“How much longer can we afford to wait?”
Like the believers who brought their gods to America, or like the down-at-heel gods themselves, I can’t seem to stop offering up scraps of faith to American Gods. I want it to be good. I want it to reach the heights and breadths of season one. I want it to evoke the ineffable, the ephemeral, the eternal, or even the just plain fun. When it fails, again and again, I feel like Mad Sweeney taking a smack to the face, or a pratfall onto rough road, or a smoldering cigarette butt to the Adam’s apple.
“The Greatest Story Ever Told” drew me in with its opening sequence. These nameless, initially almost silent characters—the boy who loves computers, the father who pressures him to practice his Bach—are as engaging in their stark characterization as any of the better-known characters we’ve been following for three episodes now on their ever more scattered scavenger hunt.
Unfortunately, American Gods has become so fractured that it’s impossible to know which new characters—especially if they be mortal—will stick around to become more than a nameless worshipper, more than a useful prop.
For an example of this tendency at its worst, look to the dispute between Bilquis and Mr. Ibis on one side, and Mr. Nancy on the other. Orlando Jones begins Nancy’s speech in his rich, measured voice, accustomed to spellbinding oratory, and that voice rises until he is roaring his righteous truth—and roaring it in the accent he likely spoke when first he arose in North America. It’s a speech made to be blockquoted:
How much longer can we afford to wait? You keep track of days, numbering the years for scribes that record human history. Do you see progress? I see one, two, three African gods in this room, and two of them want to exercise restraint? And let the donkey work continue while you live your best life? War is upon us! An old white lady is dead. Odin avenges Zorya Vechernyaya. But if it was a dead black lady, like this sweet old soul? Czernobog’s hammer would not swing.
Mr. Nancy speaks of the lifeless figure of Lila Goodchild (Patricia Wright-Domingue), who’s been lying on the mortuary table while the three gods debate the two sides of their great war, and the difficulties of staying on the sidelines. I mention her name not because the show does, but because it doesn’t. Throughout “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Lila Goodchild’s denuded corpse has been peered at from every angle. She’s introduced as a grim sight gag, the aerial view filling the screen with her heavy breasts, fallen to either side of her ribcage. Her face, covered by a cloth, is a blank, and the camera cuts her up as dispassionately as Mr. Ibis’ blade.
I can believe that Mr. Nancy feels respect as well as sorrow for the dearly departed, however anonymous she remains to him, and that Mr. Ibis and Bilquis do. I cannot believe that the writers and director of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” who cut her into pieces on-screen, can claim to be treating the character with respect. Lila Goodchild is a morbid visual joke and nothing else, up until the moment she is useful to Mr. Nancy’s rhetoric, and to the writers’.
The rest of the scene is just as disingenuous, for different reasons. I’d like to be grateful for a scene of three masterful black actors facing off, carrying the scene without any other voices intruding, and for the chance to see Orlando Jones take a second run at something as inspiring as his “Let the motherfucker burn” speech. But why isn’t the lecture delivered to someone who doesn’t know it, like Wednesday? Why are racial inequities the job only of black people to ponder, and to fight, even when those people are gods?
Ibis assures Nancy that those lost will be remembered: “I hear each voice and I write each name.” Bilquis shrugs off his appeals with the god’s-eye perspective: “We have lived long enough to know these troubles are timeless.” It’s true that human troubles are eternal; there will always be trouble. But Mr. Nancy is speaking of a specific, very American form of oppression faced by descendants of the African people (including, as Mr. Ibis himself specifies, people of the Nile) forcibly brought to the Americas along with their gods. For the writers (speaking through Bilquis) to dismiss that inequity as timeless and universal is cowardly, ignorant, or just a cheap ploy to sidestep discussing the difficulties of American life that weigh disproportionately upon the descendants of these gods’ worshippers.
The most important part of this scene is its three-pointed structure, the camera flicking between these three gods and giving them each equal measure. It’s more than a three-part dialogue; it’s a subtle instruction of how to view the rest of the episode. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” repeatedly presents triangular conversations, often so intercut that it’s hard to capture all three actors in one still photo: Nancy, Ibis, and Bilquis; Ibis, Shadow, and Bast; Ibis, Wednesday, and Shadow; World, Technical Boy, and New Media. But it also presents seeming two-person dialogues that are important not for what’s being said, but for who is observing them. The third, silent person is as important to the conversation as those speaking, whether as an audience or arbitrator.
When Bilquis and Mr. Nancy face off, quoting Lorraine Hansberry and Maya Angelou (ostensibly; see stray observations), they aren’t worried about literature or liberation, only the potential of winning Ruby Goodchild (Mouna Traore) to their worship. When Technical Boy believes he’s alone with his truest friend and first convert (Andrew Koji, star of the upcoming Warrior, his American Gods character IDed in the credits only as CEO), he’s actually observed and judged by Mr. World. When Wednesday and World bicker in the Motel America diner while waiting to see The Bookkeeper (William Sanderson), they’re doing it for an audience of one.
The tabletop map with its little car and miniature landmarks has worn thin as an establishing image, but in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” it’s used cleverly, along with overhead views of placemats with prominent labels, to reveal that not only are there identical Motel Americas (or is it Motels America, like postmasters general?) across the country, but identical Mama-Jis to run them. It’s an economical move, saving both the cost of a new set and the trouble of introducing characters and audience to a new place. It’s also the funniest gag in the episode.
In the end, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” tells little story, with little verve. “Money, the most influential god in America” walks away from Wednesday and World’s pleas. Shadow has congress with a cat (god). Three excellent actors act at each other over a corpse for many long minutes, and maybe woo a new follower to one or another of them. And American Gods crisscrosses the nation from one identically insipid location to another. Like Technical Boy’s only friend, now the CEO of Xie Comm, I want to be happy to see American Gods return every Sunday. But I can’t be, when it offers so little to believe in.
- I can find many, many Pinterest pages attributing Mr. Nancy’s line to Maya Angelou, and none citing the source.
- There’s another sight gag (I’ve put a screenshot in the grading box above), not nearly as grim, in which Mr. Ibis and Lila Goodchild appear to be two halves of one long body, sitting up on the mortuary table.
- As Mr. World, Crispin Glover is getting that Crispin Glover intensity all over this performance: each word a sentence, each sentence a command. It’s a performance that only works because he’s playing an inhuman force, and because it’s delivered in small doses. I particularly admire how he enters every room like a smooth criminal, hat low over his eyes, coat draped over shoulders, striding with the weary certainty of Christopher Walken in a Fatboy Slim video.
- In a few short episodes, American Gods has transformed from a show boasting artful, exciting, lyrically unexpected sexual scenes to one in which sex scenes are trite and vacant. Bast seducing Shadow is lifted directly from the book, and it feels more like an obligatory insert (I KNOW WHAT I SAID) than anything intended to forward plot, broaden character, or set a mood.
- In an episode revolving around money, the most important revelation is Shadow’s: that he has value to Wednesday.
- I did something tricky in this review, and only those who know the book’s ending will know what it was.