Emily S. Whitten: Believe! American Gods is the One You Want!
The Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel American Gods is finally here, and having seen the first four episodes, I can tell you that, like Mad Sweeney in a bar fight, I am all in.
For those who haven’t read Gaiman’s novel, first published in 2001, it and the Starz adaptation featured are centered around an impending battle between two types of American gods – the “old gods” who crossed the seas from other countries with the immigrants who believed in them, and the “new gods” of technology, celebrity, drugs, and mass media that have gained in followers as belief in the old ways of life waned. The conflict is seen through the eyes of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a recently released convict who finds himself at loose ends after his old life falls apart, and becomes the personal assistant of the mysterious and charming Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Shadow’s adventures with Wednesday as they travel the country meeting Wednesday’s mysterious associates and gathering them for the coming war drives the plot as both the viewer and Shadow learn more about who Wednesday is and what he is up to.
In the beginning of the TV series, the story unfolds gradually because we are seeing it as Shadow experiences it. It mixes vivid dream sequences with Shadow’s quiet awe at experiencing vast expanses of scenery after his imprisoned life, but also with Wednesday’s more lively banter, which pulls Shadow out of himself. The style is decompressed and may require patience early on from those unfamiliar with the book, but it also allows you to really sink into the richly detailed storytelling that Gaiman does so well and that the production crew has brought to life.
These specifics serve to make this work of fantasy fiction feel oddly real – like this could certainly happen, if not to us, then at least to some other person somewhere. The first two episodes are a slow build, but as the pieces begin to slot in place for both Shadow and the audience, the pace quickens – as the weirdness Shadow is experiencing stacks up, and Shadow starts to accept that the world is not what he believed it to be. It’s possible that the introductory episodes may be a bit confusing for those who haven’t read the book, as a pantheon of characters is introduced pretty early on, sometimes only with hints about what gods or goddesses they portray; but I think that patience will pay off as things coalesce by episodes three and four.
After all, this is a show that, eventually, has everything – mystery, humor, weirdness, raw emotion, sex (and it’s varied and not censored, so be advised), creepy chills, heists and cons, immense sadness, over-the-top violence, angst, and the feel that we are simultaneously in the midst of an epic story, a small-town American experience, and a backwards buddy cop movie (given neither Shadow nor Wednesday is an entirely upstanding citizen). The show, like the novel, can be raw and pulls no punches and has some moments of epic melodrama (but hey – so do the gods themselves). It reflects harsh truths and ugly realities, and isn’t afraid to show the grimier, less beautiful side of humanity.
Yet already in four episodes there have also been several immensely beautiful and oddly peaceful scenes – and the way they fit together into the broader fabric of the story comes directly from Gaiman’s writing. His ability to meld humor and horror is also not lost in the screen adaptation, and viewers will experience an odd sense of fun even in the midst of dark happenings. Wednesday’s constant unpredictable behaviors, for example, bring to mind a crazy old grandpa, who messes with Shadow even in the middle of a bank heist because he gets a kick out of keeping him on his toes. And a scene where Shadow’s wife Laura Moon (Emily Browning) is reunited with her former best friend Audrey Burton (Betty Gilpin) is incredibly dark and pretty gross, but also absolutely hilarious in its absurdity.
Another striking thing about this show is how relevant the novel’s themes, as brought forward into this iteration, remain. The show addresses racism, cheating spouses, death, religious beliefs, sexuality and homosexuality, and more as the story unfolds. And at its heart, it addresses where we choose to put our faith, and the clash between traditions and values new and old. There is no question that, as when Gaiman wrote the novel, we still struggle with the conflicting pulls of living an authentic life while also being enmeshed in the sometimes overwhelming and disconnecting communications of modern media. And it is apparent in today’s political climate that America still struggles to reconcile varying and conflicting cultural beliefs with what this country is supposed to represent in democracy and equality. As Mr. Wednesday astutely notes, “[America] is the only country in the world that wonders what it is.”
