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American Gods rides into its second season, praying it can evolve

Ricky Whittle
Photo: Starz
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“I know where I’m going!” That plaintive whine, uttered by Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) as he charges over a golf course (and golfer) in a stretch limo, is not a reassuring opening for a beleaguered show.

Writers Neil Gaiman (author of the novel upon which American Gods is based) and Jesse Alexander know that, and they throw in a few more winks at worried viewers, anticipating the fears that follow a troubled production. “We can’t move without preparation, off balance and unready,” Mr. World (Crispin Glover) frets, sending his sneering underling off to “find Media”—by which he means a new vision of a character originated by Gillian Anderson, who left the series in the wake of the departure of creators and showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green.

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Those winks seem less lighthearted when we remember that Alexander was also sidelined as showrunner, in a muddled move that one source described as “fired but not fired.” Like Wednesday’s campaign to win back worshippers and regain his power, American Gods has been hit by setback after setback, and those difficulties show up in the very visible seams of this episode as it tries to stitch together what was with what will be.

But this isn’t a review of the production process. It’s a review of the show, episode by episode. So let’s plow into “House On The Rock,” the season premiere, as lustily as the show does—or as lustily as the show will allow.

It seemed risky to end the first season before our travelers even made it to The House On The Rock. But it’s a risk (and a budget-driven necessity) that pays off reasonably well in the premiere. The House On The Rock—that strange roadside attraction, that oddity of American tourism—lends its substantive mystique to this first episode as no fictional site could, at a time when the show badly needs both mystique and substance.

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The House On The Rock
Screenshot: Starz

Wednesday (Ian McShane)—now revealed as Odin—tells Shadow, “over the centuries, people in other places felt calls to places of power. They knew there was an energy there, a focus point, a channel, a window to the imminent.” In places like The House On The Rock, Wednesday explains, humans cobble together rickety monuments to something powerful but ineffable. The House On The Rock, says this ancient god, is “a place where people come to look, play, and wonder.”

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That’s also what a TV show can be, if it’s well-crafted—or even if it’s half-baked but utterly, unhesitatingly itself. The first season of American Gods was flawed but passionate, an potent brew of intense visuals, insightful portrayals, cheerfully unlikeable characters, and not-quite-cogent stories told with irresistible verve. It was a rough draught but a heady cocktail. Fuller and Green managed to capture the spirit of Gaiman’s novel without following its plot to the letter, and while expanding the arcs of many of the book’s minor characters.

It’s almost as if the show’s creators heard and heeded in 2017 the advice Mr. Nancy gives in tonight’s second-season premiere: “If you follow the signs, you never have any motherfucking fun!” This season promises to focus more on plot and hew closer to the book, but the premiere borrows its visuals from the site it visits instead of intoxicating us with the show’s unique aesthetic charms and its cast’s tour-de-force performances.

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Cloris Leachman, Ian McShane
Screenshot: Starz

Of those performances, the most luminous, most delicate, was Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya. That brilliance is briefly revisited against the gleaming backdrop of The House On The Rock, only to see Zorya struck down before episode’s end. As logical as Zorya Vechernyaya’s death is for both the narrative and the production, I will miss Leachman’s keen portrayal and the trenchant wit that cloaked Zorya’s vulnerability. Laura and Mad Sweeney might be the heart of the show, but cutting down Zorya Vechernyaya feels like cutting out the heart of this loosely assembled company of gods.

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Even here, in the most gutting scene of the premiere, it’s hard to ignore the show’s countless production concerns intruding into the story. (Insuring an actor for the length of a series grows more expensive with every presumed risk factor, including age.) But as it takes away Zorya Vechernyaya (and who knows, in a show populated by forsaken gods and a walking corpse, whether she will return in some form), “House On The Rock” delivers a bevy of new old gods. One of these gods is Mama-Ji (Sakina Jaffrey), by day a chambermaid in the Hotel America, but now a god of war willing to stand up to Odin.

