Your Prayers Have Been Answered, ‘American Gods’ is Worth Worshipping
When I first read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods several years ago, its strange and fascinating narrative quickly carved out a spot in my list of all-time favorite books. So when rumors started circulating about a TV series, I was completely beside myself with excitement. There was a significant struggle at first to find a home for this otherworldly story (Gaiman’s works have sometimes been described as “unfilmable”) and it has taken a long time to get from the early whispers of a show to last night’s first episode. Blessedly, it did not disappoint.
We begin with a ‘Coming to America’ scene, wherein a man recounts a tale of when the Vikings first discovered America. Finding the land inhospitable, they appeal to their god, Odin the All-Father, to grant them a wind that might return them home. They quickly find that such a gift requires sacrifice, and slaughter one another until the wind picks up in response to their offering and sends them back to their homeland. This moment is altered a bit from the book, but it is a great introduction to the pilot episode and the world of American Gods. Throughout the episode we are brought back to the lesson taught by this first sequence: the gods don’t do anything for free, and their price is often high.
Then we meet Shadow Moon, our main protagonist who is about to walk into a chain of events that will completely change his life. Shadow is an enigmatic character who can be hard to pin down, but Ricky Whittle does an amazing job with the role. Shadow is strong and tough but also thoughtful and reserved, curious but never nosy, with a dry wit. Whittle navigates these first scenes beautifully, giving us a glimpse of a complicated man thrown into an emotional tailspin, just trying to get his bearings when he finds himself acquainted with (and shortly employed by) a strange-yet-charming conman. This of course is Mr. Wednesday, also expertly played by Ian McShane. Wednesday’s presence is magnetic, in every scene he seems to know everything, but chooses to keep his cards close to his chest. He is friendly but as Shadow later puts it, “forward” and “familiar,” every move he makes is for a precisely designed outcome. We can tell that he is powerful, even if we do not know much else about him or why he needs Shadow’s help.
We meet a few other characters and discover some unseemly news about Shadow’s wife Laura, all of which essentially aligns with the first couple chapters of the novel. We also get a glimpse of the episode’s titular Bone Orchard, a dream space that Shadow keeps encountering where bones litter the ground and a fiery-eyed buffalo stands watch over a large old tree. Where this place is and what it means will likely be one of the continuing mysteries of the show. Interestingly, the episode’s bookends are slightly changed from their literary counterparts, but they nonetheless work together to mirror the themes of violence and sacrifice. At the beginning and the end of episode one, there is copious bloodshed on behalf of the gods. The first is for the old gods, the second is for the new. For better or for worse, Shadow is now caught firmly in the middle of a war he hasn’t even begun to understand.
Technically and aesthetically, American Gods is beautiful. Though Gaiman made a point to note in the book that it should not serve as a traveler’s guidebook, many of the locations described in it are indeed real. The American landscape is a very important element of the story of American Gods, and the show’s lovingly rendered depictions of natural wonders, small towns, and the open road makes that clear. But like the coins Shadow is always playing tricks with, this world has two sides. The mortal world, and that of the gods. The spaces where the gods exist and have control are visually distinct without becoming cartoonish. Bilquis’ room is entirely red, an altar of love. Technical Boy’s limo is crisp, clean, and brightly lit. We meet Mad Sweeney in a kitschy dive bar shaped like an alligator’s mouth. Half of the pleasure of watching this show will definitely be seeing the domains of the various gods we will meet, and how they are visually represented.
American Gods is off to a great start, it appears to be one of those rare adaptations that not only does justice to its source material, but makes you excited to see how the showrunners and cast will translate such a fantastical story to the screen. It will necessarily be a different experience, but I’m already hungry for more.