Amid reports of intense behind-the-scenes turmoil that resulted in a nearly two-year absence since the first season aired, Starz’s dazzling if confounding American Gods has finally returned for a second outing. Has the series been gone too long, and does it have any magic left?
During the hiatus, original show-runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green were fired and replaced by TV vet Jesse Alexander (Alias, Heroes, Hannibal). This led to supporting actors Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth leaving the show in protest. (Anderson’s character will be recast later in the season, while Chenoweth’s is dismissively written out in the premiere.) New producer Alexander was also subsequently sidelined from the production – which is a polite way of saying that he was ordered to have nothing more to do with the show without officially being fired. Allegedly, the main source of all this contention was author Neil Gaiman, who was greatly displeased with how far the first season diverged from his novel and demanded that the show start following his book more closely.
To be fair, for all its visual inventiveness and surreal craziness, narrative coherency was a major failing of the show’s first season. Even viewers who tried to pay close attention had a very hard time making sense of the story, if indeed there was any sense to be made of it. I can understand both the author and the network wanting to straighten things out.
As far as that goes, the second season picks up shortly after the last one, which ended with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) attacking Mr. World (Crispin Glover) and officially starting a war between the old gods and the new gods. Licking his wounds, Mr. World retreats to a secret lair called Blackbriar, an old nuclear apocalypse bunker and government command center. He orders Technical Boy to go find Media (Anderson’s character). They’ll need her expertise with propaganda to recruit help for their side.
Meanwhile, Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), Laura (Emily Browning), and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) drive to Wisconsin in order to drum up support among the old gods. Wednesday holds a meeting at a tourist attraction called the House on the Rock, a mountaintop building that houses a huge underground theme park. They’re joined by Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), Czernobog (Peter Stormare), Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), and a few others. Ancient sex goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) wasn’t formally invited but crashes the party. Aside from Laura and Sweeney, who are forced to stay behind, Wednesday takes Shadow and the gods for a ride on an elaborate illuminated carousel, which spins at hyper-speed and projects them for a flight through the cosmos and into Mr. Wednesday’s memories. Wednesday makes his pitch for the war effort. A Hindu goddess named Mama-ji (who’s been relegated to working as a motel maid lately) is reluctant to get involved, but Shadow, who has finally come around to believing in gods, makes an impassioned speech on Wednesday’s behalf.
After the meeting, the entire group gather for a sort-of afterparty at a diner. Czernobog tells Shadow that he thinks the war is a lost cause and has no interest in helping. He only came to the meeting out of obligation because Shadow beat him at a game of Checkers last season.
While they’re talking, Mr. World sends an assassin to open fire and riddle the building with bullets. Shadow sneaks outside to stop the shooter, only to get zapped away in a flash of light. Zorya is killed in the attack, which prompts a furious Czernobog to vow vengeance. He’s now on-board with the war effort after all.
Laura looks off into the distance and finds Shadow’s light pulsing like a homing beacon only she can see.
Prior to the premiere episode airing, Rolling Stone published a scathing review calling the second season a big drop in quality from the first. After actually watching the first episode, that seems like a lot of hyperbole to me. In most respects, the premiere is very much of a piece with the first season. I’m sure that most viewers who didn’t follow the behind-the-scenes drama probably won’t notice any change at all. The tone is basically the same, little bits of wit continue to sparkle, and the show is still intensely visual. The cluttered House on the Rock set is a production designer’s dream, and the shoot-out at the end includes some hypnotic yet disgusting slo-mo gore.
If anything, the plot does indeed seem easier to follow so far. That said, it strikes me that very little actually happens in the premiere. I also couldn’t help but feel that most of the actors seemed to be going through the motions and didn’t have their hearts in their performances, but that perception may be colored by my knowledge of the production troubles.
One area where I do agree with the Rolling Stone critic is that Shadow Moon is a very weak protagonist for this story. His character is far too monotone and uninteresting, and the excessively long time it took him to believe in gods or magic seems absurd given all the crazy things he’s seen and experienced, including his wife being resurrected from the dead. The show would be much stronger if it dumped him and focused on the charismatic Mr. Wednesday.