American Gods S1 and Narrative Structure
A few disclaimers before I get started:
I have not read the book. I am engaging this show on its own merit, and am not interested in comparison. Nothing wrong with comparison, it’s just not how I’m engaging the series.
The following piece examines season 1 as a whole, but you can find my livetweets on each episode in this Twitter Moment I’ve created for reference.
And yes, there are spoilers.
This show is perhaps the first time I’ve watched a TV series that was adapted from a novel, and after the first season, I realize there are some major hazards in doing so, as the two mediums need to be structured quite differently in order to efficiently tell a story.
Season 1 of American Gods feels like its sole purpose is to put all the pieces in place for season 2. It’s the first act of a multi-act story that doesn’t quite stand on its own two feet. For a novel, this of course makes sense because it’s a single unit. For a TV series, however, each season works better with a concrete plot arc and objective that is resolved by season’s end. This first season does not really offer that; rather, vague clues are scattered throughout as to where we’re headed and what to expect from the story, but nothing really solidifies by the finale.
As much as I’m not a fan of the series, I have to use Supernatural’s first five seasons as a counter-example. The first five seasons operate as one major story arc with one very clear objective: avenging their mother by killing the demon that killed her. However, each season has its own specific objective (or conflict, in literary terms), so that each season finale has a clear and concrete resolution, until we reach season 5 and resolve the primary conflict that we’ve been driving towards the entire time.
I use this as an example because, as it’s adapted from a novel and split into multiple seasons, American Gods will have a similar structure: a primary conflict that stretches across several seasons, as opposed to a more typical series, which operates on seasonal arcs. That is, each new season has its own independent conflict and resolution. But, unlike Supernatural, this first season lacked its own conflict, and thus there was nothing really to resolve by the finale. Revelations have occurred, certainly — we finally know who Wednesday really is, his involvement in Shadow’s life even before they met has been revealed, Shadow himself finally believes, etc. — but nothing was really resolved. The main undercurrent driving this season is the makings of a divine war. But what that means, structurally, is that the war itself needs to happen by season’s end. But, that can’t happen if that’s the primary conflict of the story, so another sub-conflict needs to be in place that will resolve by the finale so that the season itself feels complete. It lacks that, so alas, this season does not feel complete. As a novel, the structure works well — everything’s in place, and now the plot really gets moving — but as the first season of a TV series, not so much.
One argument I could see for a conflict that is established and resolved within this season is Shadow’s skepticism and belief. Much of Wednesday’s monologuing revolves around belief as a means of pushing Shadow to accept the oddities he’s witnessing as real, and to believe. He struggles with it, but by the finale, he declares, “I believe! I believe everything!” It’s a conflict that’s resolved…but it’s an internal conflict, not an external one. Externally, because it’s never clarified within this season what role his belief has in the plot itself, it functions solely as an internal conflict for Shadow. And even as such, it is a weak conflict because its importance is not really explained; why does it matter to Shadow whether or not he believes? We know why it matters to Wednesday, but what does it mean for Shadow’s growth and development as a character? This goes back to him simply functioning as a vehicle for the story’s ideological and thematic musings, rather than a three-dimensional character.
This could’ve been easily resolved if the dynamic between him and Laura had been explored more throughout the season. He loved her, but she apparently didn’t love him until after her death (something which I examine in-depth here, in the first piece I wrote on the first four episodes, because I don’t fully agree with that assessment of her). But beyond that, his feelings for her aren’t explored very deeply. What did she mean to him, what made him fall in love with her, how is he processing her death and her infidelity? Relying on assumptions that he loved her because she was his wife and her infidelity and death both simply hurt him is superficial; people fall in, and out, of love for different reasons, react differently to similar stimuli, so leaning on assumed motivation is simply just lazy character building. Instead of exploring his character in depth, finding ways to tie in the concrete pain of grieving his loss to the more abstract notion of his own faith, he spends most of his scenes gazing moodily into space as Wednesday prattles on about whatever this-and-that is the episode’s particular theme. Wasted opportunities at every turn that reduce the impact of the finale’s revelations, and weakens what seems to be the season’s primary conflict.
