In the kind of coincidence that would make Mr. Wednesday himself chuckle, there are two major 2017 releases rooted in Nordic mythology that are being touted with a road-trip angle. Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi has promised that in November, the Odinson and his “work friend” the Incredible Hulk, will trek across the cosmos to fend off the end of existence. And later this month, you’ll be able to take in the sights of small-town America before they’re wiped out by war when American Gods premieres on Starz.
As topical as that sentence might seem in light of recent events, the show’s central conflict is actually one that began brewing when Neil Gaiman first started making his way across the country, collecting the stories that informed his 2001 novel. The result was equal parts fairy tale, road novel, and unofficial ethnography, as well as pure, unadulterated Gaiman. Though it quickly became a modern classic, it wasn’t until 2011 that a small-screen adaptation of American Gods began simmering at HBO. Starz picked up the project after it went off the rails at its fellow premium-cable outlet, where each new announcement garnered more excitement than the last: Bryan Fuller would serve as showrunner with veteran producer Michael Green! Ian McShane was going to play a grifting All-Father! And finally, we’d be able to worship Gillian Anderson on Sundays again.
Despite the protracted wait—or perhaps owing to it—American Gods immediately starts tearing up the track, with an opening sequence so awash in Viking blood, it would appease Odin himself, not to mention acolytes of Hannibal and Logan (the latter of which Green wrote). The torturous tribute is not just a reminder of the brutal realities of exploration. It’s inspired by one of the many vignettes that made up the novel’s detours, which serve a similar purpose here, breaking up the stretches of road that Mr. Wednesday (McShane) and Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) drive across. But they rightly get the full treatment from directors (and Hannibal alums) David Slade, who helmed the first three episodes, and Guillermo Navarro. These trips back in time are, after all, the kind of immigration stories Gaiman and now the showrunners have been keen on telling—we have to see just what’s going into the melting pot.
The first half of the series is very much in the spirit of the novel, with Wednesday’s purple-prosed prattling both turning Shadow’s head and pissing him off. Though he’s the increasingly less venerated one, it’s Wednesday who speaks in chants, and to let him go on too long is to fall under his spell. McShane is perfectly cast as a new-world version of the chief Norse god; his Wednesday is a shabby-genteel con man who’s tired of hustling in obscurity, and is now amassing an army. Or at least trying to—despite his many gifts, war is a tough sell for anyone, even a Czech god (Peter Stormare) who misses doling out his hammer’s brutal “kiss.” But he gets off to a good start by quickly securing a man-at-arms in Shadow.
Even as most of the dialogue rolls off Wednesday’s golden (forked) tongue, Shadow remains our protagonist, though there’s a new twist on this ex-con. He’s less laconic than in the book, which being on screen practically requires. Otherwise, we might need frequent narration to know what’s going on in Shadow’s head, or just watch Whittle invent new ways to frown. It’s not that Shadow is suddenly garrulous; he’s just more willing to give his new boss a piece of his mind. Whittle turns out to be inspired casting himself, bringing the necessary physicality to the role of a bouncer turned possible soldier, as well as pathos and humor. Even before someone remarks that Shadow “lost something vital in [prison], and not just time,” you sense his grief, as well as his desire to do something about it. True to his name, Shadow Moon often walks alongside others or in their orbit, but thanks to Whittle and the writers, he’s not just a satellite.
In addition to establishing the core dynamic between Shadow and Wednesday, American Gods sets about recreating many key moments from the novel, including reimagining Bilquis’ worship scene as the dating app hookup to end all dating-app hookups. But though Fuller and Green have mostly remained faithful to their source material, they’ve followed Gaiman’s example in breathing new life into iconic figures. Aside from a more proactive Shadow, they’ve also changed the face of the Technical Boy from online troll to the kind of social media personality who’s taking over the internet. He’s as petulant and vicious as ever—he’s just moved out of his mom’s basement.
Though its external scope covers oceans and millennia, when American Gods turns its focus inward, it must cross a distance even less fathomable. What we’re watching play out aren’t just the spoils of war or its incitement. It’s the battle for identity, being waged by individuals and a country. When Wednesday wryly observes that America remains a nation without one cohesive identity, it’s very much the Old World in him talking. Odin may be the god of knowledge and wisdom, but he can’t quite see that the swirl of cultures make up this country’s ever-changing face. Shadow represents the frequently invoked melting pot, and a counterpoint to Wednesday’s assertion. As conveniently topical as it might seem, the showrunners are once again just following the author’s example, as Gaiman always intended to tell a pro-immigration story.
Fuller and Green, who also wrote the four episodes available for review, take us on a mostly smooth ride in the first half of American Gods. Even where there’s table setting, it’s done with panache, as in the checkers match from the book that also plays out as a fanciful riff on The Seventh Seal (it doesn’t hurt that Stormare is Swedish). They’ve blended their sensibilities, weaving a rich tapestry of whimsy, epic action, and deft characterization. Practically speaking, it will definitely tide you over until that other fantasy drama returns. But thematically, it could knock someone off their throne.