Shadow Moon (Whittle) in The Bone Orchard
After years spent in development hell, a television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods
, has finally premiered on STARZ. American Gods
tells the story of the battle between the Old Gods of classic mythology and the New Gods of modern America (Media, Technology, etc) for the ultimate control of America’s faith. In this first episode, The Bone Orchard
, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison after the death of his wife, Laura (Emily Browning). He meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and is recruited to be his bodyguard. As Shadow is drawn into this mysterious world, he discovers this may be more than he bargained for. Note: as the episode is already available on the STARZ website, there will
be spoilers in this review!
A Viking from the opening vignette.
There are so many things to be said about this first episode of American Gods
. The first thing I’ll say is that it’s good. It’s really good. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green were definitely the right choices to helm this project, as they both have the visual and storytelling style to pull off such an ambitious novel. Visually, it bears a lot of similarities with Fuller’s last show, Hannibal
, particularly when it comes to the violence. The first scene of this episode is one of the novel’s “Coming to America” vignettes, this one focussing on a group of Vikings arriving in America only to be confronted with the harsh reality of the land and desiring to return home. However, there is no wind, so they must make sacrifices to Odin in order to have him provide them with the wind needed for their boats to return home. Naturally, the Vikings resort to various acts of violence upon each other, resulting in an incredible amount of blood being sprayed all over the screen in a very short amount of time. But, unlike other shows of this nature, the violence is shot in this elevated, near operatic, style. Even though there’s so much gore on the screen, it’s shot in such a way that it’s actually beautiful to witness, something Hannibal
did very often.
Shadow and Mad Sweeney (Schreiber) fighting in Jack’s Crocodile Bar
Then there’s the fight scene with Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) in Jack’s Crocodile Bar with Shadow. This, too, is shot with enormous style. The violence is brutal; several times I audibly reacted with an “oof” to a punch or a headbutt. That being said, it was shot in the same kind of operatic, elevated style that the Viking scene was shot in. Combined with the perfect music in the scene (by composer Brian Reitzell), the scene just really works. In fact, Reitzell’s music is really the glue that holds the entire Jack’s Crocodile Bar sequence together. It’s hard to describe the music – as is the case with much of the music Reitzell composes – but in the context of the scene, it worked perfectly. It fit the setting, fit the mood, but also didn’t call attention to itself.
Yetide Badaki as Bilquis
Another similarity with Hannibal
comes during the Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) sex scene. Anyone who’s read the novel will know exactly what scene I’m talking about, and somehow Fuller, David Slade, and Green were able to bring this scene to the screen in a way that actually worked. It’s shot in the same kind of elevated, abstract, artsy style that the sex scenes in Hannibal
were shot. None of it feels gratuitous; there are no needless close-ups of Bilquis’ body, and the actual “act” itself is filmed in such a way that it doesn’t feel remotely pornographic. Erotic, sure, but very clearly art. Side note – There’s a fun change from the book in the scene; in the book, Bilquis is a hooker who picks men up on the street; in the show, she’s using a dating app to pick up men. It’s a smart little update to the story to make it fit better in today’s time. Anyway, Yetide Badaki was superb in the scene. She played Bilquis with this vulnerability at first that really hammered home the idea that these Old Gods are weak and not in their prime. But as the scene went on and she began getting the worship she needed, Badaki modified her performance to show Bilquis’ growing power and control over the situation. Badaki’s performance, combined with the visuals and the music, really end up selling the scene perfectly.
Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday
On that note, let’s talk about the acting because there’s quite a lot of good acting in this. Ricky Whittle successfully plays a role that is incredibly difficult. In the novel, Shadow Moon is very stoic; he rarely lets his emotions rise to the surface. Oftentimes, he rarely speaks. For any actor, playing a character like that would be a challenge. That being said, Shadow was changed in subtle ways for the TV series – he’s a lot more vocal in the show and is given a lot of room to express his emotions outloud. There’s a scene where he’s screaming with agony at the edge of a cliff, and during the funeral scene, he gives a moving and angry and heartbreaking speech to Laura’s grave. That’s not something that would’ve happened in the book, but it works beautifully on screen. Even with these changes to the character, Whittle more than rose to the challenge of playing Shadow and ended up delivering a Shadow that was not only engaging but memorable and distinct enough to stand side by side with the likes of Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday. Speaking of McShane, his Wednesday is spot on how I imagined Wednesday to be in the book. He nails the playfulness, the smugness, the deep hollowness, and the manipulativeness of the character. Any time McShane is on screen, it’s a joy to watch, and he and Whittle have such wonderful chemistry together as Wednesday and Shadow that it’s easy to want to spend the next seven episodes following them around on a road trip through America to round up the Old Gods.
Bruce Langley as Technical Boy
Not to be outdone, Pablo Schreiber shines as the six-foot tall leprechaun, Mad Sweeney. From the moment Mad Sweeney steps on screen, Schreiber exudes swagger and style. In the words of his character, he performs with “panache”. Every second he’s on screen, you really feel that he’s this crazy drunk, and it’s a joy to watch. This episode also introduced us to our first of the New Gods, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley). Technical Boy’s first scene essentially played out the same way it did in the novel, and Langley brings it to life with the perfect amount of contempt and entitled asshole attitude. The look of Technical Boy was changed significantly from the novel, but Langley definitely nailed the personality.
