Editor Chloe Woods reviews the first season of the highly-anticipated Neil Gaiman adaptation.
What are gods, but reflections of ourselves?
Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s 2017 adaptation of American Gods is at once shallower and richer than the novel it was based on. It’s hard to subdivide a book so intricately woven; much as it tries to end on a summatory note, the show’s eight episodes feel like they deserve to be slotted seamlessly into a larger whole, without the arc and climax typical of television series. (It doesn’t help that the eighth episode is in many ways the weakest.) Still: that’s not necessarily a burden. The sense of a story half-told will bring viewers back and, the expansionism of studios aside, this is one that deserves to breathe in the telling.
We follow Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), except when we don’t, as he leaves prison, learns of his wife’s death, and is hired by the uncanny “Mr Wednesday” (Ian McShane). Around him, strange events start to proliferate – from faceless soldiers to people back from the dead – and Shadow starts to wonder what, precisely, he’s signed up for. All of this is real, though it will take him a while to believe it. The viewers are given far more information, from detours into the perspective of Shadow’s dead wife Laura (Emily Browning) to the languid Coming to America tales, narrating the procession of gods across oceans and giving us an insight into their workings. This makes Shadow’s obtuseness as the season progresses a little wearing: though he’s meant to be clueless, that’s less effective when we don’t share that cluelessness through his eyes.
The reality of gods is evident from the opening, and Mr Wednesday’s identity (“Wednesday – my day!”) should be blindingly obvious to anyone with more than the scantest knowledge of mythology. The strength of that revelation, when it comes, is undermined by the greater pedigree of those surrounding him; which, in the interests of avoiding spoilers, I’ll simply call an interesting deviation from the book – which picked its own stance on the matter for very good reasons – and leave it at that. But if Mr Wednesday is underwhelming, there are other, more intriguing questions lurking. What is a god? If they are made and unmade, can they be anything other than the beings we create? Can they slip beyond our control? Gods feed on belief and on worship; on sacrifice – no greater worship than to offer up your own blood and breath. But some do seem to be kinder than others; so perhaps the avarice of those others is less down to their innate need for worship than the qualities we imbue in them, upon their creation, and which so easily rebound upon ourselves. What is worship, what is its worth, and what do the new gods of America – Media (Gillian Anderson), Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Mr. World (Crispin Glover) – offer to their followers? And finally: what are gods to do in, as Media puts it, “an atheists’ world”?
American Gods is the kind of show to inspire such questions. Solemn even in moments of comedy, it’s drenched in tonal and structural choices to evoke the eloquent grandiosity of an art film or work of literature. (We are, after all, living through the golden age of television. But there’s a certain irony to all this: Neil Gaiman is usually found in the science fiction and fantasy section. American Gods is fantasy, unquestionably, but writers can afford to be less grandiose even when their subject matter is grand. Television lives and dies by quicker judgements.) For the most part, it feels like a waking dream, or like the legends themselves brought to life. American Gods is unafraid of long scenes designed to evoke mood rather than progress the plot, and to shift various character dynamics in subtle moments: from Shadow’s perspective in particular, not a lot happens, but plenty changes. It’s a shock, further into the season, to realise how little time has passed over Shadow and Mr Wednesday’s pan-American road trip. The use of colour is vivid, visceral, from the deep blues of midnight to the rich reds of blood and flame. It’s not always that dark: spanning America, we take in bright spring meadows, abandoned police stations and – often – dusty, bright highways. A chilling, unsettling soundtrack (by Brian Reitzell) serves to bind these various places into a singular show. Both seen and implied, the imagery is often graphic and sometimes bizarre. As we might expect.
The original novel was published over fifteen years ago, so we might also expect that American Gods has been updated for the present decade. And this is the case, but only to a certain extent. The technology has been adapted, of course; and there’s greater emphasis on diversity than many probably noticed in the book – but this is emphasis, contingent on expanding our perspective away from Shadow’s, rather than an active change. The gay Jinn (Mousa Kraish) and the Old Gods of many cultures were already present: they merely had less focus. American Gods has always been a story about the diversity of America and critically unchanged, in accordance with this, is the sense of America itself: a place in a constant state of change and flux, alluring for both gods and humans alike in the hope of making new names for themselves, and still in conflict over the core of its own identity. So people, so gods: as far as American Gods has a discernable plot so far, it’s that of a battle brewing between the old gods of Mr Wednesday’s recruitment and the new personifications of the modern world.
Many people will not like this show. It’s deeply irreverent towards both gods and humans. It does not offer easy answers to questions of its plot or world, which we are dropped into with little early explanation. (The answers offered to its thematic questions are easier than they might be; this is what I mean by “shallow”.) It’s unashamed about the role of sex in both religion and human relations – suffice to say an orgy is among the least shocking of its uses, if you’re likely to be shocked. But those who do like it may well find it enthralling and, even if their meaning’s not clear, may well find its potent images haunting them long after the credits have rolled.
The first season of American Gods is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. See the trailer below: