Between ‘Legion‘ on FX and now ‘American Gods’ on Starz, I don’t think I’ve ever been so delighted to watch a TV series without having a clear idea of what the hell is going on in it. These shows are both really weird, but in fascinating ways.
‘American Gods’ is based on the 2001 fantasy novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, adapted by ‘Pushing Daisies’ and ‘Hannibal’ creator Bryan Fuller. The two are well matched. Fuller’s intensely visual (and let’s be honest, pretentious) style of storytelling pairs very nicely with Gaiman’s flowery poetic prose and character dialogue. Fuller also proved in ‘Hannibal’ that he enjoyed pushing the boundaries of graphic violence and sex on network television, and has a field day going even further in the uncensored waters of premium cable.
The show’s pilot episode, called ‘The Bone Orchard’, opens with a prologue set a millennia ago. A century before Leif Erikson allegedly discovered the New World, a Viking ship lands on an uncharted coast. Before the men can head inland in search of food and drinkable water, they’re immediately repelled by an arrow attack from (unseen) natives. They never leave the beach. Unfortunately, their boat is stranded due to a lack of wind. Believing that their god requires a blood sacrifice, several of the men give up one eye each to a fiery poker. When that fails to placate the deity, they stage a violent battle amongst themselves, depicted with over-the-top gore and visual effects as limbs are hacked off and bodies are cleaved in half while geysers of blood fill the air.
That does the trick. The wind picks up, and the survivors quickly race back to their boat, abandoning their unburied dead. They will return home speaking nothing of what happened, leaving the history unrecorded, except to the watchful god whose devotions were finally satisfied.
Five days before his scheduled release, a prison inmate improbably named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle from ‘The 100’) has a vivid dream of a forest blanketed with human bones, at the center of which stands an evil tree. The next morning, he’s brought to the warden and informed that he’ll be released a few days early. This good news is tempered by the reason for it: His adoring and devoted wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died in a car accident.
Despite having been convicted for assault, Moon is a very reserved man who keeps a cool temper even when dealing with an unsympathetic airline agent. He spends most of what little money he has exchanging his ticket for an earlier day so that he can attend the funeral. While waiting for the plane, he witnesses a disheveled old man (Ian McShane) bluff his way into an upgrade to First Class by pretending to have dementia. Moon recognizes him as a grifter. Apparently, he was one himself and knows the scam.
The flight is overbooked, which fortuitously leads to Moon’s own ticket being upgraded to First Class, where he’s of course seated next to the stranger. The man is extremely talkative and ingratiating, which makes Moon a little uncomfortable. He quickly marks Moon as an ex-con just out of the joint, and seems to know things about him that he shouldn’t. Moon takes this as a simple con artist trick. When asked his name, the man is evasive and will only call himself “Mr. Wednesday.” In the course of their conversation, he offers Moon a job – a high-paying one, he claims. Moon declines, saying that his friend Robbie has already lined him up with legitimate work. Wednesday concedes that, “A man gets out of prison, he should be focused above all else on not going back.”
Moon falls asleep on the plane and dreams of a buffalo with fire pouring from its eyes. He wakes up to an empty plane and is told the flight had to make an emergency landing due to a bad storm. He rents a car, drives to a nearby state park, and screams as loudly as he can from a hilltop, releasing some of the anger and grief and frustration that he’s kept bottled up.
In the episode’s wildest and strangest sequence, a schlubby middle-aged man (Joel Murray) goes on a blind date with a much younger and more attractive woman (Nigerian actress Yetide Badaki) with the very odd name Bilquis. She wastes little time in luring him back to her bedroom and seducing him. They have very aggressive lovemaking, during which she demands that he worship her and chant her name. The more he pledges love and his commitment and everything he has to her, the more she gets off on it. What seems at first to be a weird camera angle framing the woman larger on screen than the man slowly intensifies until we realize that, in fact, either he’s shrinking or she’s enlarging – to the point that, at the moment of their mutual climax, she swallows him whole into her vagina.
I told you this show was weird.
