REVIEW: “American Gods” S03E09 – “The Lake Effect”

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve reviewed an American Gods episode—but that’s not because they’ve been bad. Episode seven felt the victim of quick edits (which were needed to remove Marilyn Manson from the episode) but largely served as setup (albeit good setup) for the rest of the season. Episode eight was extremely beautiful when it focused on Salim’s plotline, but then the stuff with Tyr, Wednesday, and Shadow felt a bit under-baked. The same remains true for this week’s episode. On the surface, it feels a lot like a season finale, wrapping up many of the season’s ongoing plotlines while setting up future ones. But it also reveals one of the season’s biggest problems: in its effort to juggle so many plotlines, it’s forgotten which ones are more important and needed more focus, resulting in a moment that should’ve been a big, explosive reveal landing with more of a thud. Still, most of the episode works very well. (4 out of 5 wands.)

NOTE: This review contains spoilers for episode 3×09. Read at your own risk.

American Gods 3×09: “The Lake Effect”
Written by: Laura Pusey and Damian Kindler
Directed by: Metin Hüseyin

Shadow has to decide the price he’s willing to pay for his idyllic Lakeside life. As Laura and her new ally close in on her target, Wednesday has to persuade Czernobog that it’s time to make peace with their enemies.

Lakeside

All of the Lakeside scenes have this palpable tension to them, as though you know something bad is about to happen but you don’t know when it’s going to strike. It kind of feels like the moment in a good mystery where the hero is so close to working everything out but you’re nervous the villain is gonna get them before they can solve the mystery. The episode opens with Derek (Spencer Macpherson), the underwear thief who’s been plaguing the town, found hanging from the ceiling of his house in an apparent suicide. Inside his closet, police find Allison McGovern’s coat—making him the prime suspect in her disappearance. But Shadow (Ricky Whittle) doesn’t buy this. His gut tells him that Derek’s not responsible for Allison’s disappearance, that someone is setting him up. 

Finally, Shadow takes on an active role in solving this mystery. Armed with the knowledge gained from his recent trip to Jacksonville (which happens offscreen between last week’s episode and this week’s), Shadow makes the connection that Allison isn’t the first child to go missing in Lakeside, but the latest in a series of missing children that also includes Marguerite’s (Lela Loren) oldest, Sandy. It’s a reveal that I thought we’d gotten earlier in the season when Shadow fell asleep reading the newspaper archives, but it’s nice to see him finally put these pieces together. The scene where Shadow digs through the archives and makes all of these connections is beautifully done. I loved the way the newspaper text and pictures would appear around and behind Shadow, surrounding him as he connected all the dots. Equally great is Marguerite’s reaction when Shadow confronts her about Sandy’s disappearance. Of course, she wouldn’t respond so well to someone who’s still a bit of a stranger (in the vast scheme of things) poking around in her traumatic past. I love wrinkles like this in relationships and Loren and Whittle sold this scene beautifully. 

Once Shadow has made the connections between the missing kids, he attends the town’s annual Ice Festival, where he has a vision that leads him onto the frozen lake and into the trunk of the clunker. Inside, he finds the body of Allison McGovern. At that exact moment (just as he’d predicted in episode two) the ice breaks and the clunker sinks, taking Shadow with it. Under the frozen lake, Shadow finds a graveyard of sorts—at the bottom of the lake rest all of the previously-sunken clunkers. And in their trunks lie the bodies of the other missing children. In a hypothermia-induced vision, Shadow sees their spirits reaching out from the trunks, traveling toward the heavens. He’s gifted a vision of the life he desires with Marguerite, though it quickly turns nightmarish. These sequences are beautiful, though they continue the season’s trend of being vague about what, exactly, Shadow’s powers are. Still, it’s genuinely moving seeing the souls of these children try to break free. And it’s heartbreaking seeing Shadow’s fantasy of an idyllic life end so suddenly. 

