“You know what they say about revenge: Dig two graves”
“Fear is order. Fear is control. Fear is safety. Fear is fiction.” Mr. World intones these words (and intones is almost always the right word for Crispin Glover’s portrayal of Mr. World) over the opening scenes of “Moon Shadow.” In the second-season finale, American Gods reaches for pomp and chaos, loosely channeling George Orwell, H.G. Wells, and Orson Welles into a bombastic sequence about fear, the ultimate renewable resource.
In 1938, a family sits together in the evening, their quiet comfort yielding to unease and finally panic. On the radio, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater On The Air broadcasts War Of The Worlds, with its vivid description of an alien life form emerging from a ship, followed by “another… and another!” In an inspired piece of casting, lighting, and silent performance, the wife and mother (Laura Vincent) strikingly resembles Mercury Theater player and frequent Welles collaborator Agnes Moorehead.
In another flashback, Mr. World strides through the streets of a miniature film set, pontificating to the camera on the power of fear before taking his director’s chair. Mr. World has remade himself as the William Castle of the Martian-invasion genre, feeding the world a new fear and letting the world feed it back to him exponentially amplified. “Fear has no end,” he says with eerie, even satisfaction. “Fear is limitless. Fear thrives and feeds on itself, preparing you for calamity, preparing you to believe.”
“If it’s real in your mind, it’s real in the world,” Mr. World concludes, tacitly giving American Gods permission to conjure up anything it might need in future episodes. And there will be another season, and another showrunner.
Like American Gods’ second season as a whole, “Moon Shadow” has some striking moments, though it doesn’t really hold up to a second look. But that first look is a fun ride. Writers Aditi Brennan Kapil (also writer of American Gods’ rollicking “The Greatest Story Ever Told”) and Jim Danger Gray (Hannibal co-producer who also wrote “Amuse-Bouche” ) fill the season finale with so much energy and bombast, so many ominous-sounding phrases, that it takes a while to understand how little most of them are saying or doing.
Mr. World lumps together the bone-deep mob terror over The Other (as represented, with only marginal accuracy, by War Of The Worlds) and the pleasurable fear of the space-flick audience with such authority that it’s easy to forget those fears are very different. Only the mob terror is mirrored by the present-day action of “Moon Shadow,” and to no long-term effect. The minutes Shadow and Salim spent as wanted men with police at the door were harrowing, but those minutes ended with an ease and speed that is both disappointing and, at this point in American Gods, unsurprising.
But there’s a lot to like, and even admire, in “Moon Shadow.” Technical Boy’s midnight session with The CEO (Andrew Koji’s character is the head of Xie Comm, and FBI agents address him as Mr. Xie, but he is conspicuously identified in the credits only as The CEO) fits neatly into the larger plot, as his “unbreachable” servers are overrun, bringing the national banking system to a halt. Outside the walls of Ibis & Jacquel, the nation is in turmoil. Strangers argue and even come to blows over fuel and bottled water. New Media works her charms on the major news networks until they’re all mouthing the same words about fugitives: first Shadow and Wednesday, then Salim as “a known associate.”
The CEO’s segments aren’t just about the need to target a comms magnate. They’re also a meditation on revelation, as his frustration, distraction, and annoyance give way to what is often called inspiration. It’s a parallel to Shadow’s murkier moments of insight, as he lies on a grave slab, buffeted by memories. Inside the funeral parlor gates, despite the yelling, not much happens. Salim asks panicky questions about Shadow, Wednesday, and their alleged cop-killing spree. Mr. Nancy and Mr. Ibis play a game of chess, their leisurely movements unhurried by the timer, though each strikes it with abrupt speed at the end of each turn. Laura tries and fails to persuade Bilquis to help her kill Wednesday. Bilquis tries and fails to persuade Shadow to… well…
“Moon Shadow” also gives us a glimpse of the Moons’ life before the heist, before prison, before they walked and drank and fought with gods. Just two people in love sitting on a park bench, giggling over a tiny puppy in the distance. It’s a touching counterpoint to their somber conversation in Cairo as they lie on gravestones, talking about his murderous employer, her many mistakes in life and death, and how he should trust her.
