I think I was… sixteen when I first read American Gods – although my relationship with Neil Gaiman books is much older than that, as I can still remember my parents sending me to bed at 10 and sneaking off to read Neverwhere, and that couldn’t have happened that late in my life. I read it and I bought into it straight away; so, when it transpired that American Gods was making it onto the small screen, I was as hyped as one can be.
To be perfectly honest, I was not quite sure how one could bring American Gods to film or TV. It is a very… bizarre book. In the good sense of the world, of course, as that is exactly what makes Gaiman’s writing so good – how it is just odd enough, but at the same time it is difficult to translate this into another medium. Anyone who has read the book or seen the show knows that all the potential difficulties can be symbolized by just one character: Bilquis.
And she is just one character.
But episode one hit and I was in love. The attention to the book’s details was simply touching, right up to the correct songs playing on the radio, the atmosphere was there, the characters were there, the new scenes were absolutely beautiful, everything worked. Even the bizarre parts. I couldn’t believe my luck, really.
This is not a show for everyone though and by all means it is not a perfect show either, so before I start swooning over Mr Wednesday, let me start with a little plot summery.
Spoiler warning: Minor spoilers ahead. I will keep my mouth shut about major plot twists and important events, however.
The main character (Shadow) gets released from prison a few days early only to find out that his wife has died in a horrific car accident the night before. On the plane home, he meets a man called Wednesday who offers him a job he simply cannot refuse. Little by little Shadow realizes that the people he meets thanks to his new employer are not truly people, but some old forgotten gods.
Wow, even the little summary sounds cool, doesn’t it?
But it also underlies the main problem the creators of American Gods had to face – the dire need to portray gods walking the Earth as both realistic and magical at the same time. They couldn’t just be people. But they also couldn’t be CGI-heavy, physical law bending creatures that we are so used to from a great many other fantasy shows. We had to believe they could just blend in. Pretend to be like you and I. Integrate.
And the method they use to overcome this problem is the very reason this show will not be for everyone. Not the violence or sex, or fantastical elements. American Gods is VERY stylized. To the extent that can only cause love or hatred and nothing in between. If you do like beautiful shots of liquids flowing from one container to another and don’t mind your mundane American street turning out of the blue into the grand orchestra of the Universe, this, at least visually, is the show for you.
There is a fine balance to be achieved here between visually stunning (which this show most definitely is), gruesome (most of these gods do have a rather bloody history!) – and not becoming a caricature… And somehow American Gods, so far, seems to hit that sweet spot right in the middle.
But all of that pretty pretty would go to waste without good storytelling – so before we move onto discussing events and main characters, let us spend a second discussing another thing this show does best. Little asides.
My very favourite part of American Gods (the book) was always the number of little stories it tells within its main plot. It follows Shadow and Wednesday through their adventure, true, but on the way, it presents us with a vast pantheon of other deities and so many people, all with their own origin and purpose. One of my main concerns when it came to the TV show was whether it would choose to deliver any of these.
It did. And moreover, it added its own.
The moments when the main story pauses to look in more detail at some life long-passed – these were the moments I often found most fascinating. Whether it’d be an old Muslim lady cooking dinner in her kitchen (by far the best scene in the entire show!) or quite the opposite – the reason one of the most powerful deities in the world landed in America, all of these little details made the world of American Gods not only that much more believable and immersive, but also that much more worth caring for.
There are so many gods. So many cultures. So many stories. Focusing on just one would mean wasting the potential of all the others.
Does it get confusing? Rarely. Even though the show follows the origin stories of quite a few gods, it does a pretty good job of keeping them around, somewhere in the background, and making them very, very different from each other. I do have a rather extensive knowledge on most of the big mythologies of the world though, so my perspective may be twisted. But if anything, the show can be a twisted version of a history lesson if you allow it to.
And because these mini stories are so short, their message is concise and to the point – which means most of them are very emotionally heavy. I know that half of the Internet died of happiness watching the genie story, but it was not the only extremely touching moment of the series – American Gods will make you cry more often than you’d care to admit.
It does, however, mean that the main story sometimes… sags quite significantly. On some levels, American Gods is a road trip kind of show, and if you’re not ready to watch characters just travel from point A to point B without a clear purpose, you probably won’t enjoy the show as much, at least until season 2. I have heard quite a few people saying that the show did not make enough progress – all the way until the finale that is, as the finale swept most of them off their feet. But yeah, it is a slow show when it comes to the main plot progression.
It is also very ambiguous. Wednesday plays the pronoun game almost religiously and I feel like it will take quite a few series to find out what he is all about. I was watching the show knowing how it ends, so most of the riddles and such sneaked past me unnoticed; but I have heard some scenes reach insane levels of twisted not-telling-you-anything trickery. Which is not necessarily bad, unless you’re insanely impatient, that is, in which case this is also not the show for you.
There are entire episodes in which Shadow and Wednesday do not even appear. The first one of these is by far the dullest, least interesting thing of the entire show – and I almost turned it off while watching. More on that later. The second one at least focused on Sweeney, and Sweeney is amazing so it was less frustrating, but… I do like side stories. I love side stories. I just don’t understand how you can turn off your main characters for the entire length of an episode and expect to keep people interested while they are not around.
There could not be American Gods without Wednesday.
