Ricky Whittle, Dean Winters
Photo: Starz
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“You can’t just give up because the fuckin’ road ends.”

In the season two premiere, American Gods gets the gang together. In “The Beguiling Man,” they’re immediately broken up again. After a meager wake for Zorya Vechernyaya in Hotel America’s parking lot, Shadow’s companions break into pairs, each heading in a different direction. And the show’s scant sense of community fractures with them.

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Orlando Jones, Emily Browning, Pablo Schreiber
Screenshot: Starz

Before they split up, Salim takes a moment to pray. Even in crisis—especially in crisis—his faith is unshakable. Using a cardboard box as a makeshift prayer rug, Salim begins his devotions with measured calm. It’s a portrait of faith making do with what’s at hand, finding a way to commune with the divine in the bleakest of moments. In the dangerous, magical world of American Gods, Salim is the one person not only capable of unflappable faith, but steadied by it, and Omid Abtahi portrays him as quiet, abiding, and strong. It’s more than a testament to the power of prayer: Salim, who is neither a god nor an enchanted corpse, is a steadfast source of the one thing these assembled gods need and crave for themselves.

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Omid Abtahi
Screenshot: Starz

Laura might scoff at gods and at religion, but she’s more single-minded than any zealot or old god. She might not pray, but like Salim facing Mecca, she knows the direction her devotions take her, and she follows unwaveringly. For Laura, that beacon is Shadow Moon.

Just who is Shadow Moon? “The Beguiling Man” does more than any previous episode to tell us the nuts-and-bolts, flesh-and-blood history of the boy he used to be, explaining how Shadow came to be who he is: a quiet, introspective, well-read young man with no family, no friends, no bonds holding him in any one place, as. Mr. Town (Dean Winters) reveals. And how that young man grew defensive, guarded, and closed off from the world.

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The nuts-and-bolts, flesh-and-blood history of the boy Shadow used to be is sketched out in flashbacks, all in line with his history in the novel: a globetrotting childhood with his mother; a brief return to the States that turns into a lifetime after her death; a quiet, introspective child growing into his size and his solitude.

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The casting is good, and the performances are fine, especially considering how little these actors and characters—one entirely new to the audience, another the stand-in for a charismatic lead—have to work with. Gabriel Darku doesn’t especially resemble Ricky Whittle, but it’s easy to imagine Shadow’s youthful self in the furrow of his brow, the sway of his shoulders, the line of his jaw. It’s easy to see him growing into the Shadow Moon we know, and easy to slot the younger actor into the character’s life history.

Gabriel Darku, Olunike Adeliyi
Screenshot: Starz

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Unfortunately, that history is hammered out here in the broadest terms possible. Flashbacks like these are necessarily sketched out, necessarily brief glimpses into a life. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily constructed from the blandest of clichés or stripped of nuance in morality, motivation, or character. Young Shadow and his unnamed mother (Flashpoint’s Olunike Adeliyi) feel oddly vacant, as if their characters were smoothed down to avoid any distracting idiosyncrasies, so buffed down that all the specificity is rubbed away, too. Shadow’s mother (she is given no other name in the dialogue or the credits) speaks in rich, round tones, her voice and eyes deep with meaning, but the lines she’s given are (woefully accurate) platitudes about liberty and bigotry and fear, more like pronouncements than conversation or even advice.

Young Shadow is neither the bashful boy spoken of in the novel, earning his nickname by slipping from room to room in his mother’s wake, nor the “shrimpy little kid” that Mr. Nancy describes. At first, it looks as if Shadow’s teen years could be catalogued by the books he’s reading at each milestone (each title a nod to religion), but even that modest conceit is abandoned quickly. Shadow’s mother keeps telling him “You are different” and “Your light is strong, my beautiful son,” but we are not shown anything different or illuminating about this child growing into a man.

