Media be praised, American Gods has finally premiered its’ silver screen adaptation. April 30th marked the first episode of the STARZ series, helmed by the keen-eyed Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, in a glorious blaze worthy of the ecstatic worship fans have been ready to bestow upon the show.
American Gods revolves around Shadow Moon, an ex-con whose release from prison is marred by the tragedy of his wife’s sudden death. Newly free and left with nothing to look forward to, Shadow ‘happens’ to cross paths with the mysterious conman Mr. Wednesday, who ‘happens’ to be in search of a bodyguard and yes-man. Shadow probably just wants to work a nice job and keep practicing his coin tricks. The universe rarely works out that way though, and the relatively indifferent skeptic Shadow signs on only to be almost immediately thrust into the squabble between the old and new gods.
The world of American Gods requires the introduction of a multitude of characters, pantheons, and rules. Viewers are thrown, much like Shadow, headfirst into a hidden world of gods, introduced to the drug of belief, and asked to adjust to a worldly cast of such beings without blinking an eye. It’s a lot to process, and Fuller & Green set a relentless but manageable pace. “The Bone Orchard” firmly establishes the tone, aesthetic, and overarching mood of the series, melancholic and mysterious, while “The Secret of Spoons” delves unflinchingly into the mythos of the world.
American Gods has always danced on a fine line between ethereal surrealism and stark reality, pitting the two against one another in ways that could create a disjointed visual experience, but Fuller and Green manage to bind the two opposing realities in a magnificent, vibrant dance that permeates every corner of the first two episodes.
Ricky Whittle is tasked with carrying the heart of the show and our stoic narrator, Shadow Moon. Spoiler alert: he does it brilliantly. He is nuanced and quiet, believably both the thug and the sweetheart, playing out his own duality in this terrifying dual world. Neil Gaiman has written on Shadow’s difficult personality as a main character in that he is an extremely “private person”, so readers were left to wonder how well the under spoken Shadow could translate to screen, but the minor tweaks to turn some of Shadow’s inner thoughts into physical mannerisms, expertly carried out by Whittle, have created an interesting and engaging persona for the series.
Shadow slots into the reality-defying world of Mr. Wednesday with ungraceful stride. He doesn’t quite fall in with wonder and awe, viewing the world of the gods with reverence, but looks at the unbelievable happenings with a realistic grit that steadies the series and aids in pacing the episodes. Mr. Wednesday, the man himself–a constant, vaguely threatening presence throughout the book–brims with menace in Ian McShane’s screen adaptation, calculating and ready, a constant danger made up of risky cons and sharp looks that strike unease in the subtlest of moments. Coin-thievin’, fist-fightin’ Mad Sweeney teaches Shadow a thing or two about real coin tricks, engrossing Shadow even more fully into Mr. Wednesday’s world. P.S. Be prepared to like Pablo Schreiber’s rendition of Mad Sweeney more than you’d imagined you would. Reality constantly haunts Shadow’s every step as the late Laura Moon, Shadow’s wife, continues to pop up in the unexpected quiet moments, bathed in the shimmering light of memory, almost as puzzling as the gods Shadow comes face to face with.
“The Secret of Spoons” marks the introduction of a host of godly personalities, including rough and tumble hammer-swinger Czernabog, played by Peter Stormare. Because dealing with Mr. Wednesday and Mad Sweeney wasn’t enough.
Tangling with the gods of old and being beleaguered with visions of your dead wife is clearly not plenty enough for Shadow to deal with—he’s also introduced to a whole cast of new godly sensations, all of whom have arisen with the advancement of society. His first run-in with these gods, a la The Technical Boy, portrayed by Bruce Langley, is an effortlessly bizarre glimpse into the world of technology and VR that we currently pay heavy tribute to. The poised and powerful Media watches Shadow from a multitude of screens in a memorable encounter that tests Shadow’s wits and simultaneously casts an entirely new light on screen darling Lucille Ball.
Other gods lounge on the sidelines, not yet entwined in the central story of American Gods. Bilquis shines as a terrifyingly beautiful goddess of physical love, demanding power in a series of worship-filled sex scenes that might turn love-seekers off of random hook-up apps for the foreseeable future. Even side characters such as Audrey Burton, whose presence in the book spans a mere two scenes and scant pages, shines in a full-bodied performance that pulls and magnifies her manic energy.
Most astoundingly thematic are the “Coming to America” segments, tidbits tucked between the main story of the novel that ruminate on just how these foreign gods wandered their way into America. On screen, these tales, often permeated with death and woe, open each episode with an extravagant bang. While the entire show is visually resplendent and saturated with deep imagery and magnificent effects, the “Coming to America” memories pulse with hyperbolic color, dialogue, and action. The very first glimpse of Fuller and Green’s vision we are treated to is rife with rivers of blood and chaotic Viking death. It’s absolutely over the top, and it’s absolutely perfect.
And if the first episode set the bar ambitiously high, the second clears it with ease. American Gods charges headfirst into difficult waters with the introduction of Anansi (one of my personal faves from the book), whose trip to America was a result of African people being torn from their homes and forced onto the slave ships meant to carry them to their new captivity. Upon being called upon to save them from this terror, Anansi appears before the desperate captives and offers his solution in what may easily be one of the most powerful speeches concerning racism in a TV series. Orlando Jones, the actor tasked with playing the spider of legend, barges onto the screen with a poised swagger that roars with thunderous presence as soon as he opens his mouth. It’s been a challenge not to just write Orlando Jones’ name followed by numerous hearts in an attempt to explain just how amazing his performance in this episode is. Like Czernabog would say, IS GOOD.
American Gods came out swinging, full of momentum and hope. After two episodes, we can confidently proclaim ourselves believers and offer our worship to this lovingly crafted series. If you’ve yet to become a believer, American Gods airs every Sunday on STARZ and is available on the STARZ app or via Amazon Prime.