Compared to previous American Gods episodes, “Lemon-Scented You” is lighter on character establishment, heavier on explanations, and more clever than meaningful. With a smart teleplay by David Graziano and intelligently showy direction by Vincenzo F. Natali (best known for Cube and Splice, also director of six Hannibal episodes), “Lemon Scented You” does a lot of table-setting for upcoming episodes and spells out the meaning gleaned from previous ones, and does it so smoothly that the exposition isn’t always obvious.

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Resuming his cover of a befuddled old man, Wednesday promises “only honest answers” to the cop interrogating him, then regales him with such brazenly honesty that it sounds like delusions. Recruiting a worn-out god of death? Working with a leprechaun? Between the unbelievable (but utterly honest) description of his associates and the quavering, weak voice of his frantic first words, Wednesday paints himself not just as victimized and enfeebled, but impossible to interrogate. Whatever he might tell the police, they can’t believe it. Not in time.

In my review of American Gods’ premiere, I discuss the tension between writing for people who know the novel and for people coming to the series fresh. For anyone still unclear on the core of American Gods, “Lemon Scented You” outlines in it unmistakable detail, first in the opening sequence of a society coming to North America across the Bering Strait, then straight from Mad Sweeney. Like other cultures arriving in the Americas, Atsula’s people bring their god with them and, as Mr. Ibis narrates, when they forget Nynyunnini, he dies. Immortality is not a given, even for gods. Mr. Wednesday (Grimnir, Mad Sweeney calls him, but we know him best as Odin) is a god, and he isn’t to be trusted.

But even as he warns Laura not to trust gods, Mad Sweeney tries to hoodwink her into trading her special coin—the one he mistakenly gave Shadow, the one Shadow gave her, the one that gleams out from the core of her to Mad Sweeney—for a deluge of replacement coins, each one “just as good” as the one he wants back.

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Laura can’t be taken in so easily. Both before and after death, she has a maddeningly calm demeanor and an unshakable faith in her reasoning. Among other feats of rationalization, she unblushingly distinguishes between outright lies and promises that she knew might turn out to be lies. But Shadow parries Laura’s seemingly unassailable appeals to logic as effectively as he dismisses her attempts to distract him with her the ”miracle” of her presence, with her loving attempts at reconciliation, with the promise of a warm body to touch, or even with the shock of her autopsy scars. He blows right past the myriad impossibilities of the moment to insist that she explain her affair with Robbie. With Laura, Shadow shows a grasp of the essential—the potentially explicable—and an ability to cut through rhetoric that deserts him in the rest of the episode.

When the police—who have arrested Wednesday and Shadow for a two-man bank grift—ask Wednesday for his name, he responds with the first lines of a poem by William Ernest Henley. “Madam life’s a piece in bloom” is both about a seduction, much like the one Media and Mr. World will enact in a few minutes, and about a two-person shake-down… much like the one Media and Mr. World will enact in a few minutes.

Despite Gillian Anderson’s approximation of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy, inviting voice and her postures, this is the most transparent of Media’s guises so far. She’s angular where the original Marilyn is lush, floating on a cushion of air only to step off with jarring abruptness. She flips between Marilyn non sequiturs and empty catchphrases, in one breath asking if Wednesday has ever dipped a potato chip in champagne and mouthing promises of rebranding him into “a brand-new lemon-scented you.” Contrast this with her stunning David Bowie, lifted unerringly from “Life On Mars.” This appearance capitalizes on Anderson’s pronounced features as well as her clipped, crisp speech. It’s a combined effort of polished performance, make-up, and costuming pulled off so brilliantly, it looks effortless.

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(Gillian Anderson) (Screenshot: American Gods)

The flimsiness of her Marilyn persona doesn’t seem accidental, especially considering the wealth of roles the writers could have Media assume, Anderson’s facility with voice and body language, and the many angles from which actor and director could enhance the illusion with the obviously accomplished help of costuming and make-up departments. Media’s shallow impersonation is part of what makes Mr. World’s overture to Wednesday fall flat.

As Mr. World, Crispin Glover has a great blend of polish and menace. His intensity is only amplified by the quietness of his voice, so that once he starts to bellow, he seems not just impassioned but unhinged. He has a little catch in his voice that hints at something glitchy, some bug buried in the system of his omnipotence—and maybe at a dangerous unpredictability despite his apparently systematic approach to, well, everything. And I do mean everything: Mr. World rattles off Shadow’s blood type as impassively as he divulges his most private fears and indulgences.

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Their whole presentation is vacuous pageantry, and Wednesday brushes it off like the fluff it is. Odin has commanded the ravens and the wolves. He has ridden through the cosmos on an eight-legged horse. He’s not going to be swayed by cartoon unicorns and guided missiles spouting teddy bears and death.

American Gods’ two power players, Mr. Wednesday and Mr. World, are counterparts of each other, each clad in a sharp suit (one black, one white, one crisp, one rumpled) and a pale overcoat, each spouting speeches about glorious power and the strength in unity. And each is trying to recruit gods to enlist under him. “I’m not your enemy,” Mr. World says as he exits, and though his theats and scrutiny undercut it, it’s the most persuasive thing he says in the whole episode.

“Lemon Scented You” is so busy dazzling us with big showy moments that it’s easy to miss what’s… well, what’s missing. Like Laura taking a long drag on a cigarette but never exhaling smoke as a living body would, or Mad Sweeney filling his cap with a cascade of coins, then slipping the empty cap back onto his skull, the episode is full of hints at where the rest of the season could go. They aren’t presented with a flourish; they’re there for us to pick up or not.

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As she’s leaving, Media says, “When telling this story, Shadow, tell it however you like. Or don’t like.” After all, what are stories are made of? Of the details we notice, or the details we choose to include, or the details we don’t forget. (In “Git Gone,” Audrey spits out, “I make scrapbooks because memories lie.”) “What story are they going to tell here?” Shadow asks, looking over the carnage of the police station. “Any one they want,” Wednesday answers.

“Lemon Scented You” is full of the truth, and viewers familiar with the book will know just what that means—or think we do. But the television version of American Gods has proven again and again that it can swerve from the novel’s story, skipping some threads, spinning out new ones, and weaving old and new together into a fabric that’s as rewarding for canny readers with long memories as for fresh-eyed viewers. You may think you know what’s happening. Maybe you’re even right.

Like any good con, American Gods directs our attention exactly where it wants it. Like a good magic track, it’s palming the coin right in front of us and daring us to see it. Oh, “Lemon Scented You” is clever, all right. It’s so clever, we might not see what’s right in front of us.

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Stray observations

  • Det. Buffer (get it?), played by Tracie Thoms of Wonderfalls (and more recently Love), is rightly suspicious of the forces putting Shadow and Wednesday into her sights, and either truly compassionate and curious or remarkably effective at interrogation. I like her so darned much, character and actor, and I hope against hope she comes back. This is a world of gods and zombies and magic; a tree growing up through your corpse doesn’t mean you can’t show up later, even if that tree appears to be Yggdrasil. Especially if that tree appears to be Yggdrasil.
  • Mr. World’s entrance, with the tiles lighting up under his feet, echoes the opening of “Billie Jean.”
  • “Now, the leprechaun, he’s been against all this from the get-go,” Wednesday tells his interrogator, “but he’s at a disadvantage being as he is a fucking idiot.” Mad Sweeney does seem to exist to be beaten up and beaten down, and Pablo Schreiber’s flickering from bluster to defeat makes it as comic as it is painful to watch.
  • Laura tells Shadow, “You know what they say about grief. Next to every cemetery’s a motel.” From death comes passion, and from passion, renewal.

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