Photo: Starz

When we speak to Emily Browning on the phone Friday, she’s nervous about what people will make of Sunday’s American Gods, an episode centered around her character, Laura Moon. “It’s funny seeing people’s reactions after the first three episodes where they’re like, ‘What is this ho doing back from the dead? Get her out of here,’” she says.

Laura is introduced as the woman who cheats on Shadow (Ricky Whittle), the show’s protagonist, and then dies in a car accident while fellating her lover, who happens to be her husband’s best friend. It’s an ignominious introduction, but then she comes back to life. Not only does she emerge from the grave—as she does in Neil Gaiman’s source material—but we also get to see who she is before the crash and her zombification. Pre-death Laura is a woman who is dead to the world, unhappy with her life as a dealer in a casino. She is rotting emotionally; flies hover around her. Momentarily, she thinks marrying Shadow, a handsome criminal, will be the answer to her misery, and when it’s not, she concocts a robbery scheme that lands him in jail and ultimately sets the story’s action in motion. After she crawls out of the ground, however, she has superhuman strength that renders her a vicious, pint-sized killer, but she also has a purpose. She’s still sardonic, but now she’s passionate and motivated. Suddenly, she’s one of American Gods’ most compelling characters.

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When showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green were tackling how they would adapt Gaiman’s text, they knew they would have to expand the female roles, which were largely secondary in the novel. That meant, specifically, looking at how they would approach Laura. To Fuller she was “primarily comic relief” in the book. Indeed, the nonchalantness with which she reappears in Shadow’s life is funny. “She’s the cheating wife who was an asshole, clearly, when she was alive and is an even more fun asshole in death,” he explains. “We talked a lot about fidelity, and we talked a lot about the judgment that we as audience members in reading the book felt about ‘this is the woman that betrayed Shadow and he was damaged by it,’ but we wanted to see her through different eyes than Shadow’s, and so that required us to tell the totality of her tale. To go back before she met Shadow, to understand why she had the affair and to illustrate what was so important to her about the relationship that she on one level didn’t respect, but had a rationalization as to why. She wasn’t comfortably numb—she was relatably numb.”

Photo: Starz

But Fuller and Green didn’t ultimately try to excuse Laura’s actions to make her more appealing. The fourth episode doesn’t make her likable, but it does make more sense of her decisions. And that was all important for Browning, whose first contact with the character was that script and who is, in her words, “fucking sick” of having to make the women she plays palatable. “[Fuller and Green] totally got it, and they had no interest in her being ‘the heart and soul of the show,’ which I said to them is what I’ve heard. I said to them when I met them, ‘If you tell me that she’s the heart and soul of the show,’ I’m walking away right now,” she says. “They said to me, if anything she’s the spleen, and that sold it.” For Browning, “heart and soul” turns into a pejorative when it’s essentially code for the wife that acts as a grounding force.

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Laura most certainly is not that, though her story is set up to revolve around Shadow. Browning notes, “The idea of playing a character whose purpose is to get back together with the man she loves on a base level does not sound appealing to me.” But whereas that might be more applicable to book Laura, an avenging angel of sorts who mysteriously is able to track and protect Shadow, show Laura has a hero’s journey all to her herself. Yes, Shadow is her beacon of light, the one thing that shines through her vision, muddied by her demise. However, finding him is a way to redeem the “shitty life” she led, as her friend Audrey (Betty Gilpin) muses. It’s both selfless and selfish at the same time. She’s still something of an unapologetic jerk. “Love is a really respectable purpose to have,” Browning says. “I think the problem comes from when you have a woman in a film or a TV show and her purpose is finding her lost love and that is her only defining feature. Laura is her own really interesting and complicated person, and it just so happens that this is her mission. The way that I justified it as well is there have been plenty of films and male characters throughout history where their highest purpose is to find the girl, and we’ve never really questioned it because they are just interesting, fleshed-out characters.”

To that end, making Laura so layered also exposes the flaws in Shadow, who is largely reactive, the lone clueless human in a world full of gods and monsters. Browning says that she and Whittle would discuss how to play the “tricky role” of “the one that everything happens to,” because she’s had to do that so many times in her career. Whereas Shadow is doing Wednesday’s bidding, simply following threads that confuse him, Laura has an objective. It’s easy to suspect—or at least hope—that her pursuit of Shadow will eventually just become a part of her storyline. Laura figuring out what to do about her soul is more intriguing anyway.