No TV show can be perfect. Even the best-made ones stumble from time-to-time. Plotlines get fumbled, character arcs don’t pan out, whatever—every show has an episode that isn’t stellar. Unfortunately, this week’s episode of American Gods is one such episode. It’s not that “Ashes and Demons” is bad or anything. It’s still fairly solid. But it’s the episode that’s most emblematic of my complaints regarding season 3. It’s an episode filled with things that I liked, but it’s also one that never manages to come together as a satisfying whole. The editing, primarily, is what lets this episode down and results in it feeling like a collection of unrelated scenes with no sense of purpose or flow. But still—on their own, those scenes are pretty good. And there’s a lot to like about the episode. (3.5 out of 5 wands)
NOTE: This review features spoilers. Read at your own risk.
American Gods – S03E03 – “Ashes and Demons”
Written by Anne Kenney, Directed by Thomas Carter
As the search for the missing girl continues, Shadow (Ricky Whittle) dreams of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a hint that she too may be in danger. Wednesday (Ian McShane) discovers the whereabouts of his old love, the Greek goddess Demeter (Blythe Danner), and resolves to free her from the grip of an unscrupulous antagonist. Meanwhile, an impatient Laura (Emily Browning) is forced to confront her troubled past in purgatory.
Laura in Purgatory
Much of this episode sees Laura (Emily Browning) forced to face her personal demons in purgatory. When we last saw her (in episode 1), she had ripped the coin out of her chest, placed it in Mad Sweeney’s hand, and turned into dust. Now, for reasons unexplained as she’s not Catholic (and this show tends to send characters to whatever afterlife they believe in), Laura finds herself in purgatory. And it’s precisely as you’d expect it to be. Long, slow-moving lines. People everywhere. Bored workers. The works. None of this suits Laura, though, who quickly tries to cut ahead and ends up in a movie theater where she’s greeted by two workers, a projector, and a videotape of her life. The first tape played is one of her dad cheating on her mom while he and Laura are on a vacation together. Laura, of course, doesn’t want to see this. So, she tried to talk her way through the video, explaining that she is the reason her dad made terrible decisions—she encouraged and abetted him—and that, subsequently, she became the architect of her own misery. She was the cause of every bad thing in her life. This, she learns, isn’t the case as her Purgatory helpers force her to watch the video. The real video shows her dad willingly initiating his relations with this woman, and ignoring Laura in the process. The moral of the story being that Laura’s parents treated her awfully and Laura internalized it as her being responsible for all that happened.
I simultaneously love and kind of dislike this storyline. On the one hand, I will always take some any proper backstory given to a character. Yes, we got a good glimpse at Laura’s life before the beginning of American Gods in season one, but we never really got to see why she was the way she was. Here, we get a look at that and it’s great seeing Emily Browning given the chance to play Laura in such a vulnerable state. However, the whole “character feels responsible for their parent’s woes, internalizes that, and then ruins their own life” thing feels like a bit of a cliche—and also kind of comes out of nowhere. Have her parents even been mentioned to this point? I think Shadow says something about wanting to be out of Eagle Point before Laura’s mom gets there right after Laura’s funeral, but that’s it I think. So I don’t know how much I love that Laura’s trauma stems from her parents. But still, it’s nice seeing Laura in a more vulnerable state, even if she snaps back into her usual coping mechanism of snark and aggression almost immediately. I’m curious to see where this goes, but I am glad to see her given more of a backstory.
Wednesday and Demeter
After finding her address on a postcard last episode, Wednesday goes to visit Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest. He learns that she is a patient in a psychiatric facility and decides he’s going to break her out. She’s none too happy to see him, though, even after he shows her a (forged by Cordelia (Ashley Reyes)) copy of their marriage certificate that he intends to use to convince a judge to transfer her conservatorship to him. She doesn’t want to go with him, though. She doesn’t believe that he’s there for her, as he claims to be, and she says she’s happy where she is because she’s worshipped as a goddess. Wednesday believes she deserves better than the worship of the mentally ill, but the matter remains unresolved.
From the get-go, Demeter feels like a replacement for Ostara, the goddess played by Kristin Chenoweth in season one. They are essentially the same deity, just from different pantheons. Wednesday even has a similar history with both women—a heavily-implied romantic past. If he is to be believed, he and Demeter were married some two hundred and fifty years ago—which is a weird thing to imagine as Wednesday doesn’t really seem the marriage type. Either way, Ian McShane and Blythe Danner have an electric chemistry that immediately sells their relationship. Demeter seems to have Wednesday on his toes and I love any obstacle that can shake Wednesday of his confidence. I’m curious what, exactly, Wednesday has planned for Demeter and I’m eager to see where this goes.
