REVIEW: “American Gods” Season 3 (Spoiler Free)

American Gods is one of my favorite TV shows. Its quality isn’t always consistent and there seems to be a lot of turnover in front of, and behind, the camera, but there’s nothing else like it on TV and I find myself returning to it time and time again. Its source material being so fantastic helps a lot, of course, but I still find much to enjoy in Starz’s TV adaptation. So, naturally, I was beyond excited to see what they’d do with season three. With another round of cast and crew shakeups, season three had a lot working against it. But it was said to be adapting one of the best parts of the book (the Lakeside arc) and featured a slew of new and exciting cast members, so there was still much to be hopeful about. And, having seen the first four episodes, I’d say that hope is fulfilled. The third season of American Gods feels simultaneously familiar and new—it’s identifiably the same show we’ve fallen in love with but it’s bursting with new energy and momentum. It’s not perfect, but it’s a promising start. (4.5 out of 5 wands)

(NOTE: This review strives to be as spoiler free as possible. There may be mentions to information officially revealed in trailers and promotional material, but no major plot points will be discussed.)

American Gods – Season Three
Following his discovery last season that Mr. Wednesday is his father, Shadow attempts to break away and assert himself as his own man. As he settles into life in Lakeside, he uncovers a dark secret while exploring questions of his own divinity. Guided on this spiritual journey by the gods of his black ancestors, the Orishas, Shadow must decide exactly who he is—a god seeking veneration or a man in service of the “we.”

Season three picks up a few months after season two’s conclusion, with all of the show’s main characters having split up and gone their separate ways. Shadow’s been hiding out in Milwaukee, avoiding his role in Wednesday’s war; Mr. Wednesday’s continued traversing the country recruiting Old Gods for his war; Bilquis has returned to her apartment in New York to obtain her worship the way she used to; the New Gods have relocated to a new base and are working towards the launch of a mysterious app; Laura has been searching for a way to resurrect Mad Sweeney. At first, the time jump is a little jarring as you might expect the show to pick up directly where season two ended, with Shadow on a bus, seemingly headed to Lakeside, but I think the time jump ultimately works really well. It allows the new creative team the room to pick which plotlines they want to keep following from the previous seasons (and which they want to subtly drop) while also giving them space to organically sow the seeds for new plot lines. In some ways, the time jump acts as a small reboot, but the show is still the same show it’s always been—just with some new tweaks.

The biggest, and most immediate, tweak you’ll notice is that the show has a sense of narrative momentum. It’s still a slow-paced show, with the characters inching their way towards war rather than running towards it. But as the season beings, every character has a defined objective that they are seeking to fulfill and every episode follows some of them as they work to fulfill it, giving the show a forward thrust it’s been sorely missing. Shadow wants to learn more about himself and ends up in Lakeside working on doing just. Wednesday is continuing to recruit Old Gods while raising money for his cause, and his journey brings him across figures from his past that shake up his world a bit. Salim is trying to find meaning in the wake of the Jinn suddenly disappearing from his life. Bilquis, Technical Boy, and Laura have equally well-defined objectives, but to discuss them would venture into a territory rife with spoilers. The point is that these objectives give every episode a sense of forward momentum, even if the greater storyline of the series isn’t moving particularly quickly toward an endpoint. It seems like it would be storytelling 101 to have a plot that is clearly driven by character actions, but that hasn’t always been the case with American Gods and it’s great to see the show embrace that kind of storytelling. There is no sense of the narrative treading water in these episodes; instead, things keep happening to these characters that push them to reflect and to make decisions that, subsequently, propel their stories forward. It’s a long-awaited, much-desired, and very effective tweak.

The other tweaks are mainly stylistic ones. There are cold opens now, short scenes before the opening credits that set the stage for each episode. Most of them take the form of a “Coming to America” story, introducing a god or pantheon of gods that are important to that episode’s storyline. It’s nice to see the return of these vignettes as they were a frequent highlight of the show’s first season. Placing them in front of the opening credits makes a lot of sense as they work exquisitely as preludes for the episodes. I think fans will be pleased by the variety of vignettes in the season and by the variety of gods that are explored within each vignette. The other noticeable stylistic tweak is in the number of storylines each episode follows. Season two began to split each episode’s time between various plotlines, but season three leans even harder into this. Every episode follows a minimum of three plotlines—sometimes this works exceedingly well and other times it feels a bit clunky, with the show unable to find a rhythm in its balancing of the storylines. But, like the defining of character objectives, the bouncing of plot lines helps keep the show moving forward as something of note happens in each episode.

