In its premiere episode, American Gods is as sweeping as the Neil Gaiman novel from which the series is adapted and as richly imaginative as co-creator Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, but still manages to be thrillingly original. Diving into the action with inventive abandon, a gory prelude shows a ship of Vikings stranded on a foreign beach, wordlessly pleading with the All-Father for wind. Their sacrifices mount until the shipmates split arbitrarily into opposing forces, waging a counterfeit (but brutally bloody) battle. Pleased, Odin fills their sails and sends them home, and they never realize they’re leaving a misbegotten version of their god to languish in that distant land, his appetite for worship and war unslaked for centuries.
More than a thousand years later, in a prison yard, protagonist Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) says, “I feel like there’s a fuckin’ ax hanging over my head.” It’s not the ax Shadow should worry about, but the rope. The image of a noose hangs over “The Bone Orchard,” starting with the riggings for the Vikings warship’s empty sails, the bonds hoisting their rough windsock, and the effigy of Odin that joins it as they grow desperate.
Low Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker), Shadow’s confidante, pontificates, “This country went to hell when they stopped hangin’ folks. No gallows dirt, no gallows deals—”
“No gallows humor,” Shadow finishes. But “The Bone Orchard” is full of gallows humor, and its gallows imagery persists, haunting Shadow: from the taunts of his fellow inmates to the nightmarish final scene in which he hangs helpless as rain and blood fall around him. The prominence of this lynching imagery suggests American Gods will take a long, sober look at the ugliest parts of Americana along with the nostalgic ones.
Ricky Whittle’s incarnation of Shadow Moon is necessarily less reticent than the novel’s version; being on screen requires more than looming silence. But Whittle manages to invest his more talkative protagonist with a powerful, thoughtful reserve. From his phone call to his wife Laura (Emily Browning), where they count the days until their reunion, to his tense restraint during an unexpected summons to the warden’s office, both Shadow’s devotion and his determination are clear. He wants to keep his head down and keep out of trouble until he’s freed. When the warden breaks the news of Laura’s sudden death in a car accident, Shadow’s so blindsided, he barely registers the further surprise of his early release to attend her funeral.
Throughout the episode, this more voluble version of Shadow is offset by long takes of him sitting or standing quietly: smoldering, studying—or grieving. In an eerie dream sequence where he walks through a forest littered with bones and contemplates a vast starry sky, as he drives a rental car down long stretches of empty road, as he stands at a bar flamboyantly decorated with crocodile teeth and skulls and takes in his surroundings, Whittle gives Shadow’s quieter scenes a potent interior life and a strong sense that he’s seeing more than he’s saying. He’s the still center around which American Gods’ lurid energy swirls.
The only thing that pursues Shadow as doggedly as the specter of hanging is the confounding con man who introduces himself as Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). First spotted at the airport in the guise of a doddering old man on the edge of tears, plaintively hoping to get home (and to get bumped up to first class), Wednesday appears unexpectedly at every turn, and eventually persuades Shadow—now a widower without a friend, a home, a family, or a job—to travel with him as a combination body man and bodyguard, against Shadow’s better judgment.
With a series adapted from a popular novel, there’s the delicate question of how much knowledge to assume the audience has, and how much more detail will be doled out as the episodes go on. For those familiar with Gaiman’s book, American Gods’ premiere drops some foreshadowing as Shadow gets to know Wednesday, but to the uninitiated, it sounds like nothing more than characteristically colorful banter. But I can safely say this: McShane’s fluid shifting from trembling victim to cocksure grifter, and the ease with which he suggests a bite lurking behind his silver tongue, are so striking that after just one episode, I can imagine Wednesday eclipsing Al Swearengen to become the role for which he’s best known.