Shadow in Lakeside
Of the episode’s three main plotlines, this one feels the least explored and the most disjointed. It consists of a handful of scenes—Shadow assisting the town with its search for Allison (the girl who went missing in last week’s episode) and finding nothing, Shadow and Marguerite (Lela Loren) bantering and warming up to each other in Marguerite’s apartment, Shadow dreaming of the Orishas and of Bilquis (more on that in a moment), and Shadow visiting Bilquis to check on her. Most of these scenes are relatively short and we don’t see much in them. Each of them has something enjoyable, though. Shadow and Chad (Eric Johnson) have a borderline-hilarious encounter where Chad tries to apologize for interrogating Shadow in last week’s episode, waffling on about how Lakeside isn’t that kind of a town, which Shadow calls him out on. Seeing Shadow and Marguerite continue to warm up to each other is nice, especially as Ricky Whittle and Lela Loren have such a warm chemistry together. Shadow’s dreams are pretty cool; I like that they all seem to be centered around this weird, mystical convenience store and I like that other deities (like Wednesday) seem to be aware Shadow is having these dreams.
A lot of these scenes are intriguing. I’m still loving the mystery of Lakeside’s history of missing children (Shadow finds an article in an old newspaper discussing another missing kid) and I’m excited to see that storyline continue. I’m enjoying the continued exploration of Shadow’s powers—both in his seemingly-prophetic dreams and in his attempts to influence the world around him. I felt the novel never fully explored the ramifications of Shadow’s potential God status (due to where the reveal happens in the novel’s narrative), so I’m glad to see the show exploring it here. I just felt that these scenes never really amounted to much and felt so disconnected from the rest of the episode. I’d have loved it if there had been a way to make the scenes longer or to better integrate them with everything else that was going on. Instead, they felt like short diversions that took away from the rest of the episode.
Like last week, Bilquis doesn’t appear much in the episode. Early on, there is a scene where she is reflecting on her having absorbed Sanders in the previous episode. The event seems to have left her a bit traumatized. She finds his phone and sees numerous messages from his granddaughter. Then, before she can really react to that, someone breaks down her door and it’s the last we see of her this episode. I like the idea of Bilquis feeling unsure of herself, feeling guilty about something she’s done. It’s nice to see powerful characters in vulnerable situations and I hope the show takes this in a neat and satisfying direction.
While Bilquis doesn’t appear again, her influence is felt throughout the episode. As I mentioned earlier, Shadow has a dream of the Orishas where he is told to find Bilquis. He calls Wednesday to get Bilquis’ address (and Wednesday tells him to find out what’s going on with Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) while he’s there) and makes his way to Bilquis’ apartment. He finds her door kicked in, her apartment in tatters, and a bloodied Technical Boy sitting in the middle of the carnage. And that’s where the episode ends. It’s a pretty explosive ending, and one that seems to immediately set up next week’s episode. It seems too obvious to think that Technical Boy is behind Bilquis’s disappearance—especially since the already-released synopsis for next week’s episode seems to indicate that Shadow and Technical Boy will be searching for her. Still, it ends the episode on an exciting note. What’s going on, where is Bilquis, and how is Technical Boy involved? I’m excited to see him and Shadow team up and I look forward to where this goes.
This week’s episode has the most frustrating editing of the three that have aired so far. “Ashes and Demons” has no sense of pacing. So many of the scenes are too short, and we jump back and forth between plotlines so often that the episode is never able to establish a rhythm. The individual transitions are a bit better, with the show continuing to experiment with artsy and fantastical transitions between locations, but the individual scenes need to be longer. It’s not satisfying when you’re in a scene for a little over a minute or two before shifting to another one. It doesn’t imbue a sense of excitement or action; it’s just frustrating and feels choppy. I still think it’s a good idea to be balancing many storylines, but the show has got to find a better way of balancing them. Maybe just having fewer scenes, but longer ones would help. I don’t know, but whatever they’re doing isn’t working for me so far. It just makes the whole thing feel like a disjointed collection of scenes instead of an episode of a TV series.
“Ashes and Demons” is one of those episodes that’s filled with interesting ideas and enjoyable scenes but never manages to pull itself together into a cohesive whole. The editing holds the episode back immensely, prohibiting it from establishing a rhythm that could connect all of its disconnected storylines. Instead, the episode doesn’t have any sense of a beginning or end; it’s just a collection of unrelated scenes. That being said, most of those scenes are enjoyable. The show may still largely be setting things up, but there are already examples of the show building off of plotlines seeded in previous episodes. It’s good seeing the further consequences of Bilquis’s actions last week, or seeing Wednesday following up on Demeter’s postcard, or seeing Shadow continue to explore his dreams and his powers. All of these little things give the show a sense of accomplishment even as it continues to mostly set up future events. It feels like we’re building upon things and moving forward instead of just sitting in place. And that’s a good thing. I just wish the episode, itself, had managed to be more cohesive. All of the elements were there for a great episode, it’s just let down by its pacing and editing. Hopefully, this can be fixed as time goes on because I’m genuinely enjoying all that’s going on so far and I’m excited to see where things go.
(3.5 out of 5 wands.)