American Gods promised to be strange, and strange it is. The first episode, “The Bone Orchard,” sets a tone if not a plot. With the abundance of amazing TV shows at the moment, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are banking on exactly that: every story has been told, so the real drawcard is how you do it.
The story begins with a short framing narrative, in part detailing how gods were brought to America by migrants, but also shaking up our expectations. Despite following the typical gritty set dressing we’ve come to expect from quality TV period pieces, an enemy arrow lands among a crew of Vikings with a boioioioing right out of Looney Tunes. From there, the show keeps you slightly off-balance: like the main character Shadow Moon, we’re left not entirely sure if everyone is just fucking with us.
We meet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) in prison, where he’s been keeping his head down and awaiting his release later that week. Shadow’s first motivation is to return home, to a town ominously dubbed “The Crossroads of America.” He’s been away for three years, but is released days early when he’s told his wife has been killed in an accident. Beset by delays, detours, and further bad luck, he meets the insouciant conman Mister Wednesday (Ian McShane). Wednesday offers him work as a bodyguard, but Shadow just wants to go home. As circumstances turn from bad to worse, Shadow finds himself helplessly entangled in Wednesday’s world of weirdness.
Ricky Whittle does phenomenal work with a difficult lead character. His melodious voice creates a more commanding presence for Shadow than in the novel, shifting between dialects as it carries depths of loss. The camera adores his broad chest as much as the wardrobe department resents it. In the book, Shadow’s bulk makes him lumbering and intimidating. In the show, there are erotic overtones to the intense focus on his physique. It’s interesting to see the turn from an everyman character into a lead we’re openly invited to desire. What the show does with this, we’ll have to see: so far, all we get is a hyper-charged bar fight with an oversized leprechaun played by Pablo Schreiber.
Ian McShane plays Wednesday with ease. He takes a role that risks dominating the show and instead reels us in carefully. Wednesday’s fast talking may leave your head spinning. He lays out a surprising quantity of plot so rapidly we can hardly call it foreshadowing, but a word of advice: come back to some of those lines when all has been revealed.
Aesthetically, the show is gorgeous. It’s highly baroque, smashing together the washed-out mundane world Shadow has lived in; the grimy between-places of a road trip; uncannily clean futurism; and gothic fantasy worlds of Shadow’s dreams. The violence is so cartoonish that it breaks the fourth wall. Watch out for a dismembered arm flying out of the aspect ratio to stab someone in the throat! The gaudy-gory scenes are perhaps unexpected given the generally gloomy tone, but absolutely characteristic when bearing in mind the mythic themes of the show. There are gallons of pinkish, gelatinous blood splashing in opulent slow-motion, body parts detaching in unlikely ways, and some thoroughly grotesque moments that may surprise you.
The special effects aren’t trying to be subtle, instead plunging us into both deep-dream dimensions and fairy-tale wilderness. The episode’s music is equally discordant, switching from growling, swampy blues by Mark Lanegan to Brian Reitzell’s signature score of arrhythmic percussion and tortured strings. Some odd motifs to watch out for—spinning coins and blue arrow fletching. A great horned beast stalks our hero through the forest (Hannibal fans will recognize this theme, now more expansive and lustrous.) What these mean, we don’t yet know. All the fiery-eyed bison tells us is to ‘Believe.’
As predicted, the episode is slow and the story wanders. The momentum comes instead from the actors, whose pent-up energy threatens to burst out at any moment. Smaller roles really pull this episode together: Demore Barnes narrating flashbacks; Jonathan Tucker as Shadow’s Tyler-Durden-esque cellmate; Betty Gilpin playing Audrey, Shadow’s painfully human friend from his former life. Bruce Langley’s Technical Boy, our first antagonist, is teeth-grindingly familiar as he vapes in Shadow’s face and snaps embarrassing cyber-themed threats. Yetilde Badaki is stunning as Bilquis, a character with great potential and so far very little to do beyond her highly acclaimed sex scene. Lucky for us, Badaki is billed for every episode, and characters like hers will likely end up stealing the show.
The greatest risk to the show’s survival is pacing. It’s a problem that’s carried over from the book, with a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, non sequiturs, and dreamlike spectaculars giving it a decidedly Alice in Wonderland theme. The showrunners have emphasized that it’s not about plot, it’s about mood and you’ll know from this episode if you’re willing to explore the sprawling narrative. Like Shadow, we’re left not really sure what to do or where to go. As he decides to follow Wednesday, so must we decide if we’re going to follow Shadow. The show has embraced the cliché that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. All this episode promises is that it’ll be one hell of a trip.