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Mr. Town’s train, bearing Shadow’s beacon out of sight
Screenshot: Starz

But Laura Moon sees that light, and her pursuit of Shadow makes up “the Beguiling Man”’s best segments. Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber are a joy together. Even the contrast in their sizes emphasizes the clash between these two characters who are pushed into working together, and who pretend to begrudge each others’ presence. It’s a good reveal, and an episode-saving swerve back into the specific, the weird, the tongue-in-cheek wit that American Gods does so well, when Laura and Mad Sweeney follow Shadow’s beacon until the road dead-ends into a field of flowers.

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Emily Browning, Pablo Schreiber
Screenshot: Starz

And just when the buddy-heist energy of their travels seems to reach its peak, as they dangle, Sweeney’s limbs gangling, from a bridge… that’s when they pull a train job. Laura’s nonchalant step off that bridge, and her assured landing on the roof of the train carrying Shadow, is the most surprising, strongest piece of action in the episode, capped by Sweeney’s comical cross-eyed annoyance as he follows suit.

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A casual observer might suggest that Mr. Town’s highly stylized torture is designed to showcase Ricky Whittle’s impressive physique while shoehorning in a techno-magical excuse for all these flashbacks. But a cynic would point out that it’s also a chance to shoehorn in some Christ imagery without having to explain (again) how Christianity intersects with the the old and new gods of this universe.

Ricky Whittle
Screenshot: Starz

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When writing about an adapted story, it’s always challenging to balance the story being told now with the source material. I’m trying to avoid spoilers from Neil Gaiman’s novel, only in part because the television series has departed from the novel. But there are some elements, some secrets, some plot points that we can be confident will not be removed completely, and those are the trickiest to talk about.

Like the history seen in Shadow’s flashbacks, Laura’s rescue of Shadow is adapted from a similar scene in the book. And like the flashbacks, a lot of the nuance is lost in its on-screen portrayal. In the novel, Laura disposes of Shadow’s captors single-handed, off-stage, with inhuman numbness. In the novel, Laura’s murders are brutal and graceless. In the novel, there’s no air of action-flick coolness to her violence and no Mad Sweeney tossing off quips. In the novel, her passionless slaughter of obstacles is just one more sign of her disintegrating humanity. But in “The Beguiling Man,” the camera lingers—clumsy but avid—on the blows she lands, and she swaggers up to Shadow’s chamber like a hero, until she sees his horrified face.

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The most striking logical gap in “House On The Rock” is the ease with which Shadow—Wednesday’s driver, bodyguard, and bodyman—commands the attention of actual gods, cajoling them as even the wise concealer, the swift trickster, the father of magical songs (just three more of the many names of Óðin) cannot. And no one asks why, or how, until Mr. Town comes along. Why or how does Shadow fall in so easily with this divine company? Why and how does he do what they say, however illegal or absurd? Why and how, having seen the degrading depths they stoop to, the exalted places to which they can ascend, and the bloody price they extract along the way, can Shadow be shocked that his dead wife follows in their footsteps?

Emily Browning
Screenshot: Starz

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Between the vague, highminded flashbacks, the muddled fight sequences punctuated by clunky banter, and the devastating effect of splitting up its most interesting characters, American Gods is floundering just two episodes into the second season. But the high-flying energy and crackling chemistry of Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney’s adventures gives me hope.

“You can’t just give up because the fucking road ends,” Mad Sweeney tells Laura, the one person in American Gods as mulish and stubborn as he is, when she’s tempted to lie down and die. It could be a motto for the show’s beleaguered second season, and if season two of American Gods is half as much fun as their screaming, flailing voyage from meadow to train heist, it’ll be worth watching.

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Stray observations

  • SALIM AND THE JINN, THE JINN AND SALIM! We were promised sidecar adventures and I want sidecar adventures.
  • Who else greeted Dean Winters with“My name is Mr. Town, dummy”?
  • Another season, another showrunner.
  • Next stop, Cairo?

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