Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods is a popular read in Pagan circles, and the new Starz television series was greeted with excitement by many of the book’s Pagan fans. Debuting on April 30, the series has aired three episodes as of this writing.
The story revolves around the riveting premise that the old gods, being immortal, still exist. However, due to a lack of worship in the modern world, they are old and haggard and blend into American society, having arrived there when their followers immigrated, sometimes involuntarily. At the same time, America’s new gods, or the gods that represent the targets of modern worship such as media, computers, and globalization, are strong, vibrant, and at war with their predecessors.
In the middle of the two sits Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), an ex-convict who finds himself working for Odin (known as “Mr. Wednesday”) and unwittingly pitted against the new gods.
Much like the novel, the series opens with Shadow’s release from prison and sudden thrust into Mr. Wednesday’s world. At least in the early episodes, the audience finds itself in a similar situation as Shadow: attempting to put together the pieces of who these gods are, what they represent, and what role the sudden death of Shadow’s wife plays in the story.
Viewers are slowly introduced to both old and new gods as the narrative gradually pieces itself together.
In the first episode, “The Bone Orchard,” we meet Mr. Wednesday, played by Ian McShane. McShane is faithful to the novel’s portrayal of Odin in disguise – a clearly wise and wily, yet aging and tired, con-man. Whittle’s Shadow Moon is not given much to do at this point except wonder at Wednesday’s strange behavior and the odd companions that seem to surround him. The audience is left in the same position.
Pablo Schreiber rounds out episode one as the violent Mad Sweeney, a volatile leprechaun with pockets full of gold. Schreiber’s portrayal is appropriately simmering and mysterious.
The first new god to be introduced is Technical Boy, who is the young and flashy god of modern technology played by Bruce Langley. There is not much to go on yet, but Langley succeeds in contrasting his vibrant, limousine-riding character with the almost sepia-toned old gods.
Although the first episode is a bit slow and a touch confusing for those who have not read the book, it clearly promises more and radiates the unmistakable feel that storm clouds are beginning to gather.
That storm continues to gather in the second episode called “The Secret of Spoons.” Much like in the first installment, viewers are introduced to a small number of gods on each side. On the old gods side, the Zorya sisters played by Cloris Leachman, Martha Kelly, and Erika Kaar, effectively add more mystery and give Shadow something to quest for.
But it is Peter Stormare’s dark and murder-obsessed Czernabog who steals the spotlight and brings the series its first true moment of fear over a game of checkers. On the other side of the fence, Gillian Anderson, dressed convincingly as Lucille Ball, is adept at adding to the conflict as the new god of media.
The third episode “Head Full of Snow,” centers less on the conflict between the old and new gods and more on one of the series’ most effective tropes: the introduction of old gods of various cultures into the story. Each episode begins with one story of a culture’s immigration to America and the story of bringing their gods along with them.
In episode one, for example, Vikings are shown making an offering to Odin during their exploration of North America. The second of these vignettes is perhaps the most touching and powerful of these stories. It depicts the suffering of slaves being transported to America.
Portraying the African god Anansi, Orlando Jones delivers a powerful and moving speech about the African experience in America both during the slave trade and into future centuries. This speech, paired with the somewhat horrifying sexual actions of the Bilquis (Yetide Badake), are some of the most fascinating portions of the series to date.
To continue this trope, episode three focuses on the immigration Arab cultures to the New World. This includes a graphic sex scene between two Muslim men, and the introduction of Mousa Kraish as an Ifrit (Jinn), a succubus-like Islamic demon who seems to steal the identity of his victims.
Although it is currently unclear what purpose these vignettes serve in the overall narrative, these scenes are some of the most intense and interesting portions of the series so far. Additionally, they do a wonderful job in exploring the various cultures and religious practices, new and old, that make up the tapestry of American culture.
And, really, that is the driving force of American Gods: The question of what, exactly, is an American god? In a culture commonly known as a “melting pot,” a culture filled with mythologies, histories, and religious practices that is at once highly materialistic and secular as well as deeply religious in various ways, what counts as a deity? Can those deities, each given their own praise by their own set of worshipers, coexist, or must they battle for supremacy?
Although the TV series is new, and it is developing at a slow pace, the cauldron of conflict represented by this gurgling melting pot of religiosity is clearly brewing.
There are many new deities on the way, including Crispin Glover as the new god Mr. World, Demore Barnes as Thoth (AKA Mr. Ibis), and Wicked favorite Kristen Chenoweth as Easter. The ingredients are available. Where the cauldron boils over, and how closely it resembles the direction of the source material, remains to be seen.
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