I’d say this episode pretty much confirms those rumors about Gaiman being unhappy that season one of American Gods departed a bit from the events of the book as nearly half of this episode is stuff that didn’t happen in the book. This isn’t a bad thing at all; in fact, I like that the show is continuing to branch out from the source material. There is so much stuff in American Gods that wasn’t explored in the novel but can be explored in the TV show, so I am very happy with the show taking the occasional detour from the book. That being said, is this detour worth the time spent on it? Yeah, I’d say so. (Spoilers for episode 2×02!)
Episode 2×02: The Beguiling Man (written by Tyler Dinucci & Andres Fischer-Centeno, directed by Frederick E.O. Toye)
Promising vengeance for the death of a beloved old god, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) begins preparation for a great battle. Meanwhile Laura (Emily Browning) and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) chase Shadow’s (Ricky Whittle) diminishing light after his disappears. The Jinn (Mousa Kraish) and Salim (Omid Abtahi) set out to retrieve the Gungnir spear, and Shadow encounters an associate, Mr. Town (Dean Winters), of Mr. World (Crispin Glover).
Unlike the previous episode, this episode does feel a bit different to season one. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is noticeable. Season one primarily focused on one character (or group of characters) per episode, not really bouncing back and forth between a bunch of different characters. There were exceptions, of course, but for the most part, one plot line was the main plotline in any given episode. That’s not really the case in The Beguiling Man. The majority of the episode is split between Mr. Town torturing Shadow for information on Mr. Wednesday’s plan – and the flashbacks to Shadow’s youth that accompanies this – and Laura and Mad Sweeney’s quest to find and rescue Shadow. Sprinkled in there are bits with Salim and the Jinn, Mr. Wednesday and Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones) traveling together (also to “save” Shadow, though you don’t learn this until the end of the episode), and Tech Boy’s search for New Media – who we sort of meet in this episode, but only as disembodied voices. I like it when shows bounce back and forth between various points of view, so I’m on board with this particular change. That being said, this is an episode where a lot seems to happen but also nothing much happens.
The main reason for this is that we spend the bulk of the episode – or, at least, what feels like the bulk of it – experiencing a bunch of flashbacks to Shadow’s teenage years with his mother (Olunike Adeliyi). Here, we see teenage Shadow (Gabriel Darku) struggling to cope with life as an immigrant to America; it’s unclear whether Shadow was actually born in America or not, but the show seems to suggest he’s spent the majority of his life, with his mother, traveling the world. We see these flashbacks during Mr. Town’s torturing of Shadow. Here, Mr. Town seems to be filling the same role that Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone filled in the original novel. There, they abduct Shadow right after the House on the Rock meeting, which is precisely what Mr. Town does here. It was hinted at that Mr. Wood was in episode five of season one, as that monstrous tree we saw in the police station, but nothing’s been truly confirmed. The interrogation plays out fairly similarly to the novel; Mr. Town is trying to find out what Shadow knows about Mr. Wednesday’s plan. He gets very little information from Shadow. And, eventually, Laura rescues him. Unfortunately, this whole plotline feels a bit like a rehash of two early season one plotlines, where Tech Boy brutally interrogates Shadow for information on Mr. Wednesday and, ultimately, ends up lynching him, and later, when Shadow and Wednesday are arrested and interrogated in the police station. Nothing quite as awful happens as Shadow getting lynched happens here, though it’s still massively unpleasant seeing Shadow restrained the way he is for the entirety of this episode. I recognize that much of this is lifted from the novel, but given that season one featured two interrogation scenes, I’m not sure we needed this one anymore, at least not to this extent.
The flashbacks are fine; they do a nice job at expanding on Shadow’s backstory, even if they do feel a tiny bit cliche at times; though, to be fair, Shadows as a character has always been a bit of a cliche. I appreciate that they were trying to make Shadow’s experience as an immigrant align with the Old Gods’ experiences as immigrants, too, and it mostly worked, though there were times that it did feel just a bit heavy-handed. There is a nice little scene towards the end of the flashbacks featuring a mysterious man and I’m interested if that ends up being who I think it is. I like the idea of learning more about Shadow, and I like a lot of what we see in these flashbacks, but I do wish that the entirety of the episode hadn’t been devoted to them. Probably because it grinds a show with already slow pacing to a complete halt for much of an episode (similar to season one’s A Prayer for Mad Sweeney). It might have been better to save such a flashback-heavy episode for episode four, maybe, like last season. But it’s not show killing or anything. It’s still enjoyable, just a bit slow and momentum-halting for a while, but the end of the episode does set up some nice stuff that should propel us forward in future episodes.
The rest of the episode is spent with Laura and Mad Sweeney frantically trying to track down Shadow. Here, we see Mad Sweeney continue to have a whole lot of bad luck – due to the fact that Laura has his lucky coin inside her – and, while it does feel a bit like a rehash of some season one stuff, it is still pretty enjoyable. It is nice seeing Laura and Sweeney’s continued softening to one another, and Sweeney has a great scene where he takes Laura into his own version of the “backstage” – and it’s this nightmarish hellscape. I also like that Sweeney is the one who ultimately convinces Laura not to give up on saving Shadow when the trail to him seems to run dry. There’s some good stuff here, even if a lot of it feels like stuff we’ve already seen again. I definitely like the idea of exploring Sweeney’s bad luck, and Laura’s continued physical deterioration. In both cases (Shadow’s interrogation and Laura and Sweeney’s plotline), I applaud writers Tyler Dinuccio and Andres Fischer-Centeno for crafting scenes that still feel important and new, even as they also feel reminiscent of older scenes. That’s a really hard balance to achieve.
As for Mr. Wednesday, Mr. Nancy, and the rest of the Old and New Gods, they’re not really around much in this episode. Mr. World (Crispin Glover) shares a scene with Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) where he continues to try to get her onto the side of the New Gods and she expresses her refusal to fight in the war. And then there’s the previously mentioned scene where Tech Boy encounters New Media in a disembodied voice. I’m excited for when we finally get to properly see New Media and I do think this storyline is a good way of explaining why the character will no longer be played by Gillian Anderson. As for Wednesday and Nancy, they appear in the beginning, with Wednesday sending everyone on different quests – Salim and the Jinn are off to find Gungnir, Mad Sweeney and Laura are off to save Shadow, and Wednesday and Nancy are off to do… something. I’m not sure that I love the idea of all of our characters being split up again, only to re-converge at the end of the season, but we’ll see how it plays out. It feels a bit like a repeat of the season one formula, but it could definitely work. It all depends on the execution. That’s the case with most of this episode, actually. A lot is set up – including a very interesting cliffhanger – but it’s hard to tell how much of it works, at this point. Much of it will depend on how further episodes continue these storylines.
All in all, The Beguiling Man is a solid episode of American Gods. It’s not quite as good as the premiere was, but it’s not a bad episode by any stretch of the imagination. It’s very enjoyable and lays a lot of groundwork for the rest of the season, two things which are very important. There continue to be great character moments and great visuals. I wish the overall narrative had been pushed forward a bit more than it was, but we did get a lot of nice character development for Shadow and some good moments for Laura and Mad Sweeney in return for a slower narrative thrust. As a way of reintroducing viewers (and introducing viewers) to some key elements from last year, it works well, but as a way of pushing the story forward more, it doesn’t work quite as well (though it doesn’t fail by any stretch of the imagination). Overall, I still enjoyed the episode quite a bit. The acting and the visuals were superb and I did like a lot of the stuff that happened. I’m very excited to see where we go next week and I’m happy to be enjoying the season so far!
4 out of 5 wands