A Series of Unfortunate Scenes
American Gods Episode 1 Recap
Folks have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of American Gods, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name, since Gaiman announced that HBO, the original rights-holder, was interested in making a show all the way back in 2011. It finally arrived on our small screens and streaming devices Sunday night.
Let me get something out of the way: I haven’t read the book past the first chapter. It’s my understanding that Fuller and Green wanted to make their adaptation as faithful as possible, and as such there are supposed to be some scenes throughout the series that match up perfectly to Gaiman’s manuscript. As far as I know, the scenes that end up in the series will make diehard fans very happy, probably. But I’m going into this experience about as blind as humanly possible.
This Recap is Filled With Spoilers. And I cuss a lot.
If you haven’t watched the first episode of American Gods, turn away now!
So, our first episode opens on a dusty man in a dusty room writing about… Vikings. As he narrates, we see a boatful of Vikings arrive on an island that’s supposed to represent America, probably, only things go wrong. The Vikings are beset upon by flies, which makes them want to turn back, understandably, only to their dismay they are stranded on this goddamn beach because the wind has decided to fuck off somewhere. That’s how weather works in this show, by the way: Plot Reasons.
So the head Viking decides to try to venture inland. Only, the first Viking to touch the tall grass that serves as the demarcation line between the beach and inland is turned into a literal fucking porcupine by arrows fired from unseen indigenous assailants. Literally thousands of fucking arrows tho. Just so many arrows.
Because the head Viking is a reasonable man, he uses the scientific method to determine how he can get the wind to be nice again. First he tries, like, being nice to it. Then he somehow gets access to wood that isn’t from his ship (driftwood maybe?) and his men carve a really really really realistic rendition of Odin, the Allfather (remember, Vikings) to worship to. Neither of these approaches works. Then, I guess, since they’re running out of food and these Vikings work on the Sunshine model of resource conservation, they Viking-Funeral a dude. And magically the wind works again.
So the head Viking says to his men, he says, “hey y’all, let’s pretend to be in a war and kill the shit out of each other. That’ll bring the wind back!” And because he’s the smartest Viking, nobody says, “uh no.” So they all fight, and some die, and they use up exactly half of the cherry corn syrup disguised as blood they had on budget for this episode, and once the wind comes back the Vikings fuck off back to Norway until Leif Erickson arrives at the right reservation time.
Smash cut to prison.
Actually, hold on. I haven’t eaten or done laundry and it’s 10 PM.
One trip to the thematically appropriate Smokey’s Midnight Express and a laundry load done later…
Smash cut to prison.
Here’s where we get our first sense of our protagonist, the imposing Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). Shadow is in prison on a count of aggravated assault and battery, but because he’s spent the last few years on his best behavior in prison, his sentence has been lessened from six years or so to three and change. He’s read hundreds of books (six a week for three years, do your own math), worked out every day and is determined to set out of prison on a good note. When we first encounter Shadow, he’s waxing philosophical with one of the inmates. We don’t need to know anything about him because he’s not important to the plot.
What we do learn is that Shadow believes in logic and reason, but he feels like an axe — the axe of faaaate? — is hanging over his head. This is such a goofy line given that we know nothing, but here’s the best part: by the end of the show, goofier lines will have been said, so in comparison Shadow actually comes across as reasonable — all other things considered.
Next we see Shadow calling his wife, Laura. Here’s the actual dialogue:
Shadow: I love you. Something feels weird.
Laura: I love you too. What feels weird?
Me: Is… is that the take you wanted to go with? You sure? A-alright…
That night, Shadow has a dream. The wall of his prison cell explodes away in the best scene transition animation this side of iMovie, revealing sweet Laura on the other side of it. She tells him she loves him, and then she’s whisked away and he is suddenly in a bone orchard. That’s the name of the episode, by the way. The Bone Orchard. Nobody can accuse me of not paying attention. He walks to the center of the Bone Orchard and gets whipped by some hand branches before beholding what is clearly Bone Yggdrasil, the Bone World Tree. I mean, listen, it is what it is — this whole shit is probably a retelling of Norse mythology’s Ragnarok, but with more gods from around the world in it. Am I wrong? Probably not.
So Shadow wakes up and is called to the warden’s office where he’s informed that Laura has died in a car accident, and because he was set to be released that week anyway, they’re letting him go even earlier so he can be back home in time for the funeral.
Fun fact: The prison is in Oklahoma. They actually used an Oklahoma DOC bus to transport Shadow to what appears to be Enid… though in the next scene he’s at an airport that is in no way Will Rogers Int’l. Airport.
Anyway, Shadow tries to get an exchange on his existing plane ticket, remembers a plot-relevant thing his prison buddy says about not pissing customer service ladies off, and gets a new flight. He sleeps in the not-Will Rogers Int’l. Airport. He sees Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday scam his way into first class. He’s unable to get a seat in the regular cabin on his plane and is sat next to Mr. Wednesday. He compliments Mr. Wednesday on his con artistry.