The promised development of the women of American Gods isn’t on full display in this first episode (indeed, the premiere’s staged battle between Vikings replaces female-centered framing narrative in which the novel details the arrival of old gods to a new continent) but the female characters in “The Bone Orchard” are deftly drawn, whether they’re major, minor, or mere functionaries. Betty Gilpin gives Audrey, Laura’s newly betrayed (and newly widowed) best friend, a bitter, cockeyed smirk that’s both believably doped up and unsettlingly insouciant in its ugliness, but even Audrey is deepened and softened by the burst of earnest grief that interrupts her spill of vitriol and vengeful lust. (Laura herself is least rounded female character in this first hour, mostly talked about, imagined, or remembered; look for a character-defining story for her in the fourth episode.) From a bored airline ticket agent (Siobhan Fallon Hogan giving her nameless staffer an effortless air of boredom and pique) to the most alluring goddess, most of these women feel fleshed out and whole even when seen in glimpses.
Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a goddess who gains power, youth, and immortality from love and sexual worship, is introduced with much, much more than a glimpse, in a scene adapted from the novel that could have been grotesquely exploitative or just plain clumsy. Her nervous dating-app match (Joel Murray, perfectly cast) can’t believe his luck as Bilquis walks him into her scarlet bedroom, and Badaki’s commanding performance (and her beauty, showcased by director David Slade’s roving camera) makes his rapture not just believable but palpable. His hesitation turns to eagerness, then to eloquent, fevered prayer as he falls under her thrall. Finally, he’s consumed by her body even as their passion is consummated.
It’s a tricky scene to pull off, both technically and tonally, and it’s a triumph: intense, bittersweet, and strangely touching, with its frank sensuality balanced by tenderness and, in the last moments, awe. As Badaki portrays her, Bilquis is infinitely more than an object of desire; she goes from self-effacing to fierce to exalted, and ends the scene radiating divine assurance. (If the inequality of a chiefly female nude scene seems unfair, know that Fuller has promised equal time and equal titillation to, uh, come.)
In this first episode, the plot takes welcome liberties from the novel, transforming long prose passages and unspoken memories into passing pieces of dialogue and adding neat transitional devices like the virtual reality helmet. First luring Shadow off the road, then leaping onto his face, the helmet thrusts him into a digitized space where Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) has summoned him. The Children, faceless droogs that form and reform with glitchy speed, are a creepy touch that back up Technical Boy’s twitchy hubris with furious force. Additions like this demonstrate the confident hands of showrunners and co-creators Fuller and Michael Green, who also wrote the teleplay, as they maneuver story and characters from the novel to the screen, making changes as nimbly as Shadow flipping his contraband coin from knuckle to knuckle.
The very first images in the very first episode of American Gods are the inkwell, pen, and paper with which Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) writes his accounts of the gods… because Fuller and Green know that the story is what matters. But the story does not have to be punctiliously faithful to the source material, any more than the All-Father stranded in the Americas is identical to the All-Father of another millennium. American Gods promises to be as similar to, and as different from, the novel as its gods are from the versions of them left behind in other lands. If future episodes continue with this swaggering confidence, lush sensuality, and clear narrative strokes, American Gods will be as audacious and intriguing as the confusing, daring, misplaced gods themselves.
- The beams of the church where Laura’s funeral is held echo the lines of a Viking ship, inverted.
- “The Bone Orchard” is full of whimsy and dry humor, and of perfectly cast roles. But I laughed hardest, longest, and most unexpectedly at Pablo Schreiber’s nervy mixture of menace and unfettered joy.
- Beth Grant is so good as the brassy, knowing bartender at Jack’s Crocodile Bar, I hate to think we won’t see her again.
- In future episodes, expect American Gods to deepen its rumination on individual and cultural identity.
- Welcome to American Gods episodic coverage! As a fan of the book and of the co-creators’ previous work, I’m thrilled to be reviewing the show. I’ll ask other readers familiar with the whole story as it’s told in the novel to be circumspect in your speculations about the series’ future episodes. Please tag book spoilers in your comments.