REVIEW: American Gods S01E02 – “The Secret of Spoons”

american gods10The second episode of STARZ’s new show American Gods has been uploaded to their website, and I have just watched it, so, it’s time to review it! This week’s episode was written by Michael Green and Bryan Fuller and was directed by David Slade. (It’s worth noting that this week’s Coming to America segment was directed by Guillermo Navaro.) In The Secret of Spoons, Shadow (Ricky Whittle) experiences a number of odd events as he and Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) begin their quest to recruit the Old Gods for the coming battle. He and Shadow travel to Chicago where Shadow agrees to a very high-stakes game of chess with the old Slavic god, Czernobog (Peter Stormare). This review will contain spoilers, so if you’ve yet to see the episode, don’t read the review! The short and sweet of it is: it’s a really good episode. It builds on everything that made the first episode good and pushes the show forward. Now, if you continue reading this, I’m assuming you’ve seen the episode. Last chance to turn back!

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Anansi (Orlando Jones) speaks to captured Africans on a slave ship.

Like last week, The Secret of Spoons begins with another Coming to America vignette, this time featuring the African trickster god, Anansi, played by Orlando Jones. In this vignette, some captured African people cry out to Anansi to save them and release them from the slave ship that they’re on. Anansi arrives and goes on a tirade about the future of black people in America. It’s a powerful scene, and a staggeringly emotional performance from Orlando Jones, that ultimately leads to the release of the Africans on the ship who proceed to burn down the ship. Words don’t really do justice to the scene. Orlando Jones really embodies his character, playing it with a mix of mischievousness and righteous anger. I always imagined Anansi more as a calm, sly trickster, but I really like the way Orlando Jones played him in the scene. I think it really hammered home the message they were going for and turned what could’ve been a forgettable vignette into a powerful moment – probably the most memorable of the entire episode.

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Shadow (Ricky Whittle) hangs from a tree.

After the vignette, the episode picks up right where last week’s left off: Shadow has just escaped from the lynching he was subjected to and discovers that all of Technical Boy’s goons have, quite literally, been shredded into blood and guts. He confronts Mr. Wednesday about what happened (which leads to the confirmation that the lynching imagery present at the end of last week’s episode was very intentional), which gives Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle an early chance to continue showing off their excellent chemistry. Not much is revealed in the scene, which is a bit frustrating. But I remember that, in the novel, Wednesday was similarly coy with Shadow after his encounter with Technical Boy, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Side note: seeing Ricky Whittle having to play Shadow in such physical pain actually made my heart hurt. A+ acting, Mr. Whittle.

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A heartbroken Shadow cleans up the house he and Laura used to live in.

This episode really is Ricky Whittle’s episode. In this episode, Shadow gets to be a bit more emotional. For about the first half, Whittle really shows the pain that Shadow is going through in the wake of Laura’s death. We see him box up his and Laura’s things from their house, including Laura’s phone, on which he finds a picture of Robbie Burton’s (Shadow’s best friend who Laura was sleeping with, played by Dane Cook) penis which honestly wasn’t a thing I needed to see, but it worked in the context of the scene and really gave Ricky something to react strongly to. The entire scene, filled with Shadow’s daydreams of a still alive Laura (Emily Browning), was another scene with little dialogue that ultimately ended up being one where Ricky could show off his acting abilities and make the audience feel what he’s feeling without saying a word. It was a good scene.

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Media, in the guise of Lucille Ball (Gillian Anderson), appears on all the TVs in a store.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Gillian Anderson. She makes her first appearance as Media in this episode, this time in the guise of Lucille Ball. Anderson puts on a fairly good accent for the character, and really portrays Media with the perfect amount of conniving persuasion and genuine sympathy. The way they do Media’s introduction in the show is way different than they did it in the book – in the book, Shadow meets her on a motel TV; in the show, she takes over all the TVs in a TV aisle in a grocery store – and I much prefer the TV version. I think it does a better job of showing off the power that Media has. Plus, there’s something fun about seeing Gillian Anderson’s face appear on an entire row of TVs.

Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) makes another appearance in this episode. She’s on screen for about the same amount of time as she was last week, and her scenes this week are roughly the same: she has sex with various people (this time, in a montage, with both men and women – it’s nice that the goddess of love will have sex with, and absorb the lives of, anybody of any gender). Yetide does well in these scenes, continuing to display that mixture of vulnerability, power, and sensuality that made her performance last week so good. But this week, she has another scene after all the sex. She visits a museum exhibit on the Queen of Sheba (note: in American Gods, Bilquis and the Queen of Sheba are one and the same) and we get to see her react to the bareness of the exhibit. At one point, she tries to sort of morph through the bottom of a case that holds some of her jewelry in it. She is unable to successfully do this, and her reaction afterward is heartbreaking. Sure, she’s been becoming more powerful since the series began, but she’s still not powerful enough – and she knows it. There’s no dialogue at all in this scene, but Yetide Badaki is able to convey these ideas with her facial expressions. It’s a really strong performance from her, and I’m continually pleased that she is a part of this show.

