Season two of American Gods has had a pretty tough time getting to our screens. Originally renewed shortly after the first season began airing, season two suffered numerous production woes – first, the loss of its original two showrunners, Michael Green and Bryan Fuller; then the hiring and subsequent (reported) sacking of new showrunner Jesse Alexander; and, finally, countless delays to the show actually arriving on our screens. For a while, it seemed as though American Gods would never return to TV again or, if it did, it would return in a state that was dramatically less spectacular than its original season was. Well, thankfully, season two of American Gods officially premieres on STARZ this Sunday, March 10. STARZ has provided critics with the first two episodes of the season – and I have seen them – and I am happy to report that the show has, indeed, returned – and it’s returned without a significant drop in quality! (This review will be as spoiler-free as possible. Full, spoiler-filled reviews of each episode will be available on the Sundays that they air.)
Starring Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon and Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday, “American Gods” is a one-hour drama adapted from Neil Gaiman’s best-selling novel about a war brewing between Old Gods and New Gods: the traditional gods of mythological roots from around the world steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs. We were forged in God’s image, but the Gods are also made in ours — and in Season Two the battle moves inexorably toward crisis point as the destinies of gods and men collide. While Mr. World (Crispin Glover) plots revenge for the attack against him in Season One, Shadow throws in his lot with Wednesday’s attempt to convince the Old Gods of the case for full-out war, with Laura (Emily Browning) and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) in tow. A council at the House on the Rock explodes into chaos, sending deities both Old and New on quests across America that will converge on Cairo, Illinois: forcing Shadow to carve out a place as a believer in this strange new world of living gods — a dark world where change demands commitment, and faith requires terrible sacrifice.
Originally, I wasn’t going to write this preview/spoiler-free review. With shows like American Gods, I prefer to write individual reviews for each episode rather than advance reviews for however many episodes the network provides ahead of the premiere date. In the case of American Gods, we have been provided with two of the eight episodes for this season – a mere quarter of what will be seen. With that said, it feels a bit unfair to judge the season based solely on those two episodes as they seem to be serving, almost, as a second pilot to the series. These first two episodes act as a great jumping on point for viewers who may not have watched the first season. The first episode pretty much restates the entire premise of the show (while still moving the plot forward, of course) and sets up some of the ongoing arcs for the season while the second episode does a nice deep-dive into the backstory of one of our main characters. So, with that said, why am I writing this spoiler-free review? Namely: the less-than-stellar reviews the new season has been getting from other outlets. With all those of those negative reviews, I wanted to go ahead and throw a positive voice into the mix: I really enjoyed these first two episodes of the second season of American Gods.
The thing about season two of American Gods is that it doesn’t feel much different than season one did. Frankly, if you didn’t know about all of the behind-the-scenes drama that happened between seasons, you probably wouldn’t notice any major change in quality. For better or worse (and I say it’s for the better), the first two episodes of season two of American Gods feel very similar to the episodes from the first season. The only other truly noticeable downgrade in quality comes in the dialogue. The dialogue in these first two episodes isn’t quite as succulent as it often was in season one. The dialogue isn’t bad, or anything, but it’s not quite at the same level as it used to be. If the dialogue in season 1 was a ten, the dialogue in season 2 is a 7 or 8. So, still very good, but just not quite as good. Otherwise, everything feels pretty much the same. The pacing is still as slow and meandering as it was in season 1, the characters still feel the same as they did, the visuals still feel the same as they did, everything still feels the same. I understand that some people might not love the show’s slow, meandering pace, but I absolutely do. For me, it feels very true to the novel, which also had a pretty slow and meandering pace to it, and I enjoy shows that take their time getting to the end goal, allowing the characters a lot of room to breathe. There is a limit, of course, to just how slow-paced a show should be, and season one did struggle with that limit just a bit, but that’s life. So far, season two doesn’t struggle too much with that – although the second episode does come a bit close.
Episode 1, House on the Rock, picks up nearly immediately after the events of the season one finale, Come to Jesus. The tone of the episode is a perfect continuation of the tone set up in season one, the visuals in the first episode are just as beautiful as they were in season one – though, at times, they do look slightly cheaper, but that’s to be expected with the budget disputes. The episode does a good job at restating the premise of the entire series – Wednesday (Ian McShane) wants to unite the Old Gods in a war against the New Gods – and it’s really nice to have (finally) arrived at the House on the Rock and get to see it in all its glory – as they actually filmed sequences for the episode in the real House on the Rock in Wisconsin. And, trust me, the carousel sequence is one of the best sequences in either season of the show. It’s truly great and that scene, alone, is worth watching both seasons of the show. The pacing in this episode is good; things move along pretty quickly, setting everything up and (finally) propelling the narrative forward into its next act. Some really fun, exciting stuff happens in the episode, and it’s chock-full of guest stars, so it’s just a really great way for the show to return.
