American Gods has released their first episode, as bloody and sexy and violent as anything HBO ever dreamed. Come, let us adore Him.
Our second offering to the Peak TV Gods in a week has arrived today on STARZ. It may have only been five days since Hulu released the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Trump’s America, those days pass like years. We’ll happily get back to that dystopian nightmare of the patriarchy gone mad in a couple of days. But first, let’s get into this fantasy deconstruction of religious nightmares walking around in broad daylight, known as American Gods.
Technology Boy: Language is a program, religion is an operating system and prayers are just so much fucking spam.
And you thought Game of Thrones was hard to watch. That opening prologue of the arrival of the Vikings to our shores rivaled HBO’s bloodiest of scenes. Buckets of blood weren’t enough, it was as if the production took a firehose of the stuff and smashed the cast with it as they reenacted the kind of insanity that only that heady mix of desperation, misery and absurd religious practices can cook up. The fight scenes–both in the bar, and on the side of the road at the end of the episode were as gory as anything Thrones has ever done. Those dragons are going to have to straight up start eating people on-screen to compete.
Then there was the sex scene. The Bilquis sex scene in the book is not one ever meant to exist anywhere but in someone fevered frightening sexual fantasies–and this show went ahead and put it on screen basically as written. Certainly the ones in Handmaid’s Tale are emotionally creepier. But those are at least chaste, and everyone leaves their clothes on. This, with Bilquis slowly but surely absorbing her lover and worshipper into her vagina, was more graphic and intense than anything Westeros could have dreamed up.
Graphic and intense could sum up just about everything about the first hour–and most likely the hours that will follow. This is a show is happy to show people peeing with gusto, in close-ups that even Benioff and Weiss haven’t had the nerve to do.
Laura: “Waiting for the sky to fall is going to cause more bother than the sky actually falling.”
This show has flaws. Big flaws. You have to love Neil Gaiman at his worst excesses to love everything about this show. There are going to be people who are not going to make it past that Bilquis sequence. Hell, there may even be those who can’t get past the scene in the graveyard, where Audrey tries to convince Shadow to fuck as some sort of revenge on their now dead spouses for cheating on them. There will be others who groan in irritation at Mad Sweeney.
But the scene I assume will be most controversial is the near-lynching scene after Shadow’s meeting with Technology Boy. The TV show is are already leaning into the Shadow Moon’s African American-ness, including Rodney King quotes, and white supremacists eyeing Shadow in jail. In the novel, the new god simply gives him a message for Wednesday, threatens Shadow with deletion, and lets him go. Here, they have several of Technology’s goons, who are not fully human and yet deliberately have white skin, string him up. Before Shadow’s neck breaks, the noose gives way and the goons are torn to shreds in an orgy of blood–we assume the Old Gods saving him. But the entire scene is gratuitous in the extreme, and I would expect it cause a lot of uproar come Monday morning.
That being said, this is gorgeously shot, with visuals as fascinating as they are unsettling. There’s an intensity to the visuals, starting all the way at the beginning with the dream sequence in Shadow’s jail cell, all the way to the last shot of him magically cut down from the tree. Shadow Moon’s dreams, in particular, are something out of Twin Peaks inspire heaven–both the original 1990s show and the coming reboot. Meanwhile, the real world is something out of a horror laced vision of Las Vegas hell.
Shadow Moon: “You’re a little tall for a leprechaun,”
Mad Sweeney: “That’s a stereotype. Represents a very narrow view of the world.”
I’m sorry to keep bringing up other shows, but it’s hard not to. This show is so influenced by Peak TV that surrounds it, especially Game of Thrones. They are Peak TV cut from the same cloth. Based on a popular fantasy novels which were both originally written in such a way as to be unfilmable–then made filmable by the march of technology. Both have rabid fanbases that guarantee as least a niche built-in audience for the first season–and if the show is done well enough, one that will stick by it and trumpet it to all their friends, in much the same way Game of Thrones gained steam in those first two years. Gaiman has a fan following that is legion, and can support a show like this even when it dives into the weirdest and least accessible impulses–a fact STARZ is counting on.
But at the same time, these are stories that are polar opposites. Game of Thrones is an American writer’s fantasy of a Peak Europe, now long past, with ancient castles, narrow roads, high forests, the tiny inns at the crossroads and strict social hierarchies. American Gods is a European writer’s fantasy of a Peak America, now today, with huge skies, the rolling plains, the open roads, the restaurants with ridiculous decor and neon lighting and the ability for anyone to be able to con their way into first class. There is a love affair with the largeness and grandeur that is America which only comes from the English. We Americans take this country’s size and scope for granted. This series doesn’t.
Mr Wednesday: “I offer you the worm from my beak and you look at me like I fucked your mom?”
Speaking of conning one’s way into first class, that is where our hero and ex-con, Shadow Moon meets his god, Mr. Wednesday, played by the incomparable Ian McShane. McShane, the man who singlehandedly made deadwood watchable week after week. A man who was handed a single episode of Game of Thrones last season, and made it a stand alone stand out, in a cameo role he used to carry the entire episode on his back. Honestly, it doesn’t matter where the weaknesses are in any scene where he’s involved, because his personality absorbs everything, from the music, to the setting to the other actors who flail in his wake. This monologues are meant for talking and that’s just what he’ll do, and every episode I hope he goes and talks all over you.
Likewise Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney walks in and just about takes every scene he’s in and walks away with it–no mean feat, considering he shares screen time with McShane. Heading back to the normality of the human world and Laura’s funeral is almost a relief, after the intensity of their God action. The irony that the one place we don’t find Gods is the church and cemetery. And you thought we’d just shunted off our gods in this atheistic society from being involved in the state.
Next week, Shadow Moon will leave his town far behind, as he and Mr. Wednesday head out to Chicago. American Gods airs on STARZ on Sundays at 9pm, or can be seen via streaming at Amazon Prime.