Jonathan Tucker as Low-Key Lyesmith
A few characters were given only a couple of short scenes. The first one, Low-Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker) appeared in the opening scenes in the prison with Shadow. I’m not quite sure how I feel about Tucker’s performance. He’s not bad or anything, but I’ve been spoiled by the performance of the character in the 10th Anniversary Full Cast Audiobook of the novel, and I just feel like Tucker didn’t quite have the right amount of slyness in his performance. He was perfectly fine, but not quite what I expected or wanted. It’ll be interesting to see how that character develops over the course of the show. Emily Browning (Laura) doesn’t get much screentime in this episode – she’s essentially relegated to a phone call in which we never see her face and then scenes as a corpse – but her couple of scenes are nice and I look forward to seeing what she’s able to do with Laura’s expanded part in the story for the rest of the season.
Betty Gilpin as Audrey Burton
One surprising highlight ended up being Betty Gilpin as Audrey Burton (wife of Robbie Burton, Shadow’s best friend and the man Laura was cheating with at the time of both their deaths). She’s not given much to do in the funeral chapter in the book, but the show makes some changes. She’s given a scene with Shadow at Laura’s grave, and Gilpin acted her face off in the scene. In the span of a few minutes, she cycled through essentially all the stages of grief, and it’s a moving moment. The sheer vulnerability that Gilpin displayed in the hit me hard in the gut. It was an unexpected moment, but one that I loved. I’ve heard rumors that Audrey will also have a more expanded part in the show, so if that’s true I’m pretty excited about it.
Several things from the novel were changed for this episode. I won’t go into specifics, as they start to make their way into spoiler territory, but I think all the changes that were made were best for the story Fuller and Green wanted to tell. The changes worked well, some of them better than others obviously, but all of them successful in their own rights. Many of the changes are little things done to update the story’s setting (Shadow no longer has an e-ticket; instead it’s a different kind of airport hell. Bilquis uses a dating app, Technical Boy’s aesthetic is pretty different, things like that). The only other big changes are some tweaking with the timeline (not much, but I suspect that will change with future episodes) and some minor changes in various scenes that come with any adaptation; nothing big or worth worrying over.
Shadow with one of Technical Boy’s goons.
The technical elements of the show also shined brightly. Like all of Fuller’s shows, American Gods
is heavy on beautiful cinematography and visual effects. American Gods
is sort of a mashup of Hannibal
and Pushing Daisies
in terms of its visual style. For me, that’s a perfect mashup, and for American Gods
, it’s exactly what’s needed to tell the story and play around with the idea of the normal world being full of all these mystical elements. The visual effects in the episode are equally stunning. Particularly in the sequence with Technical Boy; his minions are perfectly creepy works of art. The whole scene manages to encompass the core idea behind the character: technology creating and destroying. The rest of the episode is full of good special effects, too, but the Technical Boy scene is really the standout there. Plus, there’s a good amount of dream sequences in this episode, all of which are shot and put together in a way that it’s obvious they’re dreams, but they still have that element of reality to them that all believable dreams have. It adds another layer to the confusing fabric that is the show by continuing to keep Shadow (and the audience) in a confused and unsure state in regards to what’s real and what’s not real. Reitzell’s music (both the music he composed and the music he selected to be in the episode) worked perfectly in the context of their scenes. At no point did the music ever call too much attention to itself; it always served the needs of the scene and the story, and I thought it worked well.
Much of this episode is dedicated to getting all the pieces into play for the rest of the season, so not much is really done with any of the themes. Though, Wednesday has a little speech on the plane where he talks about belief and how belief is the most important thing (is Newton keeping the plane in the air, or is it belief?). It’s a nice little hint at one of the major themes of the show, and I imagine the show will continue to explore this theme in greater detail. That being said, there’s a scene at the end of the episode, where Shadow is hanged from a tree by Technical Boy’s goons, that really brings to mind images of the lynching of people of color back in the 1800s and 1900s. I wonder if that imagery was done on purpose; it likely was. But it’s a striking image and an uncomfortable one. It’ll stay in your mind long after you finish the episode (as will the entirety of that final scene, to be honest). The episode is full of imagery like that, but none quite as striking as the image of Shadow hanging from a tree, and all the connotations that come along with that image.
This episode really was a great first episode for the series. I’m somewhat biased since I’m a big fan of the novel, but I definitely think this adaptation does Gaiman’s book extraordinary justice. It has the potential to become a Game of Thrones style hit. Maybe not as big of an audience – I’m sure HBO has more subscribers than STARZ does – but in terms of quality television that nurtures a devoted fanbase, American Gods definitely shows a lot of potential.
The episode is visually stunning, well written and directed, well acted, and well put together overall. It’s a great opening for the story it’s preparing to tell, and I am already completely hooked. I recommend it to anyone who likes mythology, Neil Gaiman, the novel, Game of Thrones, shows in the same style as American Gods, or just good thought-provoking television.
The Bone Orchard gets five out five wands.
American Gods airs Sundays at 9 pm on STARZ and can also be watched on STARZ’s website as well as Amazon Prime (with a STARZ membership).