The internet is approaching fever pitch over American Gods. Based on Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed epic, the show will be brought to Starz by Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller and Logan writer Michael Green. Social media is already teeming with excitement and speculation from the novel’s many avid fans. For this reason, or many others, you’ve been meaning to read American Gods. Understandably, finding the time to commit to this 800-page behemoth is getting less likely as the April 30 air-date of the first episode comes closer. Here’s a (hopefully) low-spoiler primer on what to expect, why readers like me are hyped, and how you can keep up.
The story begins when our hero, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), finds his life has gone to pieces. He’s freshly out of prison, and his young wife is dead in an accident. Left reeling, a charming conman named Mister Wednesday (Ian McShane) hires Shadow for a job. Shadow is quickly embroiled in the world of down-and-out gods, brought to America by the migrants who once believed in them. As they’ve slipped into folklore, their powers have dwindled, leaving them to carve out lives among humans. Wednesday is preparing for a war between these fallen gods and the rise of the young deities currently being worshiped: personifications of media and technology. This war would be the old gods’ final chance to regain the power they have lost to the new world.
Shadow, as his name suggests, is not a powerfully driven hero. He’s buffeted through the plot by circumstances, hollowed out by shock, grief, and sheer confusion. A directionless protagonist may not seem a very engaging prospect; however, showrunner Bryan Fuller can do great work with an aimless hero who soaks up others’ plans for him like a sponge. As with Will Graham in Hannibal, we can expect to see Shadow struggling to define himself in the midst of the powerful influences of those around him. A colossal cast of characters personify these influences. From the IMDB listings, we can see that some—trickster Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones) and grouchy seasonal god Czernabog (Peter Stormare)—have been elevated to recurring roles, while for others—fellow wanderer Sam Black Crow and delightful old Hinzelmann—we’ll have to wait and see.
American Gods uses three genres, which play out on the levels of the content, the moving of the plot, and the overarching narrative arc. It’s superficially a fantasy story, filled with weirdness, magic, and monsters. There are leprechauns and talking animals, but mostly just a pervasive uncanny quality. The gods are odd. Their supernatural abilities are often oblique, but the show is taking advantage of its visual capacity to be more spectacularly strange, as we’ve seen in the gorgeous set pieces in the previews. Fuller is a master of the sumptuous gothic, and Shadow’s cryptic dreams look as though they will feature heavily.
The plot moves along via the classically American format of the road trip. Shadow and Wednesday meander across the country, with Shadow making many stops along the way. This helps us explore the scale and variety of American cultures, allowing Shadow to discover himself and form relationships to others. Shadow and the story tend to develop and stagnate alternately, in a way that emphasizes the importance of both journeys and of finding one’s place. Hopefully, we’ll get a vibrant palette of locations and characters, the show’s budget permitting. The bizarre carnivalesque sequence in the House on the Rock is an early treat to look out for.
It’s also important to remember that the plot is driven by a conman. Wednesday will drop us some important clues that help us navigate the labyrinthine, sprawling narrative. The story is packed with details, and it’s very difficult to tell what simply fleshes out a rich world and what mysteries we should expect to be solved. While Shadow may be directionless, there’s a careful trajectory happening around him, although, like him, we may not realize until too late. The story is, above all else, about the con. It’s a strategically elaborate con, riddled with red herrings, but if you want to keep up without having read the novel, never let yourself forget it’s a con.
One of the most interesting things we’ll see adapted from page to screen is the book’s eclectic structure. It’s impossible to say whether the content of twenty chapters, divided unevenly into three parts and an epilogue, will fit into an eight-episode show. The episodic, but long-arc format of quality television makes it a uniquely advantageous medium for a screen adaptation. Shadow’s road is long and winding, designed to drag in places. Assuming the arc of the novel takes place in the first season, it’s unlikely eight episodes will allow for this as much. Shadow’s ponderous winter spent in the eerily idyllic Lakeside may be condensed or cut altogether. Nevertheless, we should expect prolonged lulls and incomprehensible side trips, which are ultimately rewarding.
Something to look forward to will be how the show deals with the book’s inter-chapters. In the expanded edition of the novel, Shadow’s narrative is peppered with short stories of the immigrants who brought gods to North America with them. These account for some of the most poignant, violent, frightening, and sexy moments in the book.
Fortunately, we know from cast listings and previews that some of these stories have made it into the series. Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the devouring sex goddess, has featured heavily in the promotions, while Salim (Omid Abtahi) and his Ifrit lover are listed in three episodes. Others, who we may or may not see, are Essie and her Cornish piskies and twins Agasu and Wututu who bring gods with them on a slave ship. While these micro-narratives are superfluous to the plot, they do significant work expanding and diversifying the world. The show would do well to bookend its episodes with these stories, where they can be used to control the pacing of Shadow’s roundabout narrative.
Thematically, American Gods has only grown more pertinent since it was published. The gods are a pretext to explore the challenges of migration and how culture changes in a diaspora. The gods personify the ideologies and customs brought and adapted from the old country, changing and dwindling as third cultures emerge in new generations. Immigration is a frequently traumatic process, and stories of gods provide a means to survive, as long as they are needed. The novel traces American immigration as far back as 16,000 years ago, emphasising a nation of immigrants with a plethora of constantly evolving cultures. American Gods shatters the ideas of a nationalist monoculture, of religion or race as absolute, and of colonialism as a bygone era. That’s something we desperately need right now.
One motif that’s been overdone is the old guard making a final stand against the upstarts. The conflict between entertainment technologies and traditional cultures is tired, but that’s not a disadvantage. The war between the old gods and the new gods, like most intergenerational conflicts, will at times be utterly contrived and at others cut deeply. Casting Gillian Anderson as the goddess of Media will do wonders for the irony of a television show where television is the enemy. We can hope that the show will bring other such unique advantages to refresh the narrative where necessary.
Finally, it’s a story that absolutely revels in the American gothic. Bryan Fuller’s signature style suits the books to a tee. His baroque aesthetic promises to breathe life into a weird world of lost gods, exploring that which is strange and liminal in the American imagination. The gothic sensibilities of the creators fit the wider trend of recent high-budget television, and these promise to create a beautiful and uncanny narrative. If you’re confused, don’t despair; it’s not just because you haven’t read the book. Typical of the gothic, much will happen that cannot be explained. The joy for all of us, whether or not we have the book as a point of reference, is exploring things that are not easy to understand. American Gods is a perfect opportunity to embrace ambiguity and liminality and celebrate how powerful those can be to all of us who live in the fringes.