It’s been nearly two years since the first season of American Gods aired its final episode and a lot has happened behind the scenes. In November of 2017, original executive producers (and showrunners) Bryan Fuller and Michael Green left the show after reported disputes related to the budgeting of the season. From there, Jesse Alexander was hired as showrunner and, with the help of Neil Gaiman, retooled the second season of the show a lot, tossing out the six scripts that Fuller and Green had written. For a while, everything seemed to be going fine until reports emerged in September of 2018 that Alexander had been fired from the show and the finale had gone through seven different drafts and everything was in disarray. Gaiman and various members of the cast and crew have disputed these reports, but, nonetheless, to say that the show has been mired by behind-the-scenes drama would be an understatement. Many were worried the second season of the show would never see the light of day, and if it did, that there would be a noticeable drop in quality from the first season. Well, it’s March 10, 2019, and the first episode of the second season of American Gods has premiered on Starz and I’m happy to report that there is no noticeable drop in quality and the show’s just as good as ever. (NOTE: Spoilers for episode 2×01 follow!)
Episode 201: The House on the Rock (written by Jesse Alexander & Neil Gaiman, directed by Christopher J. Byrne)
Following the epic showdown at Easter’s party, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) continues his quest to pitch the case for war to the Old Gods with Shadow (Ricky Whittle), Laura (Emily Browning) and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) in tow. Meanwhile, Mr. World (Crispin Glover) plans revenge and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) goes on the hunt for Media. First stop — the House on the Rock, where Shadow is taken “backstage.”
Season two of American Gods picks up very shortly after the ending of season one. Mr. Wednesday, Shadow, Laura, and Mad Sweeney are on their way to the House on the Rock in Wisconsin in order to meet up with a bunch of other gods – including Czernobog (Peter Stormare), Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), Mama-Ji (Sakina Jaffrey), the Jinn (Mousa Kraish), and Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman) in order for Mr. Wednesday to convince them all to join his war against the New Gods. Speaking of the New Gods, Mr. World has retreated to an underground bunker to lick his wounds after his humiliating battle with Wednesday at the end of season one and has tasked Tech Boy with finding the goddess Media (Kahyun Kim, not appearing in this episode). The story picks up most of the threads left dangling in the season one finale, with the exception of Easter (Kristen Chenoweth) and the famine she caused; that storyline is pretty much waved away with a throw-away line about how Easter is pissed at Wednesday for running over some rabbits and won’t be joining him and the other Old Gods at the House on the Rock and no mention is made of the famine she caused, though the landscape does look a bit more yellow than green, so perhaps that will come into play later on.
The scene at the House on the Rock was rumored to have originally been intended for the finale of season one, but honestly, it works pretty well as a season premiere. The central conceit of the show – Old Gods fighting New Gods for dominance in America – is clearly presented as Wednesday tries to woo the Old Gods into joining his cause, the general narrative thrust of the season is presented as, presumably, the Old Gods band together in the face of the tragic death of Zorya Vechernyaya – by Mr. World’s orders – and prepare to wage war against the New Gods, and the audience is reassured that this is still the same show they’ve come to love. Ignoring all the behind-the-scenes drama and focusing on the episode as the beginning of a new season of any other show, it’s a very strong opening. The hook is immediate and engaging and the episode flows at a nice pace, answering some longstanding questions while providing plenty of new ones and ending on a cliffhanger that will nicely push the characters (and the audience) into future episodes of the show. A particular highlight, of course, is the sequence in the House on the Rock where Shadow and the Old Gods ride the carousel and end up “backstage” – a realm that exists parallel to the normal world that the gods can access -, this time manifesting itself as Wednesday’s palace. The visual effects here are glorious and all of the Old Gods are presented in more fantastical forms than we normally see them. It’s in this sequence that we really feel the sheer power these gods have. And it’s glorious; it was well worth the wait.
The episode, co-written by new showrunner, Jesse Alexander, and author of the original novel, Neil Gaiman, feels pretty much the same as the episodes from season one felt. There is no immediate discernible change in quality; the scripts might be slightly more narratively focused and slightly less pretentious/artsy fartsy now than they previously were, but that’s not a bad thing, nor is it particularly noticeable. Instead, we’re given a pretty logical conclusion of the storylines from where the previous season ended. Basically, much is exactly the same. The characters are still the same people we loved from season one; they speak the same and act the same and are continuing along the journeys they began last season. It’s a genuine relief to see that the show has not suffered from its behind-the-scenes drama, and I’m glad this episode is as well written and directed as it is. The only real noticeable difference is in the soundtrack; composed by Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans (replacing season one’s composer, Brian Reitzell), the music feels slightly more conventional. It’s still nothing like the music in most TV shows, but it does feel slightly less unique. It’s not a big change, and the music still is great, but it was the main one I noticed.
All in all, The House on the Rock is a great way to begin season two of American Gods. It’s a very good continuation of the story from where it left off at the end of season 1. The writing and visuals remain as good as you’d expect them to be, drawing audiences into this story of warring gods with clever dialogue and gorgeous visuals. The acting from the entirety of the cast remains top-notch, each of them bringing a lot of pathos to their characters. This is a show featuring a massive array of strong and powerful characters, most of whom wouldn’t hesitate to stab another in the back, so the fact that the actors are able to make each of these characters sympathetic, dynamic, and engaging is a testament to their abilities as actors and to Alexander and Gaiman’s writing. The episode is paced very well, still moving fairly slowly (as audiences have come to expect from American Gods) while also, finally, pushing the plot along into the next arc for these characters. Ultimately, this episode was everything I hoped the season premiere would be. It’s reminded me why I adore this show so much, and I’m so happy that the show seems to remain in good hands, even with all that occurred behind the scenes. If you’re not watching American Gods, now’s a good time to catch up.
4.5 out of 5 wands.