For would-be viewers who are fans of the book, there is no question what this show is – it’s the best kind of adaptation. It’s deliciously satisfying to see the story we know so well come to life, remaining faithful to the narrative and the characters while keeping any adjustments that might need to be made for the transition to television from changing the dynamic or intention of the original. For example, episode four delves into the backstory of Shadow and Laura, and changes and additions are certainly made; but at the same time, that episode is so well-scripted and evocative, and fits so well with the earlier episodes, that it may be my favorite episode so far. In addition, the show is laden with details and chunks of dialogue, both large and small, that come directly from the novel and have been worked seamlessly into the screen version.
While keeping close to the details of the original, the stunning cinematography, effects, and music of the show are also exactly what’s needed to evoke the feel of Gaiman’s book. When Bryan Fuller and David Slade were first announced as two of the executive producers on American Gods, I began having high hopes for it, as their recent work together, Hannibal, had a uniquely creepy, dreamy, mysterious feel which lent a strange, unreal beauty to even the horror elements of grisly scenes. Given the variety of weird, mysterious, and surreal happenings that unfold for Shadow as he begins to realize that all is not what he thought, I knew a similar vision from these creators (along with Michael Green and others) could be a good fit for this story, and wondered if there even was anyone else who could successfully bring Gaiman’s vision to life.
And come to life it does in these first episodes. American Gods, both book and show, begins with a tangible atmosphere of foreboding. Shadow feels it as he waits to be released from prison; and viewers feel it through the clever use of techniques such as extreme attention to small details, as well as time lapse and then slow-motion videography; along with an excellently moody soundtrack that is mostly wordless and full of strange and unsettling notes. The depth and style of the soundtrack so far, while unique, also struck a familiar note (hah!) for me, which is unsurprising, given that Brian Reitzell, who is responsible for the music, was also responsible for the Hannibal soundtrack (which I discussed with him at SDCC 2013) and Fuller has spoken highly of his work. When the soundtrack does include popular songs, they are an exceptional fit for the scenes. For example, Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night and Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall are both disquieting and in keeping with the small-town America feel that pervades the much broader, epic and wide-reaching story Gaiman is telling. And the use of Garbage’s Stupid Girl over a montage showing Shadow’s wife Laura’s dissatisfaction with her circumstances is brilliant.
The actors cast for the main roles are also brilliant, and embody Gaiman’s characters to a T. Whittle and McShane do a lot of heavy lifting as Shadow and Wednesday, playing perfectly off of each other as the quiet, distrustful ex-con and the sharp but slightly shady con-man who is more than he appears. Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney, a nearly-seven-foot-tall leprechaun, is a delight to watch as he chews the scenery portraying the craziness of that character, who absolutely needs that larger-than-life energy to work. Yetide Badaki as Bilquis is introduced through what was probably one of the weirdest scenes in the novel and, I’d imagine, one of the hardest to shoot in the show. It’s super trippy, and doesn’t stint on the nudity, either – but Badaki handles it gracefully, making what could be a jarringly unreal scene seem intimate and acceptable.
Emily Browning masterfully portrays the flawed and fairly unlikeable Laura Moon in such a way that you at least appreciate how she remains her own person in a way that’s not necessarily nice but is very human. Betty Gilpin is fantastic as the distraught but also angry and snarky Audrey, trying to pick up the pieces after her world is shattered. Jonathan Tucker brings Low Key Lyesmith to life with sly, worldly humor in exactly the way I’d picture, and I can’t wait to see more from him. Bruce Langley as Technical Boy is appropriately off-putting, smarmy, and impersonal even as he’s being nasty. Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy is harsh and in-your-face, with a rhythmic showmanship that is perfect for his role. Gillian Anderson as Media is both seductive and disconcertingly hollow. And Peter Stormare is absolutely perfect as Czernobog, evincing a sense of brutality and darkness even as he embodies his current role as a diminished god who once relished his work in the Chicago slaughterhouses.
Even as a fan of the book, I acknowledge that the first episode was slightly slow going as the drama began to unfold; but it still drew me in – and now that I’ve finished episode four, I’m no longer wondering whether this series is going to keep me hooked. The cast, the drama, the visuals, and the storytelling have all drawn me in, and I definitely want to see more.
And you can too, since the first episode of American Gods is airing on Starz right now!
So check it out, and until next time, Servo Lectio!