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American Gods gets back to Cairo, but it's nothing to crow about

Ian McShane
Screenshot: American Gods
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“How the fuck is that an upgrade?”

“Muninn” has so many elements of a great episode of American Gods: hearty doses of Americana, clever embroideries on the source material, a nastily effective visual or two, and—finally!—SIDECAR ADVENTURES! But it’s too muddled, too crammed with exposition, too emotionally empty, too heavy-handed, to be satisfying. The writers keep breaking up reliable sources of enlivening chemistry (Shadow and Wednesday, Mad Sweeney and Laura, Shadow and Laura, anyone and Laura), and characters are introduced and dispatched with heedless speed. It’s exhausting, not exalting.

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Congratulations to Kahyun Kim for crafting a presence as viscerally annoying to watch as Bruce Langley’s Technical Boy—sincerely, it’s an achievement—and condolences to American Gods viewers for having to watch them both. Stepping into Gillian Anderson’s shoes must be daunting, but she nails her (undeservedly shallow) introduction. “Download complete,” announces a disembodied voice at Argus’ headquarters, and from the static arises a new new god.

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“Ugh, that’s just so old. This here is new.” Kahyun Kim as New Media
Screenshot: American Gods

Dressed in kawaii cats and manga-schoolgirl jumper-and-socks, New Media speaks in hashtags that utterly fail to conceal how self-interested she is, despite the likes and kissy-faces spilling out of the ether around her. “I’ll sing back-up,” she assures Technical Boy with glib speed, seconds before undercutting his confidence and minutes before stepping into the spotlight and hooking up (ew) with Argus.

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The vision of Argus (Christian Lloyd) is impressively conceived and crafted. It’s a shame to squander it on this grimy quick-hit scene. Part man, part tendrils of potential connectivity and surveillance, Argus gleams palely in his dim chamber, seeing everything and nothing as Technical Boy spits insults at him. Then New Media steps in, standing astride the loops and piles of cables emerging from Argus’ current incarnation, and Argus’ many eyes open; one of his members slithers up her skirt as she moans about synergy.

Christian Lloyd, Kahyun Kim
Screenshot: Starz
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It’s predictable. It’s dull. It’s diminishing to both characters. It’s hentai porn tailored to Jack Donaghy. (Or maybe Bert Cooper, whose career predated New Media’s pet buzzwords and who never heard of broadband, but who proudly displayed The Fisherman’s Wife in his office.) The show that gave us the dreamy, erotic, electric “Head Full Of Snow” should treat its characters and their coitus with more care than this.

Contrast New Media’s introduction—born already simpering and pandering and practicing her Marilyn Monroe impression, immediately sent off to engulf a strange god’s bandwidth—with the episode’s treatment of Laura Moon (and of Emily Browning). In Cairo, on the mortuary table of Ibis & Jacquel, Laura lies, neither poised seductively nor sprawled out for inspection. In her modest white skivvies and clunky boots, smudges of dirt from the train wreck still on her graying face, Laura looks like a doll, but not a playful one.

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Demore Barnes, Emily Browning
Screenshot: Starz

For a show that burned so much energy (and so much of its viewers’ good will) getting back to Cairo, “Muninn” makes surprisingly little out of their arrivals and departures at Ibis & Jacquel’s funeral home. Wednesday’s party stays just long enough to stitch Laura back up, and to almost justify a soliloquy by Mr. Ibis as they leave. With prim precision, he fits together a praxinoscope and starts it turning, Demore Barnes’ honeyed voice pouring over the scene as Mr. Ibis explains (to the funeral parlor’s cat) “why Argus.” It’s a handsome, quiet scene, but not so hypnotic that it actually tricks anyone into thinking this is coherent storytelling.

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I said two weeks that I’d never tire of seeing Mad Sweeney taking it on the chin, and that’s lucky, because that’s all the Mad Sweeney “Muninn” gives us. As for Salim and The Jinn, I never imagined SIDECAR ADVENTURES would be so inconsequential. The “corn palace” Wednesday sent them to turns out to be a porn palace with strategically burnt-out neon, and after the gratuitous Bada Bing scene, they just pick up a package and skedaddle.

