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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

American Gods delves into “Ashes & Demons” and comes up with its best episode in years

Ricky Whittle stars in American Gods
Ricky Whittle stars in American Gods
Photo: Starz
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“Do the words ‘Rest in Peace’ mean nothing to you people?”

I have been hard on American Gods since the end of season one. The sheer scale and speed with which prestige TV took over the landscape guaranteed there would be at least a few spectacular disasters and flame-outs. But this was a show with so much potential, and to see it not just wasted but thrown away because people behind the scenes made bad decisions was painful. But hope springs eternal, and though season two was a hate-watch affair, I took on covering season three because I believed this show still had it in there to find its way back to good. And this week, that faith in the old gods and the new was rewarded.

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Moreover, that moment comes when the show needs to readjust due to the continued behind-the-scenes turmoil and turnover. Season one had the incomparable Kristin Chenoweth as Easter, part of the Old God clan, fooled into joining Odin’s War. With the actress long gone, the show has added in Demeter this season to fill that same role, another goddess of the harvest, just from a slightly different part of Western Europe.

The mystic opening takes viewers to 1765, Western Pennsylvania, as a desperate American settler slaughters her last pig in prayer that the ancient ritual will bring food to her starving children. It was the kind of sudden creation that made the first season sing. Sometimes the world moves in mysterious ways, and faith and pig entrails can bring a goddess (played here by Gwynne Phillips) to the most unexpected of places.

But as we’ve seen this season, an opening isn’t enough. For instance, the premiere started with another ritual of this kind, with Odin and his goth rockers. But then it didn’t bother to go anywhere with the concept or have much else to offer. (This episode did follow up with the news that most of the band, Blood Death, was murdered. I assume this is a strike from the New Gods, but that remains to be seen.) This week followed the intro directly by bringing forth Blythe Danner as the now-aged Demeter. And it took fans to Purgatory, finally giving actress Emily Browning something worthwhile to do.

Before we get to This is Your Life, Laura Moon, let’s talk about the fiery crackle between Danner and McShane, which gives this episode some much needed energy. Odin’s plot, as usual, is pretty straightforward. Get Demeter to leave her home in the Haven Glen Retreat by hook or by crook. When hooking doesn’t happen, he goes full crook, forging marriage certificates (well, Cordelia does the work), trying to get custody from her conservator, Larry Hutchenson (Sebastian Spence). But Demeter has no interest in leaving. Like so many other old gods, she’s found a small patch that works for her. Put away in an old folk’s home for mentally disabled and dementia patients, she’s been able to get these forgotten, lonely old ladies to believe in her, make offerings to her as crafts. It’s not pig entrails, but she gets by. And she’d rather stick to getting by than trust Odin and his calla lilies, and risk getting involved in a War of indeterminate reasons.

Emily Browning in Americans Gods
Emily Browning in Americans Gods
Photo: Starz
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But as good as it is to see McShane getting back as good as he gives on-screen, the episode is buoyed by other parts of American Gods picking up. I knew Laura Moon wouldn’t stay dead when she turned to dust in the premiere. However, discovering her in a Great Glass Elevator hurtling into space was a pleasant surprise, as was the delightful faceless bureaucracy of Purgatory. From the color cardholder system to the morphing door numbers, this was better than the show’s been in a while. Even The Nothing made a cameo appearance from The Neverending Story. My little 80s heart approves.

So it turns out when you go to Purgatory, you wind up having to hang out with the A/V Guy and a 1940s Usherette and watch a VHS taped film reel of your life, displayed via overhead projector. Yeah, I’ll go with that. What does not check out is Laura’s version of events in her childhood. She attempts to narrate her own story the first time, making herself the architect of her own misfortunes. It’s a story that some might buy, knowing how her life ended. But of course, it isn’t that way, a fact she could have learned before dying had she only gone to therapy. Next time, instead of Git Gone, try therapy.

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Eric Johnson in American Gods
Eric Johnson in American Gods
Photo: Starz

All this hustle and bustle leaves little time for the continuing strangeness in Lakeside, where Alison’s disappearance is rapidly turning the corner into murder mystery territory. It’s not Fargo-level, by any means, just a changing headline to reveal a bloody scarf was found in the woods. But Anne Marie’s interruption of poor Sheriff Chad ahead of the search for the missing girl with her little cameras so she can get everyone to develop the film at her store is certainly Coen-lite in the best way. Also, I assume Shadow falling asleep while looking at the town newspaper back issues featuring the disappearance of a different teenager years ago is significant.

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But it seems like Shadow’s adventures in this white wonderland are taking a back burner, as his dreams lead to Bilquis calling out for him. Last week, I mistakenly thought her vomiting after absorbing her tech guru lover was a sign of pregnancy. (It’s lazy TV storytelling shorthand, forgive me for assuming.) But it seems to have been a more emotional reaction. After all, in Vegas, she was swallowing strangers. She didn’t care about them or their families. This, on the other hand, was her patron, and now his grand-daughter wants to know where he is.

Despite Cordelia and Odin telling Shadow where to find Bilquis, by the time he arrives in NYC, it’s too late. Technology Boy has already broken in, and his bloody hands suggest Bilquis’ endless hunt for those who will worship her is over.

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Stray observations

  • Anne Marie’s argument that taking pictures with your phone is so much work because “then you have to send them” had me in stitches.
  • “Lakeside’s still in America, right?” Sheriff Chad’s conversation with Shadow marked the first scene all season where the show confronting the inherent racism in the situation doesn’t feel forced.
  • What’s with the running burglaries taking place in Lakeside anyway? Four in the last month!
  • Laura discovering Purgatory meant getting a closet full of Git Gone, which was super great.
  • Stop stealing things from people who are knitting! Knitting takes concentration, it’s rude.
  • The trip to Purgatory felt like what I imagined riding in Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator must be like in the never-properly-adapted Chocolate Factory sequel. Why aren’t we getting that instead of this Wonka Origin Movie nonsense?
  • Demeter, like Beyoncé? Honestly, now I need Beyoncé to turn up as a New God, join forces with Dominique Jackson, and kick everyone’s asses.
  • Also, how long until Cordelia snaps? I give it two more weeks.
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