The third season of American Gods came to quite an explosive ending last week, with Shadow holding Wednesday’s vigil on the World Tree. It’s an ending that was well prepared for, concluding a season that spent ample time building up Shadow’s struggles with his divinity, his desire for power, and the cyclical nature of him trying to escape Wednesday’s shadow, only to be drawn further into it. On the whole, it was the most consistent season of American Gods to date. While it might not have reached the same heights of past seasons, it maintained a level of quality that ensured the show never reached the same lows of past seasons. Now, with the future of the show in flux, it seems like a good time to revisit the third season, looking at what worked and what didn’t.
NOTE: There will be full spoilers for all three seasons of American Gods. Read at your own risk.
One of the largest complaints viewers have had about American Gods concerned its plot. Everything was so drawn out, moved so slowly, and never felt like it was going anywhere. For lack of a better term, the show often felt like it was treading water, traveling sideways instead of forward. This problem was largely rectified in the show’s third season. While the first few episodes didn’t feature a whole lot of movement for the grander plotline, it laid plenty of groundwork that the second half of the season ran with. It ended up being one of those seasons that began with a bunch of seemingly-disparate plotlines and ended with all of those plotlines crashing into each other. It creates this wonderful sense of momentum that the show constantly lacked.
The first two seasons of American Gods didn’t seem to know what to do with Shadow. In the book, he’s more of an audience surrogate—an everyman without a fully defined personality that the reader can thrust themselves onto to immerse themselves in the book’s world. But that kind of characterization doesn’t translate well to the screen. In the first two seasons, Shadow never felt like an active protagonist—he reacted to things without having much agency. But season three finally gave him some agency by rooting his arc in a quest to learn more about his past and understand his potential divinity. And it’s a decision that largely worked.
Being the son of Odin surely can’t be the easiest thing in the world, so seeing Shadow continuously trying (and failing) to break free from Wednesday was immensely satisfying—especially as the harder he tried to break free, the more like Wednesday he became. The exploration of Shadow’s powers also worked very well, though his actual powers feel a bit undefined. They often feel like conveniences for whatever the plot needs instead of something fully fleshed out, but I appreciated the exploration of them nonetheless. That being said, for a season that largely marketed itself as featuring Shadow exploring his roots, I would’ve liked to have seen more of that. On the whole, though, it was nice to see Shadow finally take an active role in the story.
Laura’s one of those characters who has greatly benefited from the expanded role the show’s given her. In the book, she’s not much more than a two-dimension character who occasionally pops up as Shadow’s needed her. But in the show, she’s gotten some of the most consistent character development given to any character. And that’s remained the same in season three. I loved the idea of Laura being sent to purgatory and having to confront her past. The scene in the third episode where she realized she’s not the architect of her own destruction was a powerful example of how a person can allow their trauma to warp their world view. And I really appreciated the care the show explored that with, and the way it showed Laura using that revelation to better her life (seen most notably in her refusal to sleep with Liam in the ninth episode.)
Her development over the entire season has been very consistent, too. I appreciated the journey she took from completely denying her feelings for Mad Sweeney to accepting them and allowing herself to move on. It felt very natural for a character like her to struggle like that. Similarly, the way her heartbreak over Mad Sweeney fed into her hatred for Wednesday—and her desire to kill him—felt very authentic. And it led to some very fun team-ups—her arc with Salim was a lot of fun and I was very pleased that her team up with Liam didn’t just feel like a discounted version of her relationship with Mad Sweeney. On the whole, Laura ended up with one of the best character arcs of the season and I really enjoyed what the show’s done with her.
Much like Laura, Salim has benefitted greatly from his expanded role in the show. This season found Salim in a weird mindset—the Jinn had disappeared, leaving Salim alone for the first time in this strange world. I liked his gradual journey from mourning the loss of the Jinn to realizing the Jinn was more of a crutch than a source of positivity. I wish the season had spent a bit more time drawing that out, though, instead of leaving most of this development for the season’s (excellent) eighth episode to cover. That being said, that eighth episode was very good. It was an absolute delight to see Salim start to truly accept who he is and the scenes he shared with Kai and Toni at the Great Peacock Inn were truly beautiful ones. Equally beautiful is the way the show’s continued to explore Salim’s faith. Last season, the Jinn mocked Salim a bit by continuing to believe in Allah after having been exposed to all of these other deities, so I appreciated the third season exploring that further. Salim having lost some of his faith felt like a natural evolution of that plotline, though I have to say I’m very happy he found it again by the end of the season. Again, like Laura, Salim had such a strong arc throughout the season and I loved every scene with him.
