Shelf to Screen

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.

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