When I found out Ian McShane was going to play Wednesday, around 70% of all my concerns about the show flew straight away. Since I watched The Pillars of the Earth for the first time, I have believed that everything Ian McShane touches turns to gold so… If you have never watched The Pillars of the Earth, please do. It is a mini-show about building a cathedral in England way back in the day and it is to-date one of the most thoughtful, interesting and well-cast shows ever produced. Big words, but it does live up to expectations, trust me.
And the American Gods (the show) Wednesday does not disappoint either. Some of the episodes are just Wednesday shows, with him joking around and spreading his charm onto everyone watching. He may not tell us everything and half of the things he may tell us are lies, yet he does maintain this vibe of a funny uncle, a bit delusional, a bit old fashioned, but sweet and caring, somehow. You will not be bored with Wednesday on the screen.
I also really liked Ricky Whittle as Shadow. Not only because he is the ultimate proof of the fact my dislike of Idris Elba playing Roland in The Dark Tower movie is not racist… Oh come on. I do feel as if a great many media outlets wanted to push through the agenda that people were boycotting American Gods because of Ricky Whittle playing Shadow, drawing the parallel between these two productions and all, but I have seen barely anything of that. People like Ricky Whittle as Shadow. He does a great job. Fans of the books were excited about his casting! We liked it! We still like it!
The very fact Idris Elba was cast as Roland in The Dark Tower movie – since I mentioned it, I’d better explain – means that Roland’s storyline with Detta would have to be changed. Everyone felt it coming. And the way they decided to address that problem was by deleting Detta from the story altogether. Please explain to me how not wanting a female POC to be erased from the story for the casting of a male lead is prejudiced. Please. I just wanted to see my Detta around!
I do love Ricky Whittle. He was a perfect choice for Shadow – a little stiff and isolated from the story, very bamboozled about everything around him, rather cold and emotionless, he portrayed all of this rather fantastically. I don’t think I can imagine Shadow as anyone other than Ricky now, and that is quite an achievement.
The plot of season 1 revolves around Shadow needing to believe – and watching him struggle against things that he finds to be impossible happening just before his very own eyes is rather fascinating. Because of his life circumstances, the fact he has just lost the most important person in his life amongst many others, he decides to just roll along with it, and this detachment in the face of an obvious need for attachment makes it that much more interesting.
Which brings us to the lowest point of this show… its female lead.
I shall not disclose her name or meaning in the story as it does seem like a bit too much of a spoiler; better to discover these little details yourself, right? But the writers’ fascination with her really bothers me. I don’t get it. She is the most character-less, dull, pointless, mundane person around and yet she gets more screen time than Shadow and Wednesday combined. It is hard not to assume that the main reason she is so important is how hard the story is trying to push her off as a Strong Independent Woman and this sudden agenda shoved down my throat really did not go down well with me.
Not even a little bit.
If I ever stop watching American Gods, it will be because of her. Because of how much precious time is wasted on her purely boring and cliché story. Thank the gods that at least Sweeney appears more than in the books because of her; small victories, right?
This is a show only problem as well – I don’t like her in the books either but there she is a minor character. She may play a crucial role but we do not see a lot of her. The show is bloody obsessed with her.
I would usually not be the one to jump to the conclusion of a patronising agenda either – but there are quite a lot of other American Gods characters bent around to achieve this as well. Take Anansi, one of my favourites both in the books and in the show, who used to be a trickster telling stories of how he used to steal the testicles of wild cats and now one half expects him to run around with a #BlackLivesMatter banner around the town. Or Bilquis whose sad story of her temples being taken down by the newer religions gets turned into a story of how men cannot handle powerful women hence they need to humiliate them. I hate to break it to you, progressive writers, but ISIS does not destroy Bilquis temples because she is a female god. They destroy male gods’ temples with equal passion.
Little things but still bothersome. I kind of get that we cannot have nice things without pushing someone’s agenda, but I also wish we could just have nice things. Whether I agree or not with the message pushed; Okja was a great example of being meaningful without being too agenda driven and this… unexpected subtlety and nuance is what we do need more of in general.
Luckily, American Gods is not all about politics. At least not yet. And there are plenty of things to enjoy in it regardless of the occasional cringe here and there.
So, one final question remains – is it worth it? You may want to ask Worth what? Time? but let me remind you that if you do not live in the US of A, American Gods will be only available to you through Amazon Prime. Who even has Amazon Prime? Now that the whole season is over you can probably sneakily binge it during a trial account, but season two will come around and that subscription ain’t going to pay itself.
I want to say: yes, as I did get into a Prime Live event with Katie Melua because of that too, but I do get the point that one show may not be worth paying a subscription fee for. Hopefully one-day American Gods will make it out of Amazon Prime that, in all fairness, doesn’t seem to have anything else worth watching on it. And it is extremely annoying to suggest movies that I have to pay extra to watch EVEN THOUGH I ALREADY PAY FOR A SUBSCRIPTION, DAMNIT. Also, Amazon deliveries are always next day anyway for Oxford as they seem to have a depot real close to here. So…
I mean, for its monthly fee you could buy yourself the book. Just saying.
But if you do have Amazon Prime, pay American Gods a visit. They may surprise you in a great many ways that you did not find possible before.