Season two of American Gods seems to be establishing a pattern in which one episode moves the plot forward quite a bit while the next episode slows things down for a more introspective look at the characters. This episode is an example of the former. It’s another episode where a whole lot happens, but it also leaves plenty of room for some truly beautiful character moments. If you’ve been waiting for this second season of American Gods to reach the heights of its first, I think you’ll be very pleased, indeed, with this episode. It’s an absolutely stellar one – and it might be the most visually impressive episode of the season – aside from the premiere, of course.
Episode 2×05: The Ways of the Dead (Written by Rodney Barnes, directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield)
Steeped in Cairo’s history, Shadow (Ricky Whittle) learns the ways of the dead with the help of Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) and Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones). In New Orleans, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) introduces Laura (Emily Browning) to old friends who share their world of voodoo healing. Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) embarks on a road trip with Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the Jinn (Mousa Kraish), and they have a challenging discussion about faith. Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) discovers an opportunity to draw new worshippers that might give her the power to break free of Mr. World (Crispin Glover).
I loved everything about this episode. Again, like many of the episodes this season, the plot is (primarily) split between three subplots. The first of these is Mad Sweeney and Laura’s journey to New Orleans in order to visit Baron Samedi (Mustafa Shakir) – a voodoo God who Sweeney believes can bring Laura back to life. It’s never really explained how Laura managed to escape Argus’ lair after getting trapped there by Wednesday in episode three, but you sort of don’t care because it’s extremely nice seeing Sweeney and Laura reunited. Of course, things aren’t sunshine and roses for them as they work to convince Baron Samedi to help revive Laura. Eventually, he consents, but Laura has to give him a truth in return for the potion he will give her in order to revive her. Not only that, but in order for the potion to work, she will need to mix it with two drops of blood infused with love – whatever that means. Interestingly, the truth that Laura is forced to reveal is that she (probably) harbors some feelings for Mad Sweeney. At the climax – pun intended – of her deal with the Baron, they end up having sex in a super trippy scene that’s very reminiscent of the sex scenes in Hannibal. Baron Samedi ends up tricking her into having sex with Mad Sweeney as he pulls some voodoo trickery to replace him with Sweeney. This development is the straw that breaks the back of Laura and Sweeney’s relationship as she thinks he and Wednesday orchestrated all of this in order to keep screwing her around. She ditches him with a lovely line, “You do Wednesday’s errands because, no matter how much you claim you want a war to die in, you’re too much of a fucking coward to find your own.” It’s a bittersweet ending to a development that many fans have hoped for, but it all feels right within the context of the narrative.
The next subplot involves Wednesday, Salim, and the Jinn traveling to see Alviss (Lee Arenberg) in order to get him to repair the Gungnir spear. During their journey, Salim and the Jinn have a pretty interesting conversation about faith. Salim, still a devout Muslim, believes that Allah is the one true God; the Jinn asks him how he can believe that to be true as he literally parades around the country in the company of various gods. The Jinn raises a pretty valid point, but Salim stays true to his faith. It’s basically the inverse of the conversation that Mad Sweeney and Laura had back in episode two (where Sweeney asked Laura how she could still be an atheist as she finds her self in the company of literal gods). I really like how the show is addressing these different kinds of belief in the face of these humans having these interactions with all of these literal gods. The Jinn has a pretty hard-hitting line he spits at Salim in the heat of their argument, “Men only see what they want to see and you are just like them, Salim,” and I think it sums up the theme pretty well. Alviss is unable to help them repair Gungnir as he can’t etch the runes needed to fix it, so he tells Wednesday to pay Dvalin a visit – a plotline that will be continued in the next episode. Between this plotline and the Mad Sweeney/Laura plotline, this episode seems to push the overarching storylines along at a nice, brisk pace and I dig it.
The final subplot, however, brings things back to a more introspective place – and provides a nice counterpart to the plot-furthering elements of the episode. As Shadow helps Mr. Ibis around the funeral parlor, Mr. Ibis explains to Shadow the story on one particular man – Will James – who seems to be haunting Shadow’s dreams. It’s here where we get another “Somewhere in America” vignette as we see how Will James was killed all those years ago and we see a young black man, Jamarr (Percy Anane-Dwumfour) (grandson to Lila (Patricia Wright-Domingue), the woman who had died last week, and sister to Ruby (Mouna Traore), the woman who Bilquis seems to be courting – more on that in a moment). This season seems to be doing a much better job at actually incorporating the flashbacks and vignettes into the main storyline of the episode (instead of making them feel tacked on the way the first season’s vignettes often did) and it’s a lot of fun to see how the past impacts the present on this show. Meanwhile, Bilquis is continuing to court Ruby’s worship and seems to be succeeding. And Mr. Nancy is really angry that so many young black men seem to be dying in Cairo. He accuses Jacquel and Ibis of orchestrating these deaths in order to keep their funeral business alive. This ends up not being the case as Shadow comes under the influence of Will James’ spirit and learns that it’s James who has been causing all of this. He wants people to feel what he felt and he has Shadow deliver a speech at Lila’s funeral in order to help put him to rest. It’s a really beautiful moment, actually, but it fits in perfectly with American Gods‘ pension for the strange. This whole plotline is a nice introspective moment that continues many of the themes brought up in Nancy’s speech in the previous episode. We see Ibis slowly starting to get less complacent and we see Bilquis finding her own niche of worship and it’s really great getting to see all of these gods slowly evolve.
All in all, The Ways of the Dead is an excellent episode of American Gods. It perfectly blends together plotlines that push the overarching storyline forward while also featuring plotlines that develop the characters in new and interesting ways. This episode, in particular, features some truly beautiful visuals. I’ve never jumped on the bandwagon that this season looked particularly less beautiful than last season, but man, do the visuals in this episode truly match some of the best visuals from season one. I dig how all the scenes featuring the gods showing off their powers is filmed in a 2:1 aspect ratio (instead of the normal 16×9 or the 2.39:1 ratio used in the flashback scenes); it really gives those scenes an immediately recognizable identity and separates them from the rest as something special. The episode, on the whole, is just so damn good. Rodney Barnes and Salli Richardson-Whitfield both did stellar jobs here and I deeply hope that both of them will return for the third season because this episode is a genuine standout so far.
5 out of 5 wands