Almost out of money, Shadow Moon winds up at a bar strangely decorated like the inside of an alligator’s mouth. He not uncoincidentally runs into Mr. Wednesday again there. The old man clearly planned it. He offers Moon the job again, more insistently this time, and won’t take no for an answer. Moon continues to resist until Wednesday informs him that his friend Robbie won’t be getting him that job he promised, and then produces a newspaper showing that Robbie is dead.
Wednesday suggests flipping a coin to determine if Moon will work for him or not. Moon tosses it and calls tails, certain how it will land. He knows this trick. However, to his surprise, the coin in fact lands on heads just as Mr. Wednesday said it would. With no money left, no job, and both his wife and his best friend dead, Moon decides that he’s hit rock bottom and has no better prospects. Wednesday calls him his new aide-de-camp and brings over three glasses of mead (not exactly the sort of drink a place like this would have on hand) to seal the deal in a traditional manner.
During this, a very tall Irishman bluntly introduces himself as an associate of Wednesday’s. He claims to be a leprechaun, and has a trick of his own that involves pulling gold coins out of thin air. Wednesday calls him Mad Sweeney, and he’s clearly itching to start a fight. Moon doesn’t take the bait, until Sweeney makes a wiseass remark about his dead wife. Moon punches him in the face. That’s exactly what he wanted, and he gleefully launches into a full-on brawl in the middle of the bar while Wednesday watches with amusement.
Sometime later, Moon wakes up in the backseat of an old Cadillac on the road. It’s daytime and he isn’t sure how he got there. Wednesday is driving. They stop at a gas station so that Moon can clean himself up in the restroom. Wednesday agrees to give him the day to attend his wife’s funeral. He can take as much time as he needs, but when he’s done, they’re going to get to work.
At the funeral, Moon finds Robbie’s widow, Audrey (Betty Gilpin from ‘Masters of Sex’), in a state, behaving poorly at what should be a somber occasion. When Moon offers his condolences, she bitterly informs him that his wife Laura and her husband Robbie died together, with Laura’s mouth around Robbie’s cock at the time of the crash. How did he not put that together? Audrey is furious, to say the least.
After everyone leaves, Moon sticks around to yell at the grave. He also tosses one of Sweeney’s gold coins onto the dirt mound. Audrey stumbles up to him again, drunkenly rambling about how she wants to revenge-fuck Moon right there in the cemetery, forcing their spouses to watch. He declines. As they talk, the gold coin sinks through the dirt into the grave.
Alone once again, Moon walks down an empty street at night when all the streetlights around him suddenly go out. He finds a strange illuminated box on the side of the road. When he gets close to check it out, the box transforms into a small robot, which then leaps up and latches onto his face. Two lenses fit over his eyes, plunging him into what I assume is a very weird Virtual Reality space in the form of the interior of a limousine. Moon is perplexed, but maintains his composure.
A douchebag club kid sits opposite him, vaping what he claims is “synthetic frog skin” and rudely blowing smoke rings into Moon’s face. (Although not named in the episode, the character is credited as “Technical Boy.”) He tersely demands to know what Mr. Wednesday is planning. When Moon won’t answer, two (literally) faceless guards materialize on both sides of him and hold him down. Technical Boy gives him another chance to either answer or be killed.
When Moon tries to fight his way out, he’s inexplicably sucked out through the sunroof of the car. He seems to float through space for a moment and then lands in a patch of mud, rain pouring down on him. More faceless guards appear and beat on him. A noose materializes and they string him up. (The image of a black man being lynched is quite uncomfortable, no doubt intentionally so.)
As he’s on the verge of death, the rope holding Moon snaps and he falls to the ground. The bodies of the guards are then torn apart by an invisible force and their blood fills the air, splattering all over Moon. He pulls himself to his feet, dumbfounded at what he just experienced, and looks out over the carnage around him.
I’m not going to pretend to understand everything that happened in this episode, beyond a general sense that the story is about a war between ancient gods and new gods taking place in the modern day. Many of the details are, at this point, still obscure or impenetrable. I also haven’t read the Neil Gaiman novel and can’t comment on whether the show is at all faithful to it or goes off in its own direction.
Nevertheless, I kind of love what I’ve seen so far. This could be something special if it keeps up.