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Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman) share a conversation.

From there, we arrive in Chicago where Mr. Wednesday and Shadow encounter Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman) and her sister Zorya Utrennyaya (Martha Kelly). Cloris Leachman is, as always, a treasure to have in your show, and this is no exception. Every second she is on screen as Zorya Vechernyaya is a joyous one. Her and Ian McShane have a lot of chemistry that makes it easy to believe that their two characters have some kind of history together, and I dig the chemistry she has with Ricky Whittle as well. There’s a scene where both Zorya Vechernyaya and Zorya Utrennyaya read Shadow’s fortune, see it’s a fortune that’s less than stellar, and try and tell him a positive lie instead. Shadow, not taking any of the positive bullshit they’re spewing, joking asks them if it’s that bad, which leads to this really tender moment between Zorya Vechernyaya and Shadow that Cloris Leachman plays beautifully. She’s great with the comedy but even better with the quiet, tender moments.

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Czernobog (Peter Stormare) shows Shadow his hammer.

Lastly, we meet the Slavic god Czernobog, played by Peter Stormare. Peter definitely isn’t how I imagine Czernobog would look, but it works well. I actually really dig the kind of beer belly he’s got going on. He definitely plays the part of down-on-his-luck-god well, and he balances the bitterness, sadness, and humor well. He and Shadow play a game of checkers with high stakes: if Shadow wins, Czernobog will go with Mr. Wednesday; if Shadow loses, Czernobog gets to bash Shadow’s head in with his hammer. Naturally, Shadow loses, because what would be the fun in him actually winning? The entire sequence is really well done, underscored by Czernobog singing an old folk song (from which the episode’s title is taken) and intercut with bits of Czernobog holding his hammer and Shadow imagining blood trickling down from it. It’s a good sequence.

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The slave ship is set on fire.

Brian Reitzell continues to provide an excellent score. Like last week, the score really fits in with whatever the scene needs. In the opening vignette with Anansi, there’s this jazzy saxophone performance that plays throughout it, and it just works perfectly. It really adds to the playful side of Anansi, but also adds to the sinister atmosphere when the shit hits the fan. The music throughout the rest of the episode is similarly well-done. Reitzell has a knack for composing great music for each scene while making sure the music isn’t distracting. The music always elevates the scene, but never draws attention to itself, and that’s exactly what a good score should be.

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Shadow and Wednesday share an awkward dinner conersation with Czernobog, Zorya Vechernyaya, and Zorya Utrennyaya (Martha Kelly).

Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have written another great script. Quality wise, it’s as strong an episode as last week’s episode was. The pacing is a bit faster since Wednesday and Shadow are now familiar with each other, but it retains a lot of that road trip feeling the first episode had. The strongest scene is definitely the opening vignette, mostly due to Orlando Jones’ performance, but also because of how well it handles the subject matter of the scene, and how well it depicted it, and the overall craft that went into the scene. Oddly enough, that first vignette sort of foreshadows a scene later in the episode where Shadow and Wednesday are eating dinner with Czernobog and the Zorya sisters. In the scene, Czernobog starts talking about his brother and how in their old country, they didn’t see skin color. Czernobog was considered the dark one because the color of his hair was darker than his brother’s, so obviously, he must be bad (he’s drawing a connection to the line of thought that white supremacists have where they think that they’re better than black people simply because they have white skin). Shadow is, rightfully so, uncomfortable during this whole scene. Here’s this old, white European dude talking about what it’s like to be black. Sorta feels like how a lot of American politicians (many of whom are old, white men) like to discuss and think they’re experts on what black people have to deal with. It’s a lovely bit of social commentary that perfectly serves the story and doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.

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Czernobog and Shadow play a high-stakes game of checkers.

David Slade continues to prove why he’s one of the best television directors currently working. The way he frames his shots, and his attention to detail, perfectly serve the needs of the story while also elevating it. Like last week, the violence continues to be operatic, but the regular scenes are very grounded in reality. In fact, the whole show is grounded in reality, which is what makes the scenes where something odd happens in them stand out. If the show was over-the-top from the beginning, the fantasy elements wouldn’t have the same impact they do with the show being so grounded. David Slade has always been an expert in walking this tightrope of a line, and he continues to excel at it, delivering a visually impressive episode that services, and elevates, the script beautifully.

This episode of American Gods is every bit as good as the first one was. It moves the story forward, continues to develop the characters, and introduces new situations and ideas. It’s a good social commentary, an entertaining modern-day fantasy, and a well written, acted, directed, and produced show.

I give The Secret of Spoons five out of five wands.

American Gods continues next Sunday with Head Full of Snow, airing at 9pm EDT on STARZ. You can catch up on American Gods or watch new episodes early on STARZ.com and Amazon (with a STARZ subscription).

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