There’s a token attempt to make this errand feel more resonant: When Iktome (Julian Richings), the trickster spider god they’re bargaining with, bridles against Odin’s authority, The Jinn leans over and repeats to the god the very words Salim spoke to him in “The Beguiling Man.” But we have barely set eyes on these two since they headed out on their SIDECAR ADVENTURES, and in order for arc words to have impact, they should coincide with, well, an arc.

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Julian Richings
Screenshot: Starz

I love Julian Richings’ work and his distinctive face. Eighteen years ago, thanks in part to Neil Gaiman’s description of the undertaker as “cranelike” and lighter-skinned than his partner (who was seen as “exotic and dark, but not colored”), but mostly thanks to my own youthful failure to consider the erasure of characters of color, I imagined Richings playing Mr. Ibis. But casting an Oxford-born actor as a Lakota trickster, just two episodes after Mr. Nancy’s announcement that there will be no Whiskey Jack (or Wìsakedjàk or Wiisagejaak), seems like a mistake.

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That mistake is offset a bit, though never enough, by the changes wrought in Sam Black Crow (Devery Jacobs). In the novel, she’s a hitchhiker and a hanger-on, eager to catch a ride with Shadow, glad to dine on his tab, and reluctant to let him drive off when she reaches her destination. (I’m taking Sam’s pronouns from the character bio provided by Starz; she tells Shadow she is “two spirits in one body, both masculine and feminine.”) In “Muninn” Sam walks into Jimmy’s Gas N Fix while Shadow is gladhanding the cashier, spots his quick-change scam in an instant, and blackmails him into gassing up her old heap. It’s not the same car from the novel (Missy Gunther’s nephew’s purple Jeep that reeks of bananas would be hard to shoehorn into this episode), though it’s got the same WASH ME plea written in its rear window. But this time, Sam—brash, confident, and game—is in the driver’s seat.

Devery Jacobs, Ricky Whittle
Screenshot: Starz
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“Muninn” feels more like the outline of an episode of American Gods than an actual episode. There’s a lot of small action, none of it particularly interesting, like ticking off a to-do list. Replace Media? Check. Fetch Odin’s spear? Check. Introduce Sam Black Crow? Check. Mad Sweeney is bitten, burnt, and about to hurl his lanky frame into swampy waters? Check, check, check. Odin pontificates about sacrifice? Check, check, check, check, check already.

Deborah Chow’s direction, embracing the darkness of its underworld and the bright wide open of the outdoors, makes “Muninn” look and feel smoother, smarter, and more confident than its action alone could. But she can’t make its heart beat, because “Muninn” doesn’t have a heart. It’s just a scattering of characters chasing down objects and objectives in a florid scavenger hunt of divine proportions.

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Like Laura Moon in “Muninn,” season two of American Gods is falling apart. Like Laura Moon, it’s struggling valiantly to hold itself together despite expert help. Like Laura Moon trailing after her widowed husband, there’s no animating force, no center that tells us what’s important or why. And like Laura Moon, losing vitality a quarter-ounce at a time to rot and maggots, American Gods needs to figure out what it’s doing, and fast, if it’s going to make it. But with its animating spirit stripped away, three episodes in, American Gods is just plodding after a beacon it’s already lost sight of.

Stray observations

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  • Tell me, I dare you to tell me that Wednesday and Laura’s adventures at Argus HQ don’t look like a Doctor Who episode gone terribly wrong.
  • American Gods has managed to kill off or sideline all of its older women for three episodes running.
  • I was hoping the influx of fresh-faced female gods might lead to at least one of the Porn Palace’s dancers being revealed as a god, old or new.
  • “Grimnir is an instruments of death. Will Thoth allow it?” asks Iktomi.
  • The close-up of Wednesday sacrificing Io (in the form of a cow) belies Shadow’s words in the novel that gods “didn’t mutilate cattle themselves. They got other people to do it for them.”
  • Headline and back-cover banner on Wednesday’s tabloid: “THE DEEP STATE IS WATCHING” and “DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU!”
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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.