American Gods: Episode 1 – “The Bone Orchard”

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Hello Dragons! Welcome to our latest series of TV recaps, where I attempt to break down for you exactly what is going on in the Starz drama American Gods. A bit of a primer: the show is based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, which is a dense epic. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend holding off until the end of the show to avoid confusion. A friend asked me what this show (and the novel) is about, and I didn’t quite know what to say. “It’s, uhh, about a newly released felon who gets involved with a supernatural con man who’s leading a war of Old Gods against New Gods?” So, yeah. It’s okay if you’re a bit confused at first. Another fact that is very important to know is that Bryan Fuller is the brains behind this show – as in, Bryan Fuller from the wonderful and aesthetically delightful Hannibal (and if you haven’t watched Hannibal, what are you doing with your life?). He also got the same composer, Brian Reitzell, to work on Gods, so if you’re having major Hannibal flashbacks, it’s understandable.

We open a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away – wait, no, wrong series) with Vikings reaching North America in 813 CE. The Vikings bring with them one of their gods: Odin. In case you missed this class in school, Odin is, like, The Guy in Norse mythology (he’s also very prominent in Germanic mythology, but that’s for another time, I suppose). But this new land is no paradise, and we quickly see that the showrunners are holding nothing back during a gruesome battle scene. The Vikings engage in bloodshed as an offering to Odin – “after all,” we’re told, “their god was a war god,” and sure enough, the winds shift to allow them to go home. The Vikings ultimately leave North America to journey back to their homeland, but when they do, they leave Odin behind in the new land.

We then meet our protagonist – Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). Shadow’s in prison for aggravated assault, but he’s informed that he’s being released a few days early for an unfortunate reason. His wife, Laura (Emily Browning), is dead. We learn from Shadow himself that he’s a skeptic: “I’m not superstitious. I believe in plenty when there’s reason and evidence to believe. I don’t believe in anything I can’t see.  I feel like there’s a f***ing axe hanging over my head. You know, I can’t see it. But I believe it.” Before Shadow leaves prison, we also meet his cellmate, Low Key Lyesmith (just say it five times fast. You’ll figure it out.) Low Key (again. come on – refer to the title of the show) has many words of wisdom for Shadow that he carries with him following his release. Hmm. Wonder if we’ll see him again.

Shadow gets to the airport but is stuck there when he can’t change his flight. Could be worse, buddy. Could be on a United flight. Shadow recalls Low Key’s friendly advice – do not piss off those bitches in airports – and reluctantly gets a flight the following day. As he waits, he sees an older man (Ian McShane) pretend to be confused and possibly suffering from dementia to get an upgrade to first class. Luck (or something) would have it that the airline has issued two boarding tickets for Shadow’s seat, so he’s re-routed to a different seat – right across from the older man. “Guess this must be your lucky day,” the man says. They chat. “What should I call you, if I were so inclined?” Shadow tells him his name and asks the same: “And if I was inclined, what might I call you?” The man pauses. “What’s today?” “Wednesday,” Shadow says. “Hmm. Today’s my day,” the man says. “Let’s go with that.” And so we are given McShane’s character’s name: Mr. Wednesday. It becomes clear that Mr. Wednesday knows a bit too much about Shadow – he can tell that he’s fresh from prison and that “you lost something vital in there.” They talk about personal strengths, and Wednesday says he has two – first, that he can sleep anywhere, any time, and second, “I usually end up getting what I want – on average, over time. It’s all about getting people to believe in you. It’s not about their cash, it’s about their faith.” Wednesday then offers Shadow a job – “perfectly legal work, for the most part.” Shadow declines the offer, saying that he has work set up at his best friend, Robbie’s, gym when he gets back. Wednesday dismisses this. “No, you don’t,” but Shadow stays firm. If Wednesday isn’t already your favorite character after this scene, I don’t know what to do with you.

Now’s a good time to mention Shadow’s dreams. We see a couple dream sequences in this evidence. First, of Laura, before learning of her death, and then Shadow in a forest with barren trees. On the flight, Shadow dreams of the same forest, but this time, a buffalo with flaming eyes appears, imploring him to “believe.”