Episode 2, The Beguiling Man, isn’t quite as good as the first episode. It’s still better than some of my least favorite episodes in season 1 (namely A Prayer for Mad Sweeney, which would have been a better episode if it wasn’t also acting as the penultimate episode of the season, grinding the momentum set up in the previous episode to a total standstill), but it is a noticeable downgrade from House on the Rock. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, it’s just that much of it feels like it’s retreading things we already went through in the first season, even if some of that retreading is true to the novel, and the backstory that it provides for one of our main characters, while mostly being true to the backstory for them that’s hinted at in the novel, feels decidedly average and borderline cliche. I understand that the episode is still acting as a jumping-on point for new viewers, so this is all stuff it needs to get through in order to allow the rest of the season some room to do its thing, but it doesn’t change the fact that the episode isn’t as stellar as House on the Rock Is. As I hinted at earlier, the episode does flirt a bit with that line between being enjoyable slow-paced and being frustratingly slow-paced. However, the ending of the episode does quell some fears that upcoming episodes will be as slow-paced, so it works out okay. If you’re gonna have an episode this slow, it’s good to have it early on (and not as your penultimate episode). Overall, it’s still a good episode.
The fact that the show is able to maintain much of its original, superb quality boils down to the fact that Gaiman is (reportedly) a bit more involved with this season and co-wrote episode 1 with new showrunner, Jesse Alexander, and one of the new(er) executive producers, Christopher J. Byrne – who was previously a second unit director on season 1 – directed the first episode of the season (and also the finale). The involvement of Gaiman and Byrne helps bridge the gap between the first and second season. Byrne, whose work as a second-unit director on season one helped shape the look of the series in the first place, is able to bridge the gap between the creative teams of season one and season two. The show looks exactly as gorgeous as it always has, and that’s due to Byrne continuing to execute the style that he helped forge. Add to that Gaiman’s help cowriting the first episode and you have a recipe for success. Gaiman and Jesse Alexander make a good writing team and it’s a shame that this first episode is the only writing credit either of them has for the season (according to production notes provided to critics by STARZ). I quite like the work that Alexander and Gaiman did on episode one, and I’d have loved to see either of them get a writing credit on a later episode. (I’m sure both of them influenced future episodes, but they didn’t really write them in the same way that Green and Fuller wrote most of the episodes in season one). I’m so glad that Byrne got to direct the first episode of the season as his direction gives everything a bit of stability that it otherwise might not have had. His inclusion as an executive producer gives me some more excitement as we’ll get to see how he and future directors (such as Rachel Talalay(!!!), director of episode 6) work together to execute the beautiful vision of this show.
All in all, season two of American Gods manages to come back to our TV screens without any major changes in quality. Some things are different, sure, but it still mostly feels like the same show that critics and audiences loved in season one. It’s interesting to me that so many critics seem to be disliking these first two episodes as they’re barely any different from the first season and most of what’s being criticized about these new episodes are elements that were praised in season one. I understand that tastes change and many of these critics who are currently writing reviews of season two for various outlets might not have been the same critics who wrote reviews for season one for those outlets, but it is all interesting to me. Not to become conspiratorial, but it feels like some critics aren’t critiquing the quality of the actual show but, rather, are critiquing the behind-the-scenes drama, something that seems to happen a lot whenever a movie or TV series is plagued with production difficulties. Yes, all of that happened and it’s all unfortunate. I, also, would have loved (and, probably, preferred) to see where Bryan Fuller and Michael Green would have taken this show in their original version of this second season. However, it’s not fair to judge the show on what could have been; rather, it should be judged on what it is. With that said, I am pretty happy with this version of season two from Gaiman, Jesse Alexander, and Christopher J. Byrne that we got. It’s not exactly the same as season one, but it still feels like American Gods and it still has the same beautiful visuals, superb acting, interesting story, solid writing, and thought-provoking situations that the first season did. Even with all that happened behind the scenes, American Gods is still one of the most unique shows on television – and it’s still massively enjoyable.
4 out of 5 wands
American Gods premieres Sunday, March 10 at 8pm on STARZ. New episodes air Sundays at 8pm.