They don’t talk about whether he can trust her, ever again. Instead, “Moon Shadow” gives us something simultaneously more touching and starker. It gives us a glimpse of Shadow and Laura’s life before the heist, before prison, before they walked and drank with gods. Seeing these two on a park bench, giggling and goofing and just being, it’s daunting to measure how far they’ve come and how much they’ve sacrificed. “Don’t call me Puppy,” he tells her, and who can blame him? “You have to trust me,” she tells him, but that can’t be easy.
For once, it feels like American Gods’ second season, so fond of introducing and immediately offing characters, stories, and ideas, has timed something exactly right. Laura’s nickname for Shadow—the everyday silliness of its origin—and its end come together onscreen, and love and trust and betrayal all converge in their ending exchange. “I’m going to kill Wednesday,” Laura tells him. “Are you going to try and stop me?” Jaw tight, Shadow mumbles, “Free country.”
American Gods started as a road-trip story, right down to its soundtrack. Though it plowed into the second season with frantic energy, the show seems to have lost its drive, and maybe even its map. But as readers of Neil Gaiman’s novel will recognize, Shadow’s new driver’s license (IDing him as Michael Ainsel of Lakewood, WI) points to a route, mapping out season three and giving us something to cling to besides the long-overdue confirmation that Shadow is, as their very first meeting hinted, the son of Wednesday—the son of Odin.
I say “confirmation” because American Gods has dawdled getting to this reveal, though likely even viewers who have never read Gaiman’s novel have cracked the case by now. He introduced himself cracking wise about “fuck[ing] your mom,” for gods’ sake. (Plural possessive for plural gods.) “You remind me of my son.” Like father, like son. This episode’s turgid regurgitation of the increasingly broad hints spanning two seasons is a relief, not a surprise.
There’s another major plot point hinted at throughout “Moon Shadow,” a secret that readers of Gaiman’s novel will remember, a secret that this episode comes tantalizingly close to spelling out. I’ve spoken obliquely of this point in a previous review, and spent a lot of energy balancing the need to discuss every aspect of American Gods the television show without spoiling the events of American Gods the novel. So let the show’s writers speak for themselves: If you prefer to avoid even a hint of this plot point, skip to the last paragraph.
“Rigged games are the easiest to beat,” Mr. Wednesday once told Shadow Moon, and Mr. Nancy repeats it to Mr. Ibis as they play chess and speak of bigger games. “I’m a hustler, swindler, cheater, and liar,” Wednesday told Shadow at their first meeting, and that sentence echoes in his head twice in “Moon Shadow.” “I usually end up getting what I want, on average,” Wednesday told Shadow early in their acquaintance. And finally, in the graveyard behind Ibis & Jacquel, Laura tells Shadow, “He is behind all of this, Puppy. He is the root fucking cause.”
The biggest questions remaining for season three of American Gods, then, is not where Shadow will go or what might happen there; the introduction of Mike Ainsel and Lakewood strongly suggests an outline for the next chapter, even if American Gods continues to take inspiration but not instruction from the novel. The biggest question is whether the show, which persistently treats its obvious connivances as great revelations, can sustain itself on an open secret.
- The most potent image in this episode is the long legs of Mad Sweeney’s corpse, swaying with each small step as little Laura Moon carries him away from Cairo.
- The Mercury Theater On The Air production of War Of The Worlds did not, in fact, cause mass panic, but it did stir a ready fear of intruders in a nation primed for panic.
- “The flash in the sky was visible within a radius of several hundred miles, and the noise of the impact was heard as far north as Elizabeth.” The line the two talking heads from the news network speak in unison is from first act of War Of The Worlds.
- When The CEO admitted “I can’t be in two places at once,” I expected Technical Boy to offer him a Faustian bargain (or maybe a Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s bargain), splitting him into two incarnations, one destined only for family life and none of the pleasure that work brings him, the other doomed to eternal work.
- Welcome, FBI agent Stefany Koutroumpis (Samora Smallwood), named after American Gods’ first assistant art director. I expect we’ll see you in season three.
- Thank you for reading. I hope I’ll see you in season three, too!