In its third episode, American Gods already subverts expectations as nimbly as anything on television. That’s doubly surprising in a series based (reasonably faithfully, so far) on a well-known, well-loved novel, but it’s simple to explain. The unexpectedness of “Head Full Of Snow” resides not only in its action, but in its tone and tension, which are as refreshingly unpredictable, yet as inevitable and insistent, as something from a dream.
In the episode’s opening, the audience watches helplessly as Mrs. Fadil (Jacqueline Antaramian) teeters on a rickety kitchen stool, selecting a jar of preserved lemons to perfect the dinner she’s preparing for the grandchildren arriving later—arriving too late, it turns out. Then “Head Full Of Snow” turns the scene sideways. Instead of the expected smash and crash, Mrs. Fadil climbs back down, then there’s a knock at the door. Anubis (Chris Obi) has arrived to escort the dead woman—dead she is, though she and we are spared the small spectacle of her fall—to her afterlife.
There’s a tone of mutual respect between this mortal woman and the god her grandmother told her about, and it transforms this could-be hackneyed scene. Instead of showcasing the shabby domestic tragedy of an old woman tumbling from an old stool, it’s something quieter, calmer, gentler—but not necessarily kinder. Obi’s smile and voice are compassionate and soothing, but they can’t disguise the gravity of Anubis’ task.
Humans may grow accustomed to gods, but not for long. When Anubis plucks out Mrs. Fadil’s heart, she jokingly scolds him, “I was using that!” His response—“We shall see if you have used it well”—sombers her. Suddenly, Antaramian makes the woman’s fear as palpable as her awe. She watches her heart bob up and down against the weight of Anubis’ feather, her fate hanging in the balance. The entire scene is a lively dance between wonder and dread, but it’s also strangely comforting.
That ability to sidestep expectations bodes well for the future of American Gods, which has already been renewed for a second season. The book’s stories and the show’s original content blend into an intoxicating cocktail of new and old, as potent as the mead with which Shadow seals his deal or the vodka Wednesday brings to Zorya Vechernyaya.
Take Wednesday’s wooing of Zorya Vechernyaya. In the book, he’s flirtatious; here, they’re both downright frisky. (“Go to bed!” she scolds him as he enters her room. “I’m trying,” he volleys back, full of meaning.) Romance between older actors is often played for laughs, for mawkish sentiment, or both. But there’s no hint of condescension in the filming of this courting. Wednesday’s pleading his case, yes, but he’s also appealing to an equal, rekindling her desire for power as surely as he’s sparking her desire for him.
Cloris Leachman is best known for her comic roles, and she makes Zorya Vechernyaya’s delivery cuttingly comic, but her range is stunning. As Wednesday spins pretty promises of adoration and fear, her resistance melts. Curiosity, temptation, and finally hunger dance in her eyes and on her lips. Even before a bolt of lightning charges the sky, their conversation, and their kiss, is electric. The only thing more electrifying is the piercing accusation in her eyes as she pulls away and asks, “What have you done?”
Omid Abtahi is similarly affecting as Salim, a salesman from Oman dispatched by his despised brother-in-law and boss to the U.S. His distress and discomfort are apparent in his tightly contained posture as he sits, disregarded, awaiting a meeting that will never begin. He only unbends in the presence of a cab driver (Mousa Kraish) who speaks his language, and speaks with more honesty: In a double-subtitled flourish of invective, the stranger unleashes all the frustration Salim hides (poorly) behind his rictus of a grin and gives Salim permission to unleash it as well.
Their love scene is faithfully, lovingly adapted from the novel. What surprised me wasn’t the intense, honest eroticism, though that is rare enough on television, or the fantastic interlude in which Salim is transported to a desert and filled with the jinn’s fire. It’s the charge of the tamer seconds leading up to all this passion. When the cab driver dozes off in a traffic jam, the cresting music, Abtahi’s tentative movement, the close focus on his hand hovering in the air above the driver’s shoulder all conspire to make the moment of contact as momentous as it must feel to Salim, even before he sees his new friend’s eyes open, sees the flames within them, and realizes who—what—he has met.
“I do not grant wishes,” he warns Salim as he stands, freshly showered and nearly nude in the modest hotel room. But he does grant wishes. Just as Wednesday’s courting of Zorya Vechernyaya is both earnest and self-serving, so is the jinn’s. He takes Salim’s clothes, his sample case, his identity. But in exchange, he leaves his own clothes, his cab, his keys… and the opportunity to escape into the anonymity of New York.
The supposed ease with which Salim will vanish into his new identity, just as the jinn did before him, is a quiet remark on white America’s inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish between other ethnicities’ individuality. There’s no resemblance between Salim’s slight, sweet features and the jinn’s rougher, broader handsomeness, and neither of them resembles the owner of the original license. As Shadow waits with him in a Chicago print shop, Wednesday expands on the ways in which people—at least, Americans—pick and choose ethnicities, even in their gods. “You got your white Jesuit-style Jesus, you got your black African Jesus, you got your brown Mexican Jesus, you got your swarthy Greek Jesus—” That, as Shadow points out, is a lot of Jesus, but in the world of American Gods, it’s all about supply and demand. If it’s demanded, it will be supplied. Belief makes things real.
“Think snow,” Wednesday instructs the disbelieving Shadow, and snow arrives. Think you can disappear into a cab driver’s life in New York, and you can. Think you can follow Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar) up to the roof to watch the midnight sky, and you can, though daylight shows there’s no ladder there. Think, like Zorya Vechernyaya, that you can stretch out your aged hand to reclaim the worship that once was lavished upon you, and you will, at least for one rain-filled night. As Wednesday points out to Shadow, “If you choose to believe that you made snow, then you get to live the rest of your life believing that you can do things that are impossible.”
When a series based on American Gods was first announced (without the promise of Bryan Fuller, who made such an elegant, gruesome psychodrama from the familiar story of Hannibal Lecter), I dreaded it as much as I welcomed it. An adaptation that labored to capture every word of the novel would be leaden and predictable, reducing both the sweep of the story and the sometimes tawdry majesty of the gods to a pedestrian recounting of chapters.
Instead, showrunners/writers Michael Green and Bryan Fuller, along with the impeccable cast and director David Slade, breathe fresh life into this tale at every turn. It’s witty, beautiful, and entrancing. Above all, it’s unexpected even as it recounts stories many of us know by heart, filling the screen with glorious vistas and excursions into the impossible. “What a beautiful, beautiful thing,” Wednesday says, “to be able to dream when you’re not asleep.” Watching “Head Full Of Snow,” I agree.
- I could watch Shadow Moon sullenly admit he likes marshmallows in every episode.
- The musical cue for Mad Sweeney’s rude awakening in the john of Jack’s Crocodile Bar is pure Lynchian menace, and I love it. And hey, Beth Grant’s world-wise bartender returns!
- The chopsticks standing up in a bowl of rice are a silent symbol of Mad Sweeney’s “crazy bad luck.”
- Did everyone else cheer when Scott Thompson showed up as the good Samaritan offering Mad Sweeney a ride, then groan in anticipatory horror as they realized the irony of his radio insisting, “Something tells me I’m into something good”?
- The title “Head Full Of Snow” is lifted from The Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.”
- I haven’t talked much about American Gods’ soundtrack (not composer Brian Reitzell’s score, which is as electrifying as that thunderstorm), and it deserves greater scrutiny than I have space to allot it. The songs are so very on the nose that they could be the mixtape for a clichéd American road trip.