Lemon Scented You: The Old, The New, and The In-Between in 'American Gods'

American Gods Gillian Anderson David Bowie

‘American Gods’ makes the internet apologize and pays tribute to David Bowie.

After the hour-long flashback of last week’s American Gods, “Lemon Scented You” takes place refreshingly in the present… right after a prehistoric intro.

This Coming to America story is, in the book, the tale of the very first god to arrive in America. And while it still is, the dynamics have shifted a little. In this telling, Nunnyunnini’s tribe aren’t the first people in America… they’re just the first to bring their god.

The people who are already in America have no god—they have food. They’re practical, and Nunnyunnini’s tribe give him up for that practicality. In the book, the idea that people are greater than gods is blasphemy, and Atsula, the leader of the tribe, is punished for it in a very Moses-like way. Here the idea remains, but its implications have changed. This time around people really are greater than gods. Nunnyunnini loved his people, and he was still forgotten.

Wednesday tells Shadow at the end of “Head Full of Snow” that he’s afraid of being forgotten—in “Lemon Scented You” we start to get an idea of what that means. Of what the fight is for and what’s at stake.

(But what about that buffalo that killed Atsula? Wasn’t that a god? I’m not sure if that qualifies as a spoiler at this point, so let’s just leave it with saying: Not quite).

Back in the present, people are still proving to be greater than gods. Shadow opens the door to his motel room to find his dead wife waiting for him. Ricky Whittle’s delivery of the line “Hey, baby” is great, a display of tired confusion, an acceptance of near normalcy for lack of a better option.

American Gods Ricky Whittle Emily Browning

Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon), Emily Browning (Laura Moon)

The scene that follows is very reminiscent of Fuller’s Pushing Daisies—a frank, slightly quicker-than-average-witted conversation about death delivered from both sides of the veil. This frankness mostly comes from Laura, who’s nothing if not pragmatic. She takes a bath so her skin will be warm to the touch. Her repeated lowering of her lips into the water punctuates her motives—she takes it as a given that Shadow will accept her and want to kiss her.

Or at least, she pretends to take it as a given. In reality, she’s nervous, and she’s talking a big game because she knows it’s her best strategy. In life, she was able to lead Shadow along like a puppy (yes, it’s “puppy,” not “papi”), so she does her best to keep up the status quo.

But it doesn’t work. Fascinatingly enough, Shadow’s problem isn’t that Laura’s dead, but that she cheated on him. It’s another doubling of the real with the unreal—they have two problems to work through, and only one of them is something married couples tend to have to deal with. By accepting the unreal and fixating on the real, Shadow asserts that people are greater than gods, that human problems are more important than supernatural ones. 

Death he might be able to handle. But not infidelity.

Or maybe he would be able to handle it, but we don’t get the chance to find out. Despite Wednesday’s best attempts to get him to leave, the two of them are arrested for bank robbery, and the New Gods make a group appearance.

American Gods Gillian Anderson David Bowie

Gillian Anderson (Media)

Is it completely clear that Gillian Anderson’s Lucille Ball and David Bowie are the same “person?” I’m not sure. The fact that Anderson is so well-known is a real boon, and by the time she makes a third appearance as Marilyn Monroe, the audience is probably mostly on board with the concept. But the conversation between Technical Boy and Media’s David Bowie is, when it happens, perhaps a little confusing.

Which is odd, since it actually delivers the firmest review of the plot we’ve gotten so far.

It’s also a stunning scene, with the best Bowie impersonation I’ve seen since Jemaine Clement’s in Flight of the Conchords. Though while Jemaine had the voice and the mannerisms, Gillian also has the look. She is Life on Mars Bowie. And the incorporation of song lyrics is lovely. (“There is a terror in knowing what Mr. World is about” is almost too good). 

And while “lovely” might not be the right word for it, the advancement of Technical Boy’s character is perhaps the best part of this episode.

Technical Boy is the youngest of the New Gods—he’s powerful and rightfully full of himself, but his personality leaves something to be desired. Just like the internet. And just like the very worst of the internet, in the first episode, he overreacts to an insult and takes things much too far, getting race involved when it should never have been involved.

And now, as the rules of the internet dictate, he’s forced to apologize. This is the currency of the internet age—over the top, severely misguided vitriol, followed by carefully worded, platitudinous apologies.

American Gods Lemon Scented You

Bruce Langley (Technical Boy), Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon), Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday), Crispin Glover (Mr. World)

It is, importantly, the older New Gods who have to keep him in line. Even among them, there exists a real hierarchy of age, an old within the new. They drive this home a few times, when Media tells Technical Boy that she was there when The War of the Worlds caused widespread panic, and when Mr. World tells him that Wednesday is older than he’ll ever be.

And that that age deserves respect. This is the heart of the struggle between the Old and the New Gods. Beneath the fear of being forgotten is an innate respect for those who’ve managed to stay remembered. When it comes down to it, people are greater, because the gods depend on their belief.

This leads to another interesting departure from the book. This whole interaction—this whole rebranding scheme—is new. It hints at a conflict not just between the Old and New Gods, but between all gods and the people who worship them. It’s another iteration of the duality of the human and the divine, the real and the unreal.

This departure affords us the chance to see a great dynamic among the New Gods. Gillian Anderson’s Marilyn Monroe isn’t quite as fabulous as her Bowie, but she’s still a joy to watch. And Crispin Glover is, as always, a glorious creep. The Mr. World of the book has limited personality, and this character feels like 20% Neil Gaiman’s creation and 80% Glover’s. But since the character was something of a blank slate to begin with, and Crispin Glover is so good at being a weirdo, the result feels natural and fitting. And his appearance starts to piece the story together more.

I told you we’d see that hat again.

American Gods Crispin Glover

Crispin Glover (Mr. World)

This interaction also finally gives us and Shadow confirmation of what the clues have been very strongly hinting at… Wednesday is Odin. The cat’s out of the bag with the name of that missile, I think.

And with Mad Sweeney’s use of another of his names, Grimnir.

And with the fact that he flat out talks to a raven. Odin has two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who fly around and tell him the things they see. Things like police cars coming to his motel and goodbye blowjobs being given in cars.

These are fun things we can talk about now.

Something we still can’t talk much about is the meaning of that tree that grows out of the chair in the police station. Without saying too much, I’m guessing this is the same tree that haunted Shadow with a noose in his dreams in the first episode (in that orchard of bones Mr. World mentions). In the first episode, that tree represents the fantastical side of Shadow’s problems, the other side of the coin to the overt racism.

Now Shadow’s gotten an apology for the very real racism, but he’s still being attacked by the questionably real tree. He may have chosen to worry about reality, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world has.

American Gods Mr. Wednesday

Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday)

“Lemon Scented You” has the strange duality of being the most straightforward advancement of the plot and, at the same time, perhaps the most disorienting for the uninitiated viewer. We can probably blame the New Gods for that.

But it also lays out, with the structure of its conflicts, the show’s greater conflicts between the old and the new, between the real and the unreal. And it shows the consequences of losing. Just like Nunnyunnini was eventually forgotten, Laura’s flesh will eventually slough off the bone.

The stakes are high, and losing isn’t pretty.

Liz has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands.