There is quite a lot to wrap your head around when first watching Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Disinterested in telling a purely linear tale as the Starz series weaves around conventional storytelling structure to instead take introduce to Gods of old as the opener to each episode, or take an entire episode to deviate from the main plot to spend time with Laura Moon or Mad Sweeney’s journey from Ireland. It’s a show that bucks convention for the sake of creating the most immersive, visual experience one can have while watching a television series and this means that sometimes, dialogue is sacrificed for something grander and more exhaustive in nature.
None of this is to say that the storyline meanders or doesn’t actually make sense, it just takes an episode or two to really grab hold of what Fuller and co. are trying to accomplish with this series and the outcome is something marvelously batshit at times and poetically grandiose in others. This is a story about Gods after all, both old and new who walk the earth fighting their private battles and in regards to the former, yearning for the days of old when Gods were still worshiped and depended on, even if the casual devotee didn’t know in full how their God was in physical manifestation.
Those large than life moments are certainly thrilling to behold, and for anyone who has been a fan of Fuller’s prior series such as the delectable and heartwarming Pushing Daisies to the grotesquely artful Hannibal they know that the visual language of the series was going to be somewhat otherworldly and grand. In particular any sequence were we discover a new God and their voyage to America is remarkable, each one being filmed similarly enough to still be a thread of the same show, but allowing for different stitching to distinguish it as a side-story to the overall plot. There is a lyricism to Fullers way of direction that creates something that almost feels operatic in it’s conception, so that moments of Bilquis taking a lover for a dour and Under the Skin likened fate or Laura Moon returning from the dead to seek bloody and terrible vengeance on those trying to lynch her husband are juxtaposed with the quieter, intimate moments of character exploration more poignant.
A character that befitted deeply from the page to screen adaptation is Laura Moon played by the always amazing Emily Browning. Despite her diminutive form (and perhaps at times, due to it) she packs a powerful punch both figuratively and literally. She’s a character who lay on the periphery in the novel but here has been given an agency she once lacked. An entire episode halfway through the season is dedicated to what exactly makes her tick and, now that we know the why’s and how’s, does it make a more likable or at least sympathetic character. Detached and depressed, we watch as at first Shadow is able to lighten a fire in her, creating a detour for her from a destination that seemed determined to end in a hot tub full of poisonous gas. However, with time that flame diminished and we realize that there is no quick fix to depression, and this is a journey that Laura is going to have to take on her own. She tells Shadow as much, saying that still loves him, she just doesn’t love her life.
It makes it all the more fascinating that once she comes back to life, Shadow still is the source of life that draws her to him, even if her relationship and dynamic with Mad Sweeney is more instantly interesting.
Sweeney is another character who we get to take a lovely detour with in “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”, the penultimate episode of the series where instead of ramping up the tension and the action everything goes a touch still. It allows for the viewers to better experience the soulful, fairy tale nature of the episode, from the score to the picturesque scenery. It doesn’t fit as effortlessly into the rest of the season but as a standalone is stunning and the best installment of the series to date. There’s a sense of magic in this hour that many of her moments touch upon, but don’t quite meet.
However, there is one scene that does and it comes early in the season between the character Salim and the Jinn who have a chance encounter and bond over a shared language and mutual attraction, spending a night together. Intimate, beautifully shot and simply pretty sexy, the scene is a time out from the action so that we can witness the connection of two lost souls, of wildly different origin stories, but both immigrants to America who are feeling lost among the crowd.
These are the moments that allow American Gods to feel so ultimately lasting and timely. For all of its magical realism and fantastical roots, it boils down to an on the road story as we meet characters from all walks of life who share different histories, religions, sexuality and customs. It’s a series that both explores unifying cultures and wants while also expressing the tension between old and new belief systems. More than the superb casting, the delightful visuals and performances that range from theatrical to subdued, the series best asset is that it’s story has something for everyone.