Now that the first episode of American Gods has aired, you probably don’t know exactly what you just watched but you know you love it. Have no fear; we’re here to help, with our look at the characters, how they develop in the episode, and just what the heck is going on.
Warning: SPOILERS for “The Bone Orchard” follow.
“Coming to America”
First, let’s lay out some framework. Most episodes will start with these “Coming to America” stories, written by Mr. Ibis, whom we’ll meet more formally later in the season. These opening scenes explore how various gods and goddesses arrived – and survived – in the New World.
In the opening scene of “The Bone Orchard”, a lost Norse ship winds up on the unwelcoming shores of America. The unfavorable winds have them praying and sacrificing to their god, Odin, in increasingly gory and graphic scenes. They start by gouging out their right eyes and end with a brutal battle.
Executive producers and the writers of this episode, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, waste no time introducing new viewers to Fuller’s particular interpretation of the theatre of the macabre and reminding Hannibal fans of the artistic masterpieces he creates with blood. It might be too much for some (even the author of the novel, Neil Gaiman, seems a bit squeamish) but it’s meant to provoke this visceral reaction.
Once Odin is appeased, the Norsemen can leave the wretched land and return home, vowing never to speak of it again. Odin (who we discover by the end of this episode is our present-day Mr. Wednesday, as played by Ian McShane) is left behind, still waiting for his war.
Each scene that follows serves to introduce us to the larger-than-life characters that will shape the world of the gods. Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is our vehicle into this world. He is just as lost and clueless as we are – and that’s the point. We are on this journey together, watching reality unraveling before us.
Shadow first appears lifting weights with his cellmate, Low Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker), a shifty, wiry fellow who spits out prison wisdom through his twisted teeth. Shadow is due to be released from prison in five days but has a premonition of a storm coming. He relates his uneasy feelings to both Low Key and in a phone call to his wife, Laura.
“I’m not superstitious. I believe in plenty when there’s reason and evidence to believe. I don’t believe in anything I can’t see. But I feel like there’s a fucking axe over my head. You know, I can’t see it, but I believe it.” – Shadow to Low Key
That night, he dreams of an orchard full of skulls and bones and a giant, reaching tree that slashes him across his cheek before dropping a noose in front of him. A prison guard wakes him and takes Shadow to the warden where he learns of Laura’s death and his early release.
Throughout this difficult scene, Shadow doesn’t speak, yet we can hear his rising panic and disbelief. Whittle’s micro-expressions portray the inner terror Shadow feels as the world as he knows it is ripped away in an instant. It is a powerful moment, underscored by a soundtrack of doom.
At the airport check-in counter, Shadow watches a bumbling, senile, old man who shouldn’t be traveling alone. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, Shadow ends up in first class, seated next to the man.
Meet Mr. Wednesday (Woden’s Day, get it?), a crafty, silver-tongued grifter who suspiciously offers Shadow a job as his bodyguard. McShane rolls each word around in his mouth like the whiskey Wednesday is drinking, speaking with a charming gruffness accentuated by coarse language.
“I offer you the worm from my beak and you look at me like I f**ked your mom?” – Wednesday to Shadow
Shadow refuses Wednesday’s offer and falls asleep, dreaming of the tree again. This time, a white buffalo with flames for eyes tells him (and us) to “believe”. Shadow awakens to find his plane diverted and no way to fly home in time for Laura’s funeral. He rents a car and starts driving… and driving… and driving. He pulls over to scream his rage and hopelessness to the heavens.
“Somewhere in America”
Not unlike the “Coming to America” prologues, the “Somewhere in America” stories act as an intermission to the larger Shadow and Wednesday adventure. These segments explore current gods and how they’re surviving life in a world where they are becoming irrelevant.
Bilquis is the Queen of Sheba, a half-demon goddess of love who is looking a little “spent” (honestly, Yetide Badaki is so gorgeous regardless that you’ll barely notice the transformation the first time you watch). She invites her online date (Joel Murray) home with her.
