Religion is a constant presence in the modern world. Every day billions of people bend their heads in prayer to their chosen deity, whether it be the God (or Gods) of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Yet how broad is the definition of religion? Is a deity anything more than something to which people give their time and precious belief? For every second spent in prayer in this modern age, tenfold are given freely to glowing screens; whispered adorations have been supplanted by Likes, Hearts, Views, and Comments. These new gods command our time and devotion, threatening to usurp traditional gods in the very same way those gods usurped the gods of old. American Gods, the new show by Hannibal and Pushing Daisies showrunner Bryan Fuller and writer Michael Green, seeks to explore this heady subject in a first season that is as challenging as it is mesmerizing; a blistering, challenging proof-of-concept that shirks normal storytelling rules to deliver an experience that is as captivating as it is strange.
Based upon the 2001 novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman (praise be his name!), American Gods centers on career criminal Shadow Moon. Shadow took the fall for a crime and ended up in prison. Some years later he’s released early due to the distinct misfortune of his wife having been killed in a car crash. On the way to the funeral, he encounters a mysterious smooth-talker named Mr. Wednesday who offers Shadow more than just employment: he offers him purpose. Although at first reluctant, Shadow eventually makes a compact with Wednesday and begins his peculiar road trip across America to fulfill the old man’s incredibly specific task: he wants to start a war. Specifically, he wants to start a war between the Old gods and the New.
In the universe of American Gods, belief is what brings deities into being and gives them strength; collective consciousness at its most powerful. Every immigrant who ever came to America and gave praise to a foreign god gave birth to a different aspect of that god: a shade reflective of their conception of the being which they worshipped, seen through the lens of their culture and experiences. As depicted in the show for example, a Mexican person’s concept of Jesus is much different than an Irish person’s concept of Jesus; in American Gods both aspects exist as separate entities embodying those beliefs. The problem for Mr. Wednesday and his ilk is that no one believes in them anymore. Save for the more popular religions that have been commodified and commercialized, the Old Gods are largely neglected, supplanted by a new class of deity powered by the constant adoration of modern humanity. Technology and Media reign, led by the enigmatic Mr. World: interconnectivity personified, the avatar of globalization.
Peace is offered, but Mr. Wednesday is of a different time; a time of blood sacrifice and fire. He doesn’t want to limp on in obscurity. He wants to be worshipped as he once was. And so he recruits Shadow to serve as his bodyguard on a road trip across America to recruit the remaining Old Gods for the war to come.
American Gods is a triumph of imagination, style, and casting. Bryan Fuller has taken his distinct aesthetic sensibilities (as evidenced in Pushing Daisies and Hannibal) and combined them with a daring, almost freeform plot structure that centers, above all else, on character. The show is not slow, but meticulous. The plot grows and spins its many threads, but instead of stringing the viewer along at a breakneck pace, it allows for time to explore characters that would only be supporting players in another program. Shadow himself is largely absent for two whole episodes—quite a risk in an eight episode season—and instead the audience finds themselves following anyone from a disgruntled leprechaun to Shadow’s dead wife come back from the grave. These storytelling risks slow the advance of the central storyline, true, but they also flesh out the world of American Gods, making it feel bizarre and heightened, but also lived-in. Shadow is the central character, but he is only one player in a larger game and because of these tangents the world feels as big as you’d want it to in a story concerning a godly war.
The series is also peppered with fascinating vignettes that range from wistful to tragic. These five to ten minute segments (labelled Coming to America and Somewhere in America) highlight how the Old Gods came to be in America as well as showing how they live now. Some of the show’s most powerful segments stem from these daring asides. One of the most moving features the incomparable Orlando Jones as Anansi, an African trickster god, who appears to a group of slaves on a ship as they’re being taken to America. It’s a mesmerizing scene that functions on many levels: Anansi speaks to them with full knowledge of the abuse and oppression that awaits them and their future ancestors in America, simultaneously urging them to resistance and sacrifice. It’s potent material and American Gods never shies away from confronting and commenting on the many issues facing America today. From gun rights to immigration, American Gods has something to say in its own unique and potent way.
There’s also a focus on identity, on both a macro and micro scale. American Gods discusses America’s confused and often contradictory identity with itself and its citizens (see the current events above), then takes it deeper as characters seek to determine who they are rather than what they’re expected to be. Shadow struggles with purpose in a country that’s labelled him as a lost cause. Laura Moon struggles with self-love, having already endured what many would consider the dream of suburban life. And perhaps the most touching vignette: a gay Middle Eastern man named Salim struggles to find comfort and understanding in a country that has a largely homogenized view of his culture and people. The care with which Salim’s story is handled is one of the most beautiful parts of the series and I hope American Gods receives recognition for such a nuanced, sex-positive, and thoughtful depiction of homosexuality and intimacy.
Aside from American Gods’ weighty themes and incredible visuals, it is an actor’s showcase. As expected, Ian McShane is wonderful as Mr. Wednesday. He imbues the elder god with the mischievous spirit of a lifelong grifter, but also gives a hint of the menace and wrath lingering just beneath the surface. Ricky Whittle, formerly of The 100, makes for a capable, charismatic lead a far cry from the stoic, near-silent Shadow of the book. Whittle’s committed performance makes Shadow’s journey from skeptic to believer as fun as it is captivating. Emily Browning (Sleeping Beauty, Sucker Punch) is sublime as the recently deceased Laura Moon. Laura is a truly unlikable character. She’s nasty, selfish, and fickle and exactly what we need right now. The experimental structure of the show allows us the time to come to understand why Laura is the way she is. It certainly doesn’t make her more redeemable, but it does flesh her out as a real human with all the contradictory, ineffable what?-ness present in actual people, which I believe is important to show in female characters. I could go on, but really you’re better off seeing the show for yourself. Every actor—from Peter Stormare as the bloodthirsty Czernobog to Gillian Anderson as Media, Pablo Schrieber as a luckless leprechaun to Crispin Glover as Mr. World—is excellent and perfectly cast. Here’s hoping season two continues the trend (and casts Mads Mikkelsen as an Old God because, well come on, he’s Mads Mikkelsen!).
Lastly, I shall comment on the music. Brian Reitzell returns to collaborate with Bryan Fuller once again. Similar to his Hannibal score, Reitzell imbues the universe of American Gods with a cacophony of discord: a beautiful, unsettling mishmash of violent strings and caterwauling horns. If you need a sampler, look at the opening credits. It never fails to set the mood and get you excited. Overall, it’s some truly sterling work that manages to always strengthen and never overbear the drama taking place on screen.
Much more could be said of American Gods, but it is truly something that needs to be seen to be believed. A singular experience: beautiful, bizarre, and utterly compelling. There’s nothing like it. Watch and then be overwhelmed with the need for a Bryan Fuller-led adaptation of Sandman. Revel in the sheer Gaiman-ness of it (PRAISE BE HIS NAME!). And maybe, just maybe, allow yourself think critically about the power of belief, what America is, and what it should be.
American Gods is available to watch now on Starz.