The moment I heard that Rachel Talalay would be directing an episode of the second season of American Gods, I grew really excited. I loved Talalay’s work on Doctor Who during the Peter Capaldi years, so I was extremely excited to see how her style would be applied to the world of American Gods. I’m happy to report that this episode totally feels like an episode that’s directed by Rachel Talalay – and I mean that in the best possible way. She has a distinct style and it’s very much on display here – while still staying true to the style of American Gods as a series. Add to all of that the fact that much of this episode takes place in a 1930s burlesque run by Mr. Wednesday, himself, and you have an episode that’s equal parts delightful, deeply emotional, and visually sumptuous. (This review features spoilers!)
Episode 2×06: Donar the Great (Written by Adria Lang, Directed by Rachel Talalay)
Shadow (Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) seek out Dvalin (Jeremy Raymond) to repair the Gungnir spear. But before the dwarf is able to etch the runes of war, he requires a powerful artifact in exchange. On the journey, Wednesday tells Shadow the story of Donar the Great (Derek Theler). Meanwhile, Mr. World (Crispin Glover) and New Media (Kahyun Kim) harness the power of her worshippers to prepare for the coming storm.
Perhaps the first thing viewers will notice when watching this episode is how stylish it is. The very first scene is set in Wednesday’s burlesque club in the 1930s, complete with an actual opening number featuring some surprisingly good vocals from Ian McShane. It’s cheesy as hell, but that’s kind of how burlesque clubs were back then. I love the idea of Wednesday running a burlesque club with Mr. Nancy and Thor/Donar (the episode refers to him as Donar during the flashback scenes, but Shadow refers to him as Thor – and I will be doing the same as most viewers will be more familiar with that name than with Donar. But they’re both names for the same gods), the three of them using those who visit burlesque clubs as a way of obtaining worship. Much of the episode is devoted to this flashback and, honestly, I would be a bit more annoyed about it if it weren’t so damn entertaining. It also helps that this isn’t the penultimate episode of the season and that these flashbacks actually seem to be deepening Wednesday as a character, showing us that he has seen some loss in his life.
Essentially, Wednesday convinces Thor to accept an offer from Manfred, a representative of the American wing of the Nazi party, to become America’s champion and compete in weight-lifting challenges. Wednesday believes this will allow Thor an avenue to the kind of worship he used to get in the olden days. And, at first, Wednesday is correct. But eventually, the Nazis want Thor to intentionally lose a competition so that the German competitor can win. Thor doesn’t want to do this; Wednesday wants him to. So, Thor and Columbia (Laura Bell Bundy), one of the performers at the burlesque club and Thor’s girlfriend, plan to run away to California together and start anew. In sweeps Telephone Boy (Bruce Langley) – an earlier incarnation of Technical Boy – with a proposition for Columbia, whom he has been watching over the course of several burlesque performances. Telephone Boy wants Columbia to join him and essentially become a New God – I feel like he wants to turn her into Media, but I dunno. It’s suggested that Columbia is one of the old Norse Gods but I don’t know who’s she’s supposed to represent. Wednesday lies to her and tells her that Thor has decided to go ahead and compete in Germany for the Nazis, so she agrees to go with Telephone Boy. Later, Thor confronts Wednesday, who tells Thor that Columbia ditched him for Telephone Boy. Thor takes this hard, the two fight (and Thor breaks Gungnir), eventually leading to Thor abandoning Wednesday and killing himself.
These flashbacks are intercut with scenes of Shadow and Wednesday trying to get Dvalin to fix Gungnir. Dvalin is weak and in order to have the power to etch the runes back into the spear, he needs a special object that can only be found in the mall – Lou Reed’s jacket. So, naturally, Shadow and Wednesday pull a con on the seller of the jacket in order to obtain it – and it’s a pretty great con, too. Shadow uses it as a chance to confront Wednesday about something he said towards the beginning of the episode – that Shadow reminds him of his son. Shadow asks what happened to Thor and eventually finds out that Thor killed himself and that suicide is the one death a god can’t come back from. While these scenes are interesting and develop Wednesday and Shadow’s relationships in a way that makes Shadow’s loyalty to Wednesday make more sense, it’s clear that the flashbacks are the real meat and potatoes of this story. All of Wednesday’s character development comes from those flashbacks and the episode seems to be having the most fun while immersing itself in those scenes.
This is one of those episodes that really feels like it could’ve been a season one episode. Unlike nearly every other episode this season, the episode follows one plotline: Shadow and Wednesday trying to get Gungnir fixed, mixing that plotline in with a series of flashbacks that develop Wednesday more. Most other episodes this season have focused on multiple plotlines, bouncing back and forth from character to character. While I have actually really enjoyed that bouncing back and forth, it is kind of nice to just focus on one (or two) characters in the episode. That being said, Mr. World and New Media do briefly appear in two scenes. One towards the beginning of the episode where Mr. World tells New Media she needs to be nearing readiness for the launch of his plan quicker than she is and then in another scene towards the end where Mr. World comments that events are moving faster than they should be after Wednesday gets the Gungnir spear repaired. Otherwise, it’s the Shadow and Wednesday show with half of the episode devoted to flashbacks featuring Wednesday and Thor’s story and I really dig it. I would be more frustrated with this if it was the penultimate episode of the season, but as it’s episode six, I don’t mind the extended flashbacks as much. They do feel like they have a purpose in the overarching storyline – humanize Wednesday a bit. So, for me, it works really well.
All in all, Donar the Great is a very enjoyable episode of American Gods. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of last week’s episode, but it’s also not trying to. It’s trying to be a smaller tale about an event in Wednesday’s past that deeply changed him while pushing the Gungnir plot forward a bit. In that context, it works remarkably well. It’s clear that writer Adria Lang had a great time crafting this episode. A lot of care is put into the pacing and overall structure of how the flashbacks and the present-day scenes interact with each other and the dialogue is very sharp. Rachel Talalay, of course, brings that script to life with such a magnificent flourish that it’s hard to imagine anyone else tackling an episode that could be classified as a musical episode (with no less than three musical numbers present). Talalay makes sure the flashbacks and the present day scenes connect visually by carefully transitioning between the two, making it clear to the audience that Wednesday is, essentially, remembering these events as he gets shocked back into the present on a few occasions. The way Talalay and her Director of Photography film the flashbacks in genuinely beautiful, too. It feels very old-Hollywood, both in its dialogue and in its look. This episode ties with the previous episode in terms of best-looking episodes of the season. I really hope they bring Talalay back next season to direct another episode because, man, I love her style. Overall, I dug this episode a lot. The script and the visuals combined with some stellar acting from McShane, in particular, makes this a can’t-miss episode. It doesn’t push the overall plot forward all that much, but it does deepen our understanding of Mr. Wednesday, and that’s just as important. Things are slowly starting to fall in place for some kind of a confrontation in Cairo over the next two episodes and I’m excited to see where it goes.
4.5 out of 5 wands.