Okay, so like, a couple more things happen in this scene. First, it should be noted that McShane just fuckin chews the scenery up. He’s a great Actor, that’s been true forever, but as Mr. Wednesday he just rails through some really bad or — at best — cliche lines that any other actor would only have been able to pull off half as well.
I offer you the worm from my beak and you look at me like I fucked your mom? — Mr. Wednesday
Second, Mr. Wednesday lets Shadow know right off the bat that he knows things about him. He knows — and plays off of — Shadow’s fear of flying. He spends like two fucking minutes talking about the improbable physics of aircraft, and he even says something that will probably matter for Plot Reasons later, about how faith is what’s really keeping the plane in the sky. Then — THEN! — he offers Shadow a job. THE MADMAN.
Shadow goes to sleep, we get more Bone Yggdrasil, ALSO FLAMING BUFFALO, then the plane is grounded so he rents a Nissan™ Altima© and drives most of the rest of the way. We get a car ad, followed by an ad for primal scream therapy as Shadow has stopped driving to his dead wife’s fucking funeral so he can hike to the top of a hill in a national park and yell.
Smash cut to a bar.
A man walks up to the bartop. Sitting at the bar is a woman. He tells her how bad he is at online dating. The woman takes him back to her apartment. It’s all red. No like literally, here’s a screenshot:
They have sex. She asks him if he thinks she’s spent. “You’re the sexiest goddamn thing I’ve ever gotten to touch for free,” he replies, which made me whisper “gross” a bunch. Then she eats him with her vagina, because she’s Balquis, the goddess of love. Well, she unbirths him.
(For real though I hate this scene not because of anything she did, but because the dude she ate was basically told, “read this paragraph of text from American Gods by Neil Gaiman” and he did as faithfully and as shittily as he could. It’s just… jarringly bad. Also, I absolutely, unequivocally, do not have an unbirthing fetish and would even go so far as to say I kinkshame anyone who does, like damn.)
Smash cut to a bar, but more of a “dive” “bar.”
Shadow has made his way to a high-end bar with a giant crocodile’s head chilling in the middle of it. This place is obviously bourgeois, but it’s southern bourgeois — just shitty enough for upper-middle class folk to think they’re redneck, but not shitty enough for actual lower class people to eat or drink there. As Shadow himself admits, “I don’t have enough to cover food and gas money.”
Me: WHY DID YOU LITERALLY NOT JUST GO TO MCDONALDS, THEY HAVE A DOLLAR MENU, WORSHIP YOUR NEW GOD FOR FUCK SAKE
Mr. Wednesday is in the bathroom. He says some shit about Shadow’s dead wife. Shadow momentarily turns into John Wayne, with an expertly-delivered turd: “I said fuck off politely, now I’m fixin ta be direct.” Pardner.
Wednesday says some shit about how Shadow’s friend died in the same accident his wife did, soooooo no job when Shadow gets home. How’s that offer looking? Shadow bargains his freedom on a coin toss that he rigs and then Wednesday double rigs, and then Mad Fucking Sweeney, the worst Irish character on-screen in generations, takes center stage with a series of coin tricks and darts-throwing feats designed to piss Shadow off. After Wednesday seals the deal, Sweeney, a leprechaun, fights Shadow until
Smash cut to a Cadillac driving through corn country.
In the interest of time, I’m going to breeze through some minor shit. Shadow gets back home, goes to his wife’s funeral, finds out she’s been cheating on him with his buddy from his buddy’s just horrible widow, Audrey. He watches Laura’s burial, Audrey tries to have sex with him after saying more just completely hateful shit to him, a person who just literally got out of prison like three days ago, and then inexplicably, he walks back to the hotel he dropped Wednesday off at.
Except he doesn’t make it, because a techno-looking doodad lands in a field next to him and he pokes it with a stick. It turns out to be a cross between a facehugger from Alien and a VR headset.
Here he meets Vape God. I know that’s not his real name, but he vapes, he’s a cross between an internet troll and a literal demon, and he’s ostensibly a god.
Vape God’s first words are: “Hello Shadow. Don’t fuck with me.” To which Shadow, standing in for the audience for the first time in the show, says, “…okay? I won’t.”
The gist of their conversation is that Vape God is on the other side of some conflict with Wednesday, and he wants to get information from Shadow. Only Shadow just got hired like fifteen minutes ago, so there’s no information to be had. Sorry! So Vape God tells Shadow that he’s gonna fuckin delete him. And then he’s back in the real world, and some meat puppets are beating the shit out of him. One gets a rope around his neck and suddenly Shadow is being lynched jesus fuck
The first episode ends with Shadow being cut down from the noose and all of the meat puppets being cleaved in half, thereby expending the remainder of the episode’s cherry corn syrup budget.
Oof, folks. This was a rough ride. I laughed in places I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to laugh in, and I cringed at some shit that might have been evocative 16 years ago when Gaiman published his book, but takes on different meanings today. I loved the cinematography, but some of the special effects were… bad, guys. They were just bad. The acting was more or less great, but the writing wasn’t. In essence, we’re getting a very mixed, very deeply problematic bag here. But regardless, it was fun enough that I don’t mind watching again next week, if only to cringe more.