While Shadow is the protagonist of the show (I guess?), his scenes primarily consist of Wednesday faux-losophizing about the state of belief and faith in modern US culture. I say “faux” because his analysis is weak and superficial; there’s no nuance and although he himself is a god, his musings echo those of a mortal white man who grew up with little spirituality, observing religion and faith from outside, filtered through a lens of imagined objectivity. It flattens important components like race, gender, and structural power dynamics, in an attempt at a universal examination. In fact, race is a major blindspot in both Wednesday’s monologues and the narrative’s examinations of US history and culture. The United States was built on, and continues to thrive off of racism, so no analysis is complete without a racialized component. But, in American Gods, it only ever comes up as a way of tokenizing Shadow’s Blackness in rather violent ways, including a very explicit lynching that the narrative, through various characters, treats almost whimsically and dismissively.
Anansi’s speech is the only point of the season that confronts racism directly. It honestly isn’t half-bad; he hits an important point with “you all don’t know you Black yet”, pointing to race itself as a social construct, and he validates Black rage with “anger gets shit done.” But, then there’s also “you all better learn to swim; this is how we get stereotypes,” which ignores the very racist history of swimming pools and instead shifts blame to Black folks. So, again, it’s not that bad of a speech, but it’s still obviously filtered through a white lens, thus compromising some authenticity. And it’s the only time racism is confronted directly in a show examining a country built on racism. It’s just not enough.
All this is to say that the thematic examinations of US culture and history take up way too much space in the narrative while offering no fresh, original analysis, so I’d argue that that space would have been better utilized for building character and establishing an actual plot arc for the season.
Many of the episodes function as an examination of a particular trait of modern US culture — for example, Czernobog and the disconnect between people and their food, or Vulcan and the obsession with guns —and vignettes featuring peripheral gods who aren’t immediately connected to the main plot — Bilquis, Anansi, the Jinn, Anubis, etc. — are scattered throughout the season. On top of that, there are two entire episodes dedicated to Laura/Essie. Aside from the Laura episodes, this is all space in which neither plot nor character is being developed or progressed. And it’s a lot of the narrative space! Meanwhile, we barely learn much about Shadow as a character; he is simply the dumping ground for Wednesday’s incessant musings and lectures, the butt of his racist jokes, and a literal pawn in his divine war. This is problematic both as a narrative device, and optically, as a Black man serving as a pawn in a white man’s war. There was also a lot of potential in the buddy trio dynamic of Sweeney, Laura, and Salim that I hope to see more of in S2; Bilquis is painfully underutilized until the very last episode where a connection between her and Technology Boy is revealed, and her lack of characterization plays into tropes of hypersexualized Black women; and Anansi’s sudden connection to Wednesday seems oddly placed and disjointed (where did he come back into the picture?). If they’d cut out a lot of the philosophy that stalls the pacing, they had a lot of material to work with in filling that space more efficiently.
I recognize that making such drastic changes to the story’s structure would probably have upset the fans of the book. But quite frankly, different mediums of storytelling require different structures to be successful, so for an adaptation to be most effective, it has to adapt to those structures. This is why I generally don’t engage adaptations comparatively. Stories have an essence, a core, that needs to be maintained across mediums, but I do believe that major structural changes can occur while still maintaining a story’s integrity. Again, as I haven’t yet read the book, I can’t make a comparative analysis here, specifically; I am speaking about adaptations and narrative structure in general.
What I’m hoping to get more of, generally, in season 2 is less faux-losophizing and more character development. I hope to see more of Salim, and learn more about him and the Jinn — yes, I’m biased because they’re romantically-linked brown boys, but also, more objectively, their dynamic of a faithful believer and a deity starved of such attention is significant within the show’s larger themes. The New Gods’ major argument seems to be that the Old Gods have become irrelevant in a modern atheist world, but Salim’s unwavering faith is a testament to Wednesday’s point that the Old Gods offer hope, guidance, and meaning to the lost. So I hope to see that emphasized in season 2. There’s also a vulnerability to Mad Sweeney being hinted at, a sentimentality and a deeper connection to Laura via Essie, that I hope is explored further. And for gods sake, please develop Bilquis beyond just a hypersexualized Black woman trope! We’ve gotten tiny clues about her beyond her sexuality, but good grief, give us more!
However, all that being said, I’ve still really enjoyed the show thus far. The visuals and cinematography are gorgeous, it blends noir and surrealism in some really trippy ways, and the relationship between the gods and humans is rather fascinating. So, while they desperately need to focus more on character and plot development, I’m still really looking forward to season 2.