REVIEW: American Gods S03E01 – A Winter’s Tale

After a nearly two-year break, American Gods is back on our TV screens—and not a moment too soon. And, as is customary for the show, a lot’s happened in those two years. There have been more shakeups in front of, and behind, the camera, leading to the departure of actors like Orlando Jones, Kahyun Kim, and Mousa Kraish. However, unlike the previous season, it appears that the making of season three was a far smoother affair—an assumption that is borne out on screen. Despite everything that may have happened behind the scenes, the season premiere of American Gods is great. It does everything a premiere should do—establishes where the characters are as the season begins and where they’re headed, lays the groundwork for future episodes, and energizes audiences for the season to come. While the premiere sometimes feels like a pilot episode for a new show, it remains distinctly American Gods-esque and is genuinely fun and exciting to watch. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: This review contains full spoilers for the episode. Read at your own risk.)

American Gods S03E01 – “A Winter’s Tale” (written by David Paul Francis, directed by Jon Amiel)
After months apart, Wednesday reappears in Shadow’s life, resolved to drag him back into his divine war effort. A meeting with the god Wisakedjak leaves Shadow with a prophecy about his destiny—a destiny that seems determined to bring him to the idyllic, snowy town of Lakeside, Wisconsin.

It’s been three months since the events of “Moon Shadow,” the season two finale, and, as is often the case in American Gods, everyone is off doing their own things. As the episode opens (with the series’ first use of a cold open, or pre-titles sequence), Wednesday reveals himself in the audience at a concert headlined by Blood Death, a nordic-themed metal band led by the enigmatic Johan (Marilyn Manson). Wednesday is there to feed off the adulation of Blood Death’s fans. He does so by surfing the crowd and being honored by Johan on stage—an act which, unbeknownst to Wednesday, is recorded and circulated around the internet. Meanwhile, Shadow is hiding in Milwaukee under the name Mike Ainsel and working in a factory—all to avoid Wednesday’s war. Feeling betrayed and lied to by Wednesday, Shadow is none too pleased when he runs into Wednesday (after learning he was being promoted, pending a government-run background check.) This new dynamic between Shadow and Wednesday forms the bulk of the episode—Shadow, understandably, doesn’t trust Wednesday and wants nothing to do with him while Wednesday seems to desperately need Shadow for reasons he doesn’t specify. As uncertain as I was about the show revealing Shadow’s parentage this early, it does result in the character having more agency. For the first time, Shadow is making his own decisions for reasons the audience can understand and follow. He’s no longer content to simply allow things to happen to him; rather, he’s taking an active role in his own fate. Of course, destiny might have something to say about that.

Elsewhere, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) has returned to her apartment in New York (for reasons unspecified) and is once again seeking worship the way she did in season one. Laura (Emily Browning) is in New Orleans, having brought Mad Sweeney’s corpse to Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte (Hani Furstenberg), the two loa from “The Ways of the Dead,” attempting to use their voodoo to resurrect Sweeney. Unfortunately, their efforts have proven in vain, leaving Laura with few options to resurrect Sweeney and use him to retrieve Gungnir, Wednesday’s spear, from Sweeney’s horde so she can use it to murder Wednesday. Over in the realm of the New Gods, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) is in hot water with World (Dominque Jackson), after having messed up his upgrade and screwed up an intelligence-gathering operation by turning into a manhunt against Shadow (this season’s way of retconning the events of the season two finale). You may have noticed the absence of certain other characters—like Salim (Omid Abtahi), Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes), Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), the Jinn (Mousa Kraish, and New Media (Kahyun Kim). This episode doesn’t address the whereabouts of any of those characters. So, for now, we’re left to wonder.

Having established where all of the characters are, the premiere then goes about setting up what they’ll end up doing throughout the season. With all of her attempts to resurrect Sweeney having failed thus far, Laura has one final one—and that’s to cut Sweeney’s coin out of her chest and give it to him in the hopes it resurrects him. However, the moment she does so, she collapses and turns into dust, with the coin rolling away from them both. While I was never a hardcore Laura/Sweeney shipper, I have enjoyed the way the show has developed the two of them and it’s kind of interesting seeing Laura so devoted to resurrecting him. Sure, she says it’s because she needs him to retrieve Gungnir from his Horde so she can murder Wednesday, but it’s difficult not to read some kind of further attachment toward Sweeney in her motives. Regardless, Laura doesn’t appear for the rest of the episode and we’re left wondering what’s happened to her and whether or not we’ll see her again. The trailers indicate we do, but how? That’s the big question set up here that a future episode will have to answer.