“Worship me. Pray to me like I’m your god. Your goddess.” – Bilquis
They begin to make love and Bilquis asks him to worship her and give her his body and his life. He worships her, his prayers and invocations building in rhythm with Bilquis’ gyrating hips, rising with the music to a frenzied pitch. In an improbable accomplishment of TV magic, her vagina consumes him whole, like a snake swallowing its prey.
She is satiated; glowing rejuvenated, sighing with satisfaction in the aftermath. If only all women had such power.
Making a pit-stop at Jack’s Crocodile Bar, Shadow hits the bathroom and Mr. Wednesday reappears like a bad penny, still offering Shadow a job. He reveals that not only is Shadow’s wife dead, but so is his best friend, Robbie Burton. Shadow finally admits defeat and agrees to work for Wednesday on a rigged coin toss that Wednesday dubiously wins.
Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) saunters over and barges into Shadow’s space like the a-hole he is to warn Shadow about Wednesday. Wednesday agrees that he is a hustler and a swindler, but that’s also why he is in need of a bodyguard. They reach an agreement, with Shadow taking three shots of mead: one to accept the bargain, one to seal the deal, one as the charm.
“Atta boy. Now you’re fighting for the joy of it. For the sheer unholy f**king delight of it!” – Mad Sweeney to Shadow
Sweeney returns to badgering Shadow, pulling gold coins out of thin air and being such a delightful little s**thead that you can’t help falling in love with him just a little bit. Sweeney is looking for a fight and Shadow won’t give it to him until he starts to insult Laura, earning him a punch to the face.
What follows is a realistic and humorous bar-room brawl between a 6’5″ leprechaun and a 210lb ex-con. Schreiber plays up the “mad” in Sweeney’s name, giving him a maniacal exuberance as he laughs through the blood pouring down his face.
Shadow awakens in the backseat of Wednesday’s car as Wednesday takes him to Laura’s funeral. He has little recollection of the night before but Wednesday assures him that Sweeney taught him the coin trick that produced the gold coin Shadow finds in his pocket.
At Laura’s funeral service Audrey Burton (Betty Gilpin), Laura’s best friend and Robbie’s wife greets Shadow with a watery, traumatized smile and tells him that his wife and her husband were having an affair.
The funeral service moves on to the cemetery, set to a haunting version of “In the Pines” performed by Brian Reitzell, the show’s composer, and Mark Lanegan.
Alone at Laura’s grave, Shadow rails at her for her infidelity and for leaving him. He tries to reconcile the hopes and expectations he built up in prison with the despair and disillusionment he’s been left with. He tosses Sweeney’s gold coin on her grave as Audrey stumbles over, having just urinated on Robbie’s grave.
“I am trying to get my dignity back here!” – Audrey to Shadow
Audrey is a tornado, swirling from anger to grief to desperation and back to grief. Shadow handles it with aplomb, offering her comfort and empathy through her devastation and rage. Gilpin takes Audrey and elevates her into a complex and sympathetic character who makes you laugh, and weep, alongside her.
As Shadow walks back from Laura’s funeral, he is hijacked by Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and thrust into a world of virtual reality. It is via an homage to 1980s computer graphics that we are introduced to our first New God – the god of the internet.
Tech Boy is directly tapped into the information superhighway yet he is unable to discern who Shadow is or what Wednesday wants with him. Langley portrays Tech Boy with a hyperactive over-eagerness that is dizzying. The music builds and intensifies, the beat reaching almost hysterical urgency as Technical Boy rapidly fires questions at Shadow faster than he can answer them.
“We’re not just going to kill you, Shadow. We’re going to delete you. One click and you are overwritten. Undelete: that is not an option.” – Technical Boy to Shadow
Technical Boy orders his Clockwork Orange-inspired “Children” to kill Shadow. Shadow is transported out of Technical Boy’s VR and back into the real world where he is beaten and hanged as the rain pours, thus fulfilling his earlier premonitions. The rope snaps from the tree and Shadow tumbles to the ground, watching the “Children” being massacred in front of him by something… or someone.
You can catch the first episode on Starz in the US or via Amazon Prime in the rest of the world.