It’s difficult to write weekly reviews of a serialized TV show. When writing a review, you typically want to be able to examine all aspects of the thing you’re reviewing. For a TV show or a film, you want to look at the acting, directing, and writing. That last element is particularly difficult when you’re covering a show that airs week-to-week as many of the episodes don’t have a self-contained narrative that can be evaluated; instead, you hope that what gets set up in earlier episodes is paid off in later ones. This is very true for American Gods—a show which has often been criticized for its slow-paced narrative. So, in that light, I don’t think it’s such a great idea to review each episode of the show the way I’d review an entire story. Instead, I am going to simply talk about what I liked and didn’t like in each episode, with an emphasis on what I hope to see the show do going forward. For this week’s episode, “Serious Moonlight,” there’s a lot to like. Sure, the episode still acts primarily as a setup for the rest of the season, but the individual events of the episode are pretty delightful—from finally getting a good glimpse at Lakeside to journeying to Chicago for a Slavic celebration. There’s a lot to like about this week’s episode and a lot to look forward to. (4 out of 5 wands.)
NOTE: This review will feature spoilers for American Gods S03E02. Read at your own risk.
American Gods S03E02 – “Serious Moonlight”
(written by Moise Verneau, directed by Julian Holmes)
Shadow (Ricky Whittle) explores his oddly welcoming new town before heading to Chicago for a gathering of the Old Gods on Koliada, an ancient Slavic festival. At the Koliada, Wednesday (Ian McShane) reconnects with his oldest friend, and Salim (Omid Abtahi) mourns the unexpected end of his relationship with The Jinn. Shadow returns to Lakeside to find the town rocked by the disappearance of a teenage girl—and discovers that he himself is a suspect.
What I Liked
While Lakeside was introduced in last week’s episode, this week’s outing offers audiences their first proper look at the town—and there’s a lot to like. From Julia Sweeney as the so-nice-it’s-a-bit-off-putting Anne-Marie Hinzelmann to Eric Johnson as the town’s sheriff, Chad Mulligan, to Lela Loren’s Marguerite Olsen, Lakeside immediately feels like a setting that’s fully inhabited. All of these characters imbue Lakeside with a lived-in quality that makes the whole town come alive. These people feel like people who might live in a town like this. They feel like people you might know, like people you might run into down the street. And it’s a lot of fun to see Shadow (Ricky Whittle) interact with them as they make for a stark difference to the brooding gods Shadow normally hangs out with in this show. Of particular joy is Shadow’s interactions with Marguerite. The two begin the episode on opposite ends of a shotgun—with Marguerite on the shooting end—and end the episode in a much more positive place. Their dynamic feels like it will be a key factor of Shadow’s Lakeside storyline and I’m excited to see it play out because Ricky Whittle and Lela Loren have stellar chemistry.
The other big Lakeside event of the episode is the disappearance of Allison McGovern—a young girl who Shadow met briefly at the Lakeside bus stop last episode. Being a newcomer to the town, Shadow is immediately a suspect in her disappearance. But, as he was in Chicago during the time of her disappearance (a plot point we’ll touch on soon), he’s fairly quickly cleared of any involvement. But the aftershocks of Allison’s disappearance will be felt throughout the rest of the season, as anyone who’s read the novel knows. Part of the reason the Lakeside portion of the book is so interesting is because of the mystery surrounding Allison’s disappearance and the episode does a superb job at setting it up. The first half of the episode is spent establishing Lakeside as this so-perfect-it’s-too-perfect town, only to rip the rug out from Shadow (and the audience’s) feet with the disappearance of Allison. I’m excited to see how the show continues to develop this plotline—how close it hews to the book and how well it develops Shadow and the other Lakeside characters.
Wednesday and Tyr
Wednesday’s (Ian McShane) quest to recruit gods and raise funds for his war brings him to Dr. Tyrrell (Denis O’Hare), a dentist otherwise known as the Norse war god, Tyr. Wednesday is visiting Tyr in search of a monetary donation, which Tyr gladly provides. It’s not a very long scene, but we do learn a few interesting tidbits about the duo and their relationship. Wednesday and Tyr have a history outside of being Norse Gods in America—evidenced by a postcard Wednesday steals that was sent to Tyr by Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest. Wednesday also learns of a memorial in Chicago hosted by Czernobog (Peter Stormare) held in remembrance of Zorya Vechernyaya that Wednesday wasn’t invited to. This propels Wednesday to Chicago and his second scene with Tyr. This one is even shorter than the first, with Tyr advising Wednesday that Demeter might not want to see him.