I think these first four episodes are a solid beginning for the season. There’s a confidence to the storytelling that the previous season lacked entirely. It’s clear executive producer, Charles H. Eglee, Neil Gaiman, and the rest of the creative team have an end goal in mind for the season and every episode so far seems to be working toward that goal. Grounding the series in a town like Lakeside opens up a bunch of storytelling avenues, like the ongoing saga of children vanishing under mysterious circumstances in Lakeside—a storyline that allows Shadow to be proactive in doing something, rather than just reacting to all the weird stuff the gods do. The characters feel more clearly defined than ever. The cast are excellent, both old and new. All of the cast are given some exciting, meaty material to play with while the new cast members slot in nicely amongst the returning members. Some immediate new standouts are Ashley Reyes as Cordelia, Julia Sweeney as Hinzelmann, Lela Loren as Marguerite Olsen, and Dominique Jackson as Ms. World—though every member of the cast brings their a-game. The show maintains much of its unique visual flair, with the VFX being as good as it’s always been. American Gods is a beautiful show, from its gorgeous and stylistic cinematography to its breathtaking visual effects—and, best of all, the show’s more fantastical elements feel rooted in the characters and their stories instead of serving as pure spectacle. All in all, I think these first four episodes get season three off to a better start than either of the show’s first two seasons had.

That being said, these first four episodes aren’t entirely perfect. The dialogue is as hit or miss as it’s always been, often ranging between needlessly obtuse to cheesy and clunky. The editing is sometimes weird, with one episode featuring a really strange audio cue that legitimately made me laugh at a moment that I don’t think was intended to be comedic. A few characters feel sidelined in these episodes—notably Demore Barnes’ Mr. Ibis and Omid Abtahi’s Salim. They appear all too briefly in one episode, but promotional material does promise a lot more of them—so, that’s coming later on, I guess. A lot of plot points from the previous season are completely dropped—some of them are dropped in more subtle ways while others are dropped like a lead balloon. It’s understandable for there to be some retconning that happens between seasons; I mean, there was a changeover of executive producers and it’s only natural for the new producer to want to steer the show however he wishes. But some of the retcons are distractingly noticeable, especially in the wake of the second season doing the same thing with certain plotlines from the first season. There’s even a new theme for the season—primarily introduced through a storyline featuring the Orishas, Yoruba Gods and Goddesses —that feels pointedly at odds with a major theme of the past two seasons. Gone is Mr. Nancy’s “Angry gets s**t done”; the Orishas’ call for unity slots into its place. This will certainly be a polarizing decision, especially in the wake of Jones’ departure from the show. Whether or not it’s a worthwhile change is yet to be seen, but it stands out like a sore thumb.

Additionally, much has been written about the absences of certain cast members—namely Orlando Jones, Mousa Kraish, Pablo Schreiber, and Kahyun Kim—and their absences are felt. While the absences of Kraish’s Jinn and Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney are explained away (and their lingering presences are felt and vital to the character arcs of Salim and Laura, respectively), the absences of Jones’ Mr. Nancy and Kim’s New Media are completely glossed over and wholly ignored. It’s a real shame to lose these characters—especially for the reasons we lost some of them—and it’s an even bigger shame to see the absence of some of them completely ignored. But even with these problems, the show works more often than it doesn’t and so many interesting ideas and character arcs are set up in these first few episodes that I can’t imagine it would be difficult for a viewer to find themselves drawn into some aspect of the show. It remains to be seen, of course, if the season will stick the landing or if it’ll fall into the trap that has ensnared previous seasons—great ideas that end up going nowhere. But, based on what I’ve seen, I remain hopeful.

All in all, the third season of American Gods gets off to an impressively solid start. At times, these first episodes feel like the pilot for a new show—though one that maintains many of the old show’s familiar elements. However, within that sense of newness comes a confidence that hasn’t been seen in this show since the first season’s early episodes. The four episodes of season three provided for review form the best beginning of any season in American Gods’ run. The absences of certain characters are felt and there are still things that could be improved upon, but the creative team has clearly taken into consideration some of the complaints raised against the show’s narrative and sought to correct them. These episodes are exciting, well-paced, and reintroduce audiences to a world they’ve grown to love. But even better than that, these episodes feel like they are working toward an endpoint. That feeling of narrative momentum has been sorely missing and it gives the show a shot of excitement it had been lacking. There may be character absences felt and old plotlines dropped, but there’s a lot to be excited about here and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season does with the story that’s set up in these episodes.

4.5 out of 5 wands

American Gods airs Sundays at 8pm on Starz, beginning January 10th.

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