The New Gods are working on a new app (entitled Shard) that seems designed to tap into humanity’s consciousness to obtain their worship. World tasks Technical Boy with obtaining the project’s funding and with convincing Bilquis to join the New Gods. Tech Boy, of course, talks a big game but when he visits Bilquis, things don’t go so well. After a discussion of the costs of war, Bilquis (accidentally?) causes Tech Boy to have a vision (memory) of what appears to be the Vietnam War. This freaks both of them out and looks to be setting them both on journeys of self-discovery. I’m interested to see what the show intends to do with this storyline. Bilquis and Technical Boy make an interesting pairing—neither of them seems particularly interested in remaining allied with their respective sides in this war and I’m curious if the show intends to play this up further. Yetide Badaki and Bruce Langley are also a joy to watch opposite one another, so I’ll take as many scenes featuring the two of them as I can.

As you might expect, Shadow and Wednesday do end up reuniting. They enter Backstage—a parallel realm accessible by the gods—to escape assassins sent by World to kill Wednesday. While there, they visit Whiskey Jack (Graham Greene), a Native American deity who Wednesday attempts to recruit. Whiskey Jack wants nothing to do with Wednesday but has been expecting Shadow. He tells Shadow that Shadow’s destiny is vital to preventing everything from coming to an end—but doesn’t go any further; instead, telling Shadow that when his heart and head are aligned, he will be enlightened. I’m not sure how I feel about giving Shadow this big destiny plotline. I know he’s the son of a god and all of that, but the book has this feeling where Shadow isn’t really all that important to the actual events—he’s important solely because he’s Wednesday’s son but, otherwise, he’s just an everyman. And I’d hate to lose that in the show. However, as I said earlier, I am loving anything the show does that gives Shadow more agency in his story, so I’m willing to see how this whole “destiny” thing plays out. Either way, Shadow and Wednesday eventually leave Backstage, with Wednesday having failed to recruit Whiskey Jack.

From there, Shadow and Wednesday part ways once again, with Shadow intending to go anywhere but Lakeside—a small Wisconsin town that Wednesday desperately wants him to go to. Shadow is dropped off at the nearest bus station where he discovers that every bus route has been delayed due to a snowstorm. Every bus stop, that is, except for the one to Lakeside. As if by fate, Shadow ends up going to Lakeside where he is briefly introduced to characters like Hinzelmann (Julian Sweeney) and Sheriff Chad Mulligan (Eric Johnson), two characters who will prove important in episodes to come. Lakeside is a fan-favorite portion of the book; it’s the part of the novel where all of the various storylines begin to intersect and come together to push toward the novel’s climax. So, naturally, it’s exciting to see the show finally reach this point. And the episode leaves off with a pretty big cliffhanger: after breaking the key to his apartment in the door’s lock, Shadow tries to find another way into the building only to be met by the barrel of a shotgun. Is Shadow about to be shot? Who’s on the other end of the gun? These are all answers for another episode, but they sure do leave you wanting more.

It’s hard to judge “A Winter’s Tale” in a vacuum because so much of it is just set up for future episodes—as is the case for most premiere episodes of serialized shows. Many of these ideas and plot points are incredibly interesting and exciting, but so much of the success of this episode will depend on how these plot points are executed throughout the rest of the season. Still, what writer David Paul Francis and director Jon Amiel do here is impressive. They deftly reestablish the status quo of American Gods so that later episodes can break the status quo and establish a new one. There are a lot of cool ideas and intriguing plot points that are well-seeded throughout the episode, plot points that give the show a sense of direction. Francis and Amiel keep the episode’s pace moving at a good pace with tight dialogue, gorgeous visuals, and smooth(ish) transitions. Stylistically, the show feels a bit different than in previous seasons, with the juggling of multiple character arcs, the inclusion of cold opens, and various little things like that, but the episode also feels quintessentially American Gods. It’s not always graceful as the episode bounces between subplots, but the combination of plots do give the episode a sense of momentum. It feels like things are happening and that everything is connected in some way. Backstage may look different than it previously did, but it looks no less magical than you’d hope. The effects in Whiskey Jack’s realm are particularly impressive, as are the stop motion-esque transitions used between certain scenes.

All in all, “A Winter’s Tale” is a super solid season premiere. It may not be the most eventful premiere, the most shocking premiere, or the most action-packed one. But it is a confident one. With this episode, American Gods reestablishes where it’s been and lays the groundwork for where it’s going. Numerous plot threads are seeded that will (hopefully) pay off in the future. It occasionally feels like a pilot for a new show as the creative team discards past seasons’ elements that they don’t want while setting up their own ideas, but it still feels quintessentially American Gods. The new cast slots nicely amongst the returning cast and everyone is given some pretty meaty stuff to work with—I’m especially interested in seeing how Bilquis and Technical Boy’s arcs develop. But, ultimately, the episode is just exciting. It’s nice to return to the world of American Gods and this premiere has me pumped to see where the show will go next. And that’s exactly what a season premiere should do.

(4.5 out of 5 wands.)

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