniversary edition of the book.