But it does, and he awakens in a bathtub at Hinzelmann’s (Julia Sweeney) house. She rescued Shadow from the lake just before he could succumb to hypothermia. But Shadow remains suspicious and quickly figures out that Hinzelmann is behind the disappearances of all the missing children. To her credit, she doesn’t deny this. She readily explains to Shadow that she’s a sort of spirit who brings prosperity to a town and its people—in exchange for a small sacrifice every so often. The townsfolk of Lakeside could have easily put the pieces together if they wanted to, but the prosperity she provides makes them turn a blind eye. For book fans, this reveal is a big deal. It’s a scene that happens at the very end of the novel but has been moved forward for the show. It’s the culmination of the book’s subplot exploring the darker recesses of Lakeside. And it kind of lands flat in the show, because the show never spent that kind of time exploring Lakeside’s darker corners. We’ve seen little bits of it—the first few episodes spent a lot of time with Allison’s disappearance, and episode seven really started hinting at something being up with Hinzelmann, but the show frequently lost sight of these things. Instead of focusing on this storyline, we routinely either abandoned Lakeside entirely or focused on Shadow’s relationship with Marguerite. These weren’t necessarily bad things to do, but they do result in this moment that’s supposed to be a shocking resolution to a really weighty storyline not landing with all the power it could’ve had. The reveal is executed well, but without the proper setup, it’s not as impactful. 

Ultimately, Hinzelmann gives Shadow a choice: he can forget what he’s seen and live a happy life in Lakeside, or she’ll kill him to ensure his silence. Shadow, of course, refuses to let her continue killing children and she attacks him. Unbeknownst to her, though, Chad (Eric Johnson) has been there and heard the entirety of her confession. He and Shadow work together, ultimately killing her, resulting in her house catching fire. Chad is, understandably, freaked out by all of this, but he and Shadow don’t discuss it any further. Honestly, I’d have liked for Shadow and Hinzelmann’s conversation to have been a bit longer before Chad arrived, but this whole scene plays out very faithfully to the book and was an absolute delight. I’d also have liked to see Shadow and Chad discuss the ramifications of all of this a little bit more, instead of leaving the aftermath of Hinzelmann’s death so open-ended. This feels like the last we’ll see of Lakeside, so I would’ve liked something that felt a little more definitive. Similarly, while I enjoyed Shadow and Marguerite’s final conversation, I wish we could’ve had more time with the two of them between their first scene in the episode and this one. I love the nuance of Shadow overstepping and potentially ruining their relationship, but it feels like he’s let off the hook a little too easily after Marguerite comes clean and tells him she’s moving to Milwaukee. It’s a nice, definitive-feeling capper to their relationship, but I wish there’d been a bit more of a buildup to it. And that’s the case for Lakeside as a whole. This episode is a great conclusion to that arc, but I wish the arc had been given a more consistent buildup and a lot more focus throughout the previous eight episodes. 

Wednesday and Czernobog

Wednesday’s arc in this episode doesn’t make much sense. In last week’s episode, he still seemed ready to go with his war plans. Sure, he’d suffered a few setbacks with the loss of Demeter and Johan and Tyr’s betrayal and subsequent death, but that hadn’t seemed to put much of a damper on his plans. Until now, when he suddenly decides to pay Czernobog (Peter Stormare) a visit in Chicago, convincing him to accompany Wednesday on his peace discussions with Mr. World (Crispin Glover). Czernobog has the same reaction the audience has—why does Wednesday want to hold peace talks with this God he’s been actively fighting for three seasons? And why does he seem to believe these peace talks will play out? The end of the episode may provide some answers here (more on that in a moment), but it just doesn’t quite track with Wednesday’s development across the season. Yes, this has been a season filled with Wednesday failing to accomplish what he’s set out to do, but every time he’s failed, he bounces right back and tries again. So, what’s changed? Why is he ready to throw in the towel now? 