Tech Boy’s Arc
If you’d have told me during season one that Technical Boy would end up one of my favorite characters, I’d have laughed in your face. But that’s exactly what’s happened in this season. Every single time Tech Boy appeared on screen, I was enthralled. His journey throughout the season was one of the most captivating character arcs. From the moment Bilquis accidentally activates his emotions, resulting in him doubting himself, revisiting one of his origins (the 1800s inventor), and eventually seeking his totem (artifact 1) to reboot himself, the whole journey is a very compelling one. Especially as it results in the revelation that Technical Boy is one of the oldest gods in the show. The sheer ramifications of him being far older than most of the Old Gods is such a captivating and exciting choice and I am thrilled to see that play out. Plus, he got to have some very funny scenes—most notably the ones in his subconscious where his subconscious takes the form of Bilquis and taunts him for a while. His relationship with Bilquis remains among the show’s most interesting relationships and I hope to see it continue to evolve further.
What Didn’t Work
Lack of Focus
It’s an undeniable fact that there was a lot of stuff going on in season three of American Gods. Honestly, there was probably too much going on, and that lack of focus resulted in some important storylines feeling underexplored. This is most obvious with the Lakeside storyline. For a season that promoted itself largely as “the one that features Lakeside,” Lakeside never felt particularly important to the show. Shadow was in and out of the town, sure, but most of the season was spent away from Lakeside (and its respective plotlines). As it was airing, it wasn’t super noticeable but upon seeing the conclusion to the saga of the missing children, that lack of focus is unignorable. Too much time is either spent away from Lakeside or focusing on Shadow and Marguerite’s relationship, instead of deepening this central mystery, so when it’s ultimately solved, it lands with more of a thud than you’d like. The reveal of Hinzelmann as the one responsible for these disappearances still works pretty well, as the show did do a good job at hinting at Hinzelmann being a little too nice, but I still would’ve liked to see the mystery layered a bit more evenly throughout the season. The Lakeside stuff was good, but it had the potential to be a sort of Twin Peaks-esque kind of great. It’s a shame the show didn’t focus on Lakeside enough to see that potential realized.
This lack of focus also resulted in some weird discrepancies between what was advertised as being important to the season and what ended up being important to the season. In promotional material, it seemed as though Liam Doyle was going to play a fairly big role. He seemed to be being set up as the newest leprechaun on the scene, destined to play a big role in Laura’s arc for the season. But that’s not really what happens. Instead, he only appears in two episodes at the end of the season, with no wrap-up to his appearance at all—he just disappears. Now, to be fair, he’s a very welcome addition to the season, but it was weird how frequently the show promoted him when he wasn’t in the season very much. Along those lines, a big deal was made about Wale being in the show. He was set to portray Chango—an “fiery, silver-tongued” Orisha described as being an “important link to Shadow’s past.” The problem is that Wale’s Chango never really appeared in the show at all. He was in maybe one or two scenes, always with the other Orishas and never named. For a character who was supposed to play a role in Shadow’s arc, it’s very weird that the two characters never shared a scene together. Why bother promoting this if it wasn’t actually in the show?
Bilquis’s Arc (and the Orishas)
Similarly, I felt the Orishas’ plotline (and how it connects with Bilquis’s arc) never coalesced into anything coherent. On the surface, a storyline featuring Bilquis undergoing a journey of faith to come into her own as a powerful goddess sounds like a great idea. The problem is that the show doesn’t follow through on this very well. I love Bilquis learning that she’s more than the stories men have told about her, that there’s something more to her that has been forgotten to time and is ready for her to reclaim. However, I don’t feel like we really get to follow that up at all. Her connection with the Orishas is unclear—is the implication that she’s one of them or that they’re merely there to help guide her to her true potential? I also really don’t like the way her arc seems to result in her being a guide for Shadow and Laura. I don’t like that her storyline is about her breaking free of the men’s influences only to end up servicing another man’s storyline. I also don’t like “chosen one” narratives, and I don’t like the idea that Shadow and Laura are soulmates who need each other in order to “unify the people” or whatever that means. I’m willing to see it play out, but I found it really disappointing that Bilquis’ arc didn’t really lead to any self-actualization.