Yetide Badaki
Screenshot: Starz
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It also brings back Bilquis (Yetide Badaki). Entering Odin’s gathering without invitation, Bilquis is confident, calm, and uncowed by his snub. Stepping forward, she reminds Odin, “I was old in the desert before they sacrificed the first horse to you,” and insists upon being heard “unless you are afraid.” Bilquis’ advice, to adopt the tools of the new gods and adapt to changing times, to use the power of connection to convert new congregations, is a clever update on the novel, which was written before the worldwide explosion of social media.

Together, the old gods mount the forbidden carousel and ride it, spinning with dizzying speed, into the divine landscape of Odin’s memories. “We’re just backstage,” Bilquis tells Shadow.

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Ricky Whittle, Yetide Badaki, Orlando Jones
Screenshot: Starz

I can’t tell yet if this season has any of season one’s unreliable but undeniable power, but this scene is beautiful, even breathtaking. It takes most of its power from the riotous background of its setting and the rest from these actors, able to breathe power into words that read fluidly on the page but prove a challenge to hear, and probably to speak with conviction. These speeches, lifted almost verbatim from Neil Gaiman’s novel, could be ponderous and stilted, too heavy for an actor’s voice. But these actors—especially Ian McShane and Orlando Jones—speak them with the certainty of gods… and not gods down on their luck, either. If there is an animating power to this episode, it is split between the setting and the actors. (That’s not a slight to Alexander and Gaiman, who had to be equally confident their actors could carry the weight of these lines.)

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Shadow’s fortune
Screenshot: Starz

Like Wednesday’s entourage driving from Kentucky to Wisconsin, “House On The Rock” covers a lot of ground, introducing new characters, explaining the absence of old ones, and refreshing the viewer’s memory of the relationships pulling these people (and gods) in too many directions at once. But much of this exposition feels as mechanical as the creaky, blood-red sequence of Selina delivering Shadow’s (Ricky Whittle) fortune. And some of it feels as blank as Laura Moon’s (Emily Browning) fortune.

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Even the relationship between these two, previously enlivened by silent understanding and sorrow shared, feels forced. They barely interact until she asks him about Odin, and even then he wavers. “I don’t know what I believe in,” Shadow tells the dead wife who follows him across a continent. “I guess… I don’t know. I guess I believe in him. I want to believe in you.” Despite the shaky storytelling of the first season and the uncertainty surrounding the second, I want to believe in American Gods. I hope it will let me.

If American Gods is to succeed in its second (and possible third) season, it needs to transcend the temptation to wink about its own woes. It needs to recapture the magic that inhabited even its clumsiest stories. It needs to stop asking, as Wednesday asks his companions, whether we will come backstage. If American Gods is to thrive in the inhospitable land that its own troubles have made for it, the writers must heed the advice Bilquis offers her fellow gods: “Evolve or die.”

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Stray observations

  • The miniature map of the country, trains crawling across it like inchworms, massive landmarks scaled down, like the St. Louis arch reduced to a tiny hoop of metal, as Mr. Wednesday’s car sweeps from state to state, is a charming way to note their progress.
  • Mad Sweeney talks the Jinn into giving Laura Moon a coin for her fortune, when Mad Sweeney of all people should know the dangers of giving that corpse more coins.
  • In a detail designed to deceive readers of Gaiman’s novel, Bilquis calls for her car while Wednesday’s celebration is still in full swing, but sidesteps the fate the novel spells out… so far.
  • “It’s my bloody luck you’re feedin’ on, dead wife.” I am never going to get tired of Mad Sweeney taking it on the chin, or taking a burning cigarette butt to the throat.
  • “I do not grant wishes.” SALIM AND THE JINN, THE JINN AND SALIM! Spinoff series, anyone?
  • I am infuriated by the laziness that results in the exchange between Bilquis and the Jinn being captioned as “[foreign language]” instead of the words they speak.
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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.