It doesn’t matter much as, eventually, Czernobog agrees to join Wednesday and Cordelia (Ashley Reyes) in meeting up with Mr. World at an observatory. The peace talks go about as well as you’d expect them to—Wednesday tries to negotiate, Mr. World shuts him down and says the Old Gods can either peacefully fade away or the New Gods will systematically kill them. It’s nice seeing Crispin Glover so outwardly menacing as Mr. World in this scene, given he’s often played the character with a more quiet menace in the past. It’s also curious how Wednesday doesn’t seem all that surprised to hear Mr. World’s conditions. Though he ends the peace talks, the whole thing has a feeling of inevitability. And that feeling continues through the confrontation he has with Laura (Emily Browning) outside the Observatory. It’s almost as though he was expecting her to be there and expecting her to kill him. He even seems to welcome it with open arms, doing nothing to try and stop her even as Czernobog does all he can do to save Wednesday. In this context, perhaps it’s less that Wednesday was giving up his war effort, but that he was planning on being killed by Laura? Hard to say, but that does seem to be the vibe of the scene. Either way, all of the scenes outside and inside the Observatory are exciting, well-shot, and well-executed. I could’ve used a bit more buildup from Wednesday’s point of view leading up to his apparent surrender and death, but I still think this works remarkably well. It’s a departure from the novel, where Mr. World just has some random New Gods kill Wednesday, but in the context of the show, this works really well. 

Laura and Liam Doyle

Throughout the season, Laura’s arc has consistently been one of the most captivating ones. She’s been on a journey that’s forced her to progressively deal with her trauma—accepting the damage that was done to her by her parents, forgiving herself for what she did in her first life, and accepting her love for Mad Sweeney so she could move on from it. All of that perfectly sets up her actions in this episode. At this point, her desire to kill Wednesday isn’t just one borne out of selfish revenge. She’s no longer just trying to avenge her death, but also the death of Mad Sweeney. It’s why she’s been so reluctant to trust Doyle (Iwan Rheon) and it’s why she was so reckless and impulsive with agreeing to Mr. World’s terms, and risking the lives of Salim and Shadow if she failed to kill Wednesday. 

So, with all of that in mind, watching her and Doyle train to kill Wednesday was so satisfying. It’s nice seeing that Doyle isn’t just a discount Mad Sweeney; he’s more outwardly supportive of Laura than Sweeney was, less emotionally distant. If Sweeney helped her channel her anger in the first two seasons, then Doyle helps her find her humanity here. Seeing her struggle to consistently throw Gungnir, he lends her the lucky coin, which immediately helps her. Subsequently, she has the urge to have sex with him, but, in a sign of impressive character development, stops herself from falling back into those old patterns she had in her previous life. The scene between the two of them that spins out of this is my favorite scene in the episode. It’s nice seeing Laura’s growth so prominently shown and it’s nice seeing her get the kind of support she deserves. 

And then, when she meets Wednesday outside of the observatory and finally throws Gungnir at him, it’s so satisfying. The episode has perfectly built up to this moment, and the way we visually track the spear as it leaves her hand and slowly impales Wednesday is the icing on the cake. Even as darkness descends upon the scene (possibly caused by Czernobog), Laura and Wednesday are always visible to each other. And, as the spear finds its target, Laura tosses the coin back to Doyle just in time for him to dodge a potentially fatal blow from Czernobog’s hammer. It’s a nice capper to their relationship, seeing her continue to trust him and look out for him. I hope it’s not the final time we see Doyle in the series, as Browning and Rheon share an electric chemistry. But if it is, it’s a nice ending. Of course, Laura isn’t out of the woods yet as the episode ends with Mr. World fulfilling his end of the bargain and having his people extract Laura from the scene. We’ll have to see what becomes of her next.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, this is a great episode that is hampered a bit by the season’s lack of focus on key plotlines. In a vacuum, it does exactly what you’d want it to do. It brings the Lakeside arc to a satisfying close; it continues Laura’s arc, bringing it to a nice conclusion; it even furthers Wednesday’s arc, adding some new wrinkles as to what, exactly, he’s up to. The problem is that some of these big moments don’t have the weight they should have because the previous eight episodes didn’t focus quite enough on developing the stories. This is most noticeable with the Lakeside arc. For a season that largely promoted itself as revolving around Lakeside, it’s odd how little Lakeside often factored into the episodes. But even with these problems, the episode itself is executed very well. The writing is solid and the directing is even better. It’s very easy to just get swept up by the episode because it genuinely is exciting and thrilling. It’s left me excited to see where the show goes in next week’s finale, and that’s probably the ultimate goal of a penultimate episode, after all.

4 out of 5 wands.

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