We next meet another deity, the goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a/k/a the Queen of Sheba. She’s on an internet date which is going far better than any of the ones I’ve been on. We quickly learn how Bilquis prefers to be worshipped – through sex. This scene is gruesome and fabulous, and I can’t dance around it – she literally consumes this poor Internet man (who’s Joel Murray – Freddy Rumsen from Mad Men) with her vagina.  The graphics are something else, but in case you’re wondering, yes, the scene is even crazier in the book.

The plane has to make an emergency landing in St. Louis, and Shadow rents a car to make the rest of his journey to Eagle Point, Indiana. He stops at a bar – the Crocodile Bar – and again finds himself with Mr. Wednesday, who is now joined by Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber – the creepy prison guard from Orange is the New Black). Wednesday informs Shadow that it wasn’t just Laura who died – his best friend, Robbie, was killed in the same car crash. Dejected and with no hope of a job, Shadow agrees to a coin toss – if Wednesday wins, Shadow will work for him. Wednesday calls heads. Shadow says it’ll be tails – he rigged the toss. “You’re a little creepy. And you’re forward and familiar, and I don’t like it. I don’t like you.” Wednesday tells him it won’t always be tails, and sure enough – when Shadow checks the coin, it’s heads. Shadow meets Mad Sweeney, who describes himself as a leprechaun. Mad Sweeney refers to Wednesday as “our man” and asks Shadow if he knows who Wednesday is – “who he really is.” Have you figured it out yet, readers? Wednesday brings mead to the table, saying that it seals their deal. Shadow’s job will be essentially as a bodyguard: “You drive where needs driving to. You take care of things generally on my behalf. And in an emergency, and in an emergency only, you kick the asses of those whose asses require kicking. And in the unlikely event of my death, you will hold my vigil.” Wednesday tells Shadow that he can name his price – after all, he’s a con man, so he needs assistance. Shadow reluctantly agrees.

Mad Sweeney performs coin tricks to Shadow with a mysterious gold coin. He won’t divulge his tricks to Shadow, but he says he’ll fight him for the coin. Shadow refuses. But Mad Sweeney pushes him, bringing up Laura, until Shadow snaps and punches him in the face. The two fight – a bloody, delightful fight. Meanwhile , the gold coin spins on the table as they battle. Despite the fact that he’s getting his ass kicked, Mad Sweeney is enjoying this: “Can you feel the joy rising in your veins like the sap in the springtime?” Before he leaves, Shadow grabs the gold coin.

Shadow finally makes it back to Eagle Point in time for Laura’s funeral. He slides next to Audrey, Robbie’s wife and Laura’s best friend, who informs him in crude terms that Laura and Robbie’s car accident occurred while they were in the middle of a sexual act. Awkward. Audrey scoffs at Shadow at the graveside later that night. “I hated you guys as a couple, because of this, the way you looked at her… get used to the boot, puppy. There is no closure from the dead.” Honestly, this is EXACTLY the same problem I had with Shadow in the book. Laura is garbage. Total garbage. Stop pining, Shadow! Audrey tries to throw herself at Shadow, but he turns her down, because he’s a Good Guy™. While in the cemetery, he flips the gold coin he got from Mad Sweeney, which lands on Laura’s grave and burrows into the dirt. I’m sure that will have no consequences in the future.

As he leaves the cemetery, Shadow is drawn to a mysterious device in the middle of a field, which attaches itself to his head – it’s Virtual Reality headpiece. In a VR world, he meets Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), who has a lot of questions about Wednesday. Shadow refuses to answer, saying he’s just an errand boy. Technical Boy persists. “Wednesday is history. Forgotten and old. He should just let it happen. We are the future, and we don’t give a f*** about him or anyone else like him anymore. They are consigned to the dumpster. Now we have reprogrammed reality. Language is a virus, religion an operating system, and prayers are just so much f***ing spam.” In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Technical Boy is a New God in this story. When it becomes clear that Shadow isn’t going to give him any information, Technical Boy instructs the “children” – faceless grunts – to kill Shadow, and they drag him out of the VR world into the real world, as they beat him to a pulp and eventually hang him, though the rope breaks, leaving Shadow broken and battered on the ground. But before the Children can kill him, they’re destroyed by a mysterious, unseen entity.

Dragons, what did you think of the season premiere of American Gods? Is Mr. Wednesday your favorite character yet? Have you figured out who everyone is? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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