Wednesday’s Various Arcs
What was the purpose of Wednesday’s plot with Johan and Tyr? The stuff with Johan was basically incoherent. I guess he was a Norse berserker, and Wednesday was using his influence to gather followers. But everything after that stopped making any kind of sense and the plotline ended up going nowhere. Some of that may be due to having to edit out Marilyn Manson’s scenes in episode 7, but still. Additionally, Tyr’s plotline (and his motivation) didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I assume he was upset about the Demeter stuff, but his insistence that he’s really upset about Wednesday’s role in the loss of his hand was just silly. He’s also defeated too easily, never managing to be much of a threat and, ultimately, feeling inconsequential to the rest of the season.
The same, unfortunately, was true for the Demeter plotline. It was a beautiful plotline that was very well executed and gave Wednesday a lot of much-needed character development. But, ultimately, it felt inconsequential to everything else that was going on. Sure, it acted as a huge loss to Wednesday, potentially shaking his confidence in his plans. But, as we learn that a big part of his plan was to die so that Shadow could act as a sacrificial martyr and bring Wednesday back to the height of his powers, what does it matter if he recruits Demeter or not? I suspect the inclusion of Demeter was mostly a way of setting her up as a replacement for Ostara’s part in the novel’s climax (given that there’s no way Kristen Chenoweth is coming back), but it doesn’t help the storyline feel connected or vital to the season’s overarching story.
Mr. World and the New Gods
Fans of the book know that Mr. World and the New Gods don’t appear that much in the novel. We’re never privy to their specific plans, but since they’re so often in the shadow, it doesn’t matter much. But with the TV series’ insistence upon devoting a lot of focus on them, they need to have a clear and coherent plan. In the first two seasons, they definitely lacked one. And, while season three makes an effort to rectify that (with the introduction of the Shard project), it still never manages to escape the realm of vagueness. After three seasons, I still don’t know what the New Gods want. It doesn’t help that there’s still no consistent lineup of New Gods—the constant cast turnover has been felt hardest with the New Gods, seeing Media completely written out of the show and replaced with interchangeable social media deities. It’s a shame the show has never figured out what to do with the New Gods as the first season laid the groundwork for a potentially compelling pantheon.
Mr. World is also a bit of a mixed bag, remaining as inconsistent as he’s always been. I know they’re building up to something that happens later in the book, but I fear the series’ previous development of Mr. World creates a situation where what happens in the book doesn’t actually make much sense in the show. He’s constantly flip-flopping between wanting to kill Wednesday and the Old Gods or wanting to just let them fade into obscurity and it just doesn’t quite make sense—even when you factor the stuff in the book the show is building towards. I know he wants the New Gods to have all the power, but I still don’t know how he intends to pull that off. That being said, I do like the wrinkles that have been added to his character. His insistence that Tech Boy is important to his plans raises a lot of questions for me as do the hints that he is not exactly what he seems to be. His relationship with Technical Boy might be the best thing about his character this season. I love that the show seems to be setting up World and Tech Boy as a sort of “other side of the coin” to Wednesday and Shadow. Both Technical Boy and Shadow doubt their respective mentors, and it’s a great dichotomy to play with.
While the show hasn’t officially be renewed for a fourth season, I suspect season four will be the final season. There’s not much of the book left to adapt and it would be a mistake to try and draw it out any longer than that. With all of the behind-the-scenes shakeups of past seasons, I’m curious how they’ll adapt certain things. For example, based on the season finale, Ibis looks poised to take over Anansi’s role in this part of the story and I wouldn’t be surprised if Demeter takes over Ostara’s part of the story. I’m also cautious about Shadow and Laura’s whole intertwined destiny thing. I don’t think the show really needs a “chosen one” sort of plotline. I mean, isn’t stopping Wednesday enough of a driving force without needing to have some kind of vague “Shadow/Laura will either unite and destroy the people” plotline on top of everything?
That being said, there’s so much about a potential season four that excites me. I love the novel’s ending and I do love that it looks like we’ll be getting that ending in one way or another on the show. I like the twist on Wednesday’s long con and I’m curious what the ramifications of his potential-resurrection will be. I like the idea the show seems to be setting up of Tech Boy and Shadow being in similar roles—Shadow doubts Wednesday, Tech Boy doubts Mr. World. Could the two ultimately team up with each other to try and bring an end to this war? That would be a very interesting twist, and I’d be excited to see that play out. But most of all, I just want to see how the show managed to wrap all of this up. There’s not much story left to tell and I just want to see the story come to an end. I know the ratings haven’t been great and I know there’s been a ridiculous amount of behind-the-scenes drama, but I think it’s still in everyone’s best interest to give the show a final season to conclude itself. It’ll leave a much better taste in everyone’s mouth than canceling it after a cliffhanger as massive as Shadow dying on the World Tree and Wednesday coming back to life.