I confess that I am not particularly familiar with Tyr. He’s not a character mentioned in the book (outside of, perhaps, one scene towards the end) and I’m not familiar with his Norse roots. However, I’m quite intrigued to learn more of his past with Wednesday—and, perhaps, the past he and Wednesday seem to share with Demeter. O’Hare goes toe-to-toe with Ian McShane in these scenes and it’s always fun to see Wednesday up against someone who rattles him a bit. I’m not sure if I trust Tyr—something about him feels off to me but I can’t place my finger on it. However, his addition adds a wrinkle to Wednesday’s story and I’m all here for anything that complicates his plan. I’m hoping to see more of Tyr down the line.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, all roads lead to Chicago, where Czernobog and a host of Slavic gods are celebrating Koliada—a Slavic winter festival. Czernobog is none too happy to see Wednesday and the two quickly get into a bit of a brawl that eventually turns into some kind of dance and ends with Czernobog rededicating himself to Wednesday’s war. In all honestly, I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this scene was. When we last saw Czernobog in season two, he seemed all too ready to join Wednesday in avenging Zorya Vechernyaya’s death—so what changed? This episode doesn’t tell us and it doesn’t seem to matter much anyway as the status quo is quickly reestablished. Still, I love the dynamic between Wednesday and Czernobog—two Gods who simultaneously respect and abhor one another—and Ian McShane and Peter Stormare have such an electric chemistry that it’s hard not to enjoy any scene the two of them share.
Unlike Wednesday, Shadow was invited to the Koliada festival by Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar), the youngest of the Zorya sisters, who wishes to discuss Shadow’s future with him. This is the part of the Chicago plotline that interests me the most. It’s not a particularly long scene and, like his conversation with Whiskey Jack in last week’s episode, is filled with obtuse vagueness that merely hints at things without explaining them in any meaningful way. Thankfully, Shadow expresses the frustration much of the audience is feeling and Zorya Polunochnaya acknowledges that the stars can only reveal so much. She tells Shadow that he will soon have to decide between two choices that will determine his destiny. And she takes the coin she gave him in season one and returns it to the sky, advising him to look to it for advice. It’s always nice to see Zorya Polunochnaya again. Her childlike innocence and optimism contrast nicely with Shadow’s more pessimistic nature. Book fans may recognize this scene as one that happens later in the book, so it’s interesting that the show’s moved it here. I’m still not entirely sold on the whole Shadow has a huge destiny thing, but the show is doing a solid job at sowing the seeds for it so I’m willing to see where it goes.
Bilquis and Salim’s Subplots
Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) appears in a single scene this episode. Bill Sanders, some important tech guy, is at her apartment, assisting her with some kind of technical issue. He turns aggressive, demeaning Bilquis and demanding sex from her. She acquiesces, intended to show him how powerful she is. She absorbs him the way she absorbs her worshippers, but as this is an act of revenge and not an act of worship, her body seems to reject the absorption, leading to her vomiting afterward. I like getting to see this more vulnerable side of Bilquis—for most of the show, she’s been this majestic figure. Of all the old gods, she’s the one who seems to be doing the best. So, dramatically speaking, it’s captivating to see such a hurdle placed in her way. She seems to be doubting herself and that makes for a juicy twist to her narrative. Yetide Badaki has said in numerous interviews that Bilquis undergoes a journey of self-discovery this season. Well, this seems to be the beginning of it. Hopefully, the show will stick the landing and we’ll get to see Bilquis grow and evolve. I love this character and I love Badaki’s portrayal of her, so I’m excited to see where this goes.
