‘American Gods’ comes out swinging with a faithful and dazzling adaptation.
American Gods is finally here. It premiered last night with “The Bone Orchard,” a first episode that’s both visually stunning and artfully written. Let’s take a look at it.
But first, a little clarification. In one of the stranger moments of my life, I got called out last week by Orlando Jones (of MADtv, Sleepy Hollow and, of course, American Gods) for blowing past any mention of Michael Green in my preview article.
Michael Green is fully half of the creative force behind American Gods, the Executive Producer and Co-Showrunner to Bryan Fuller’s Executive Producer and Co-Showrunner. Orlando Jones was right — I got a little too hyped about Bryan Fuller. (To his infinite credit, Michael Green himself chimed in and was extremely gracious about the whole thing).
Now, on to the show.
The opening scene establishes the mood beautifully. The show has promised two things: America and gods. Right off the bat we get a little bit of both in conflict with each other. It’s simple and it’s concise.
The scene follows a group of Vikings, the “first” people to come to America. But of course they’re not the first, and they never make it past the beach they land on.
This is our America. It’s certainly not an empty land waiting to be filled. It’s not a peaceful melting pot either.
And then there are the gods. In order to worship, our Vikings stab themselves in the eye, burn a man alive, and finally have a battle royale. The gods we’re dealing with aren’t nice — they don’t love us and they don’t want to make us feel good. This is a violent world with violent rules.
These rules carry well into the present day. Shadow’s beloved wife dies cheating on him, and he’s released from prison a few days early. As a prison guard tells him, it’s like a good news/bad news joke. Just like getting a favorable wind after extreme bloodshed, Shadow gets his freedom in exchange for losing his wife in more ways than one.
But just because the world of American Gods is cruel doesn’t mean its inhabitants take it lying down. The rage and grief of Betty Gilpin’s Audrey, whose husband died while being fellated by Laura, is much more visceral than it is in the book. Gilpin is excellent, portraying an out-of-it mix of anger and grief that vacillates very realistically between focused and lost.Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon), Betty Gilpin (Audrey)
For what it’s worth, I plan to mention the book when I see something notable that the show has done differently. I won’t, however, dole out spoilers or highlight any foreshadowing, though lord knows it’s there. We’re here to enjoy the show as it comes, not to prove how many pages we’ve read.
Except just this once.
Because there’s a very interesting piece of foreshadowing at play in the first episode, and its treatment is a beautiful example of the kind of intricacies this show seems to be dealing in. It would be a shame not to discuss it, so I’ll be as delicate as I can.
I’m talking about the noose imagery.
Suffice it to say that later in the story, something will happen sometime that is at least somewhat noose related. (Everyone who’s read the book can nod knowingly now). The first episode has several instances of noose imagery that are all, importantly, not in the book. They’ve been fabricated for the show particularly for the sake of foreshadowing. And within that foreshadowing, we see a special kind of interplay.
The final scene is of course the most vivid, as Shadow is almost lynched by a mob of Technical Boy’s faceless minions. But is it really meant to be a lynching? The minions look, for all the world, like the Clockwork Orange droogs.
Could this just be some regular ultra-violence?
It doesn’t look like it. When we first meet Shadow in the prison yard, a group of white supremacists threaten him with a noose. One of them repeats the threat the next day. It’s an environment with undeniable racial connotations, and it’s the episode’s matching bookend to the lynching at the end.Jonathan Tucker (LowKey Lyesmith), Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon)
But the noose also makes an appearance in Shadow’s dream during his last night in prison as he walks through the Bone Orchard, a setting that repeats in his dreams later and seems consigned firmly to the magical realm of the show.
The result is a fascinating mixture of Wednesday’s fantastical America of magic and Shadow’s realistic America of racism. It’s a small but masterful doubling of worlds that you don’t see in the book, and a way for the show to engage with the realities of America while showing us a distinct un-reality.
And it’s all told in the visual language of a later event. Nothing here appears by chance.
This bridging of perception is repeated, in a slightly different way, in the moment Shadow shares with Laura the night before she dies. As Shadow lies awake, the wall of the prison breaks apart to reveal Laura tucked into bed at an angle perpendicular to his. Neither of them bat an eye, simply saying goodnight and drifting off to sleep. It’s a moment of premium cable surrealism that’s so classic it’s starting to border on passé.
And it’s probably the only instance of it we’ll see in the entire show.
I mentioned last week that American Gods is in the delicious position of being able to be as extravagant as it wants with its visuals while at the same time demanding belief from its audience. When you see something happen, you know that there’s magic behind it and you know that it’s true.
Except this early in the show, Shadow and Laura’s world doesn’t have magic in it. They’re a normal husband and wife who miss each other, and while Shadow can imagine all he wants that he’s talking to Laura through the wall of his cell, we all know it’s not actually happening.Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon)
So why show it?
Because it sets up our expectations for the kind of experience we’re getting into. If we approach the rest of the episode looking for surreal symbolism, the sudden shift to surreal realism will be all the more jarring. This same jarringness allows us to empathize with Shadow more.
As Shadow’s world gets stranger, neither he nor we are sure if we should believe in what we’re seeing. He has the luxury (or maybe handicap) of not knowing that he’s in a tv show. We do. And this addition of the clearly not-true, right in the beginning when we’re learning the rules of this universe, gives us as a jaded audience our own chance at real disorientation when things get weird.
And things do get weird. One of the most memorable scenes from the book is the night with Bilquis (here played by Yetide Badaki) who eats her sexual partners whole, and not with her mouth. It’s a vivid and shocking scene that comes in the second chapter, establishing very early the tone of the book and the habits of its gods. It comes early here for the same reasons, probably, but also as a counterpoint to symbolic nature of Shadow and Laura’s interaction.
It gives us one of the most hard-to-believe events and tells us to believe it.Yetide Badaki (Bilquis)
And it is believable. A scene that was always destined to be hard to film, it balances CGI with suggestion for a result that’s effective but has a surprisingly light touch. We’re seeing a man swallowed whole by a vagina — no bones about it. But while too much or too little information might have been campy or confusing, the line the scene manages to walk is effective and remarkably true to the book.
“The Bone Orchard” doesn’t just establish American Gods as top-notch fantasy. It proclaims it as top-notch fantasy that understands the discourse that exists around it, and it engages with that discourse. It works both with and against our expectations in ways so subtle they’re easy to miss. And it sets the stage of a darn good story to boot.Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon), Ian McShane (Mr Wednesday)
Next week, when the story gets rolling a little more, the show will really shine.