After being absent in the season premiere, Salim (Omid Abtahi) appears in Mr. Ibis’ (Demore Barnes) funeral home. The Jinn has disappeared, leaving Salim a note that says he’s been sent on a task by Wednesday and that Salim should move on with his life. Understandably, Salim is crushed by this and seeks closure from the Jinn—ideally directly hearing from the Jinn how he feels. Ibis takes Salim to the Koliada festival in Chicago where Salim confronts Wednesday and demands to know where the Jinn is. Wednesday seems to know nothing about the Jinn’s whereabouts, saying the Jinn hates his (Wednesday’s) guts. Wednesday’s forceful denial makes me wonder if he really is telling Salim the truth and the Jinn has just gone AWOL. Only time will tell, but I’m excited to see where this storyline goes and how Salim subsequently develops and evolves. I continue to enjoy the show’s expansion of Salim’s character and this adds a new layer to him—who is he without the Jinn? That’s an answer I’m eager to learn.
What I Didn’t Like
While last week’s episode felt as though it were positioning the chess pieces around the board, this week’s episode feels like a gradual beginning of a battle. It’s a slow-paced episode where not much happens. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, though, but it does rob the season of some of the energy its premiere imbued it with. It’s perfectly natural for the second episode of a season to slow things down and focus on character development, but that’s not really what this episode does. Instead, it feels more like the second half of a two-part premiere as so much of it feels like sheer setup and exposition for the rest of the season. It may be entertaining, well-written setup and exposition, but that doesn’t change the fact that so much of it so quickly can kill the pace a bit.
The bigger problem, editing wise, continued to be the transition between subplots. They’re very haphazard. Sometimes they work beautifully, like the transition between Shadow’s buffalo dream and the scene in Bilquis’ apartment. Sometimes, they stick out like a sore thumb because of the length of the scene. The shorter the scene, the rougher the transition feels. There are a few scenes—particularly in the first half of the episode—that feel as though they’re just getting started as we transition out of them, sometimes never to return. These quick-fire transitions end up robbing the episode of an opportunity to establish a steady pace and flow, making everything feel more disjointed than you’d like. This was a problem in the previous episode and I hate to see it continue to be a problem. I like the show balancing numerous plotlines at once. It gives the season a sense of forward thrust. But I hope they find a better way of implementing this balance instead of relying on short scenes that keep chopping up the flow of the episode.
Too Much Vagueness, Not Enough Clarity
Season three continues one of the most annoying trends American Gods has exhibited its entire lifetime. Too much of the narrative and dialogue is too vague. Characters are constantly hinting at things to come, speaking in obtuse riddles and flowery language that’s hard to dissect. Now, sure, the show can’t just lay all its cards on the table too early in the narrative. But we’re three seasons into this story now, it’s time to start explaining what’s going on. There are moments in this episode, and in last week’s, where the show seems to be doing that. But then there are moments like Shadow’s conversation with Zorya Polunochnaya that resort back to the vague nothingness found in previous seasons. It’s so pervasive that Shadow’s even repeatedly commented on it this season—but mentioning it within the show doesn’t excuse the show of leaning on it. I understand there’s a mystery to set up with Shadow’s destiny but there must be a less heavy-handed way of setting it up. The vagueness just adds to the frustration people have with the show’s narrative. At some point, it has to tell people what’s going on and it doesn’t seem to want to do that yet.
All in all, “Serious Moonlight” is a solid second episode. It’s not as exciting as last week’s episode, nor does anywhere near as much happen here. But it does lay a lot of groundwork for the rest of the season while checking in on characters like Salim, Czernobog, and the Zorya sisters. The pacing is a bit slower than I’d like, with haphazard transitions between plotlines in the first half of the episode contributing to a choppy feeling that ends up pervading most of the hour. However, the dialogue still zings and all of the actors shine brightly. I love what they’re doing with Lakeside and I’m intrigued by all of the plotlines that are being set up. That sense of confidence that was present in the first episode remains present here. Even when the episode stumbles with its editing or its needless opaqueness, there is still a feeling of confidence in the storytelling that makes you feel like you can trust the writers to lead you somewhere good. I hope they do lead us somewhere good and that all of these plotlines coalesce into something satisfying. Until then, though, this is some seriously solid setup. I can easily say I’m captivated by what’s happening and eager to see more.
4 out of 5 wands.