As a massive fan of Bryan Fuller’s NBC show Hannibal, I was eagerly awaiting the release of his new Starz project American Gods. With the recently aired first episode, audiences were treated to beautiful visuals, plenty of blood, and a whole lot of strange.
*Spoilers for the first episode of American Gods in this article.*
I’ll be honest, the first episode of American Gods, “The Bone Orchard,” left me more than a little confused. The main character, Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle), is released from prison several days early after the death of his wife, Laura. As he travels back home to her funeral, Shadow meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (played by Ian McShane), and finds himself in the stranger’s employ after an unlucky coin toss. It’s unclear exactly who Mr. Wednesday is and what he’s capable of or why he takes an interest in Shadow Moon.
Throughout Shadow’s journey, he has visions of a wickedly beautiful-looking ‘bone orchard’, which, at one point, has a buffalo with fire spouting out of its eyeballs. Now, aside from providing some visually stunning imagery, I think these dream sequences were included to show Shadow’s growing understanding of this new world of gods that he never knew existed. Mr. Wednesday sort of acts as Shadow’s initial guide into this world and we can metaphorically see Shadow’s mind expand and his internal conflict in these strangely beautiful dream-scapes.
Several other characters were introduced during the episode who add to the confusion. Mad Sweeney, for example, a large, ginger-bearded Irishman with a penchant for fighting and coin-based magic, starts a brawl in a bar with Shadow for no other reason than to display what these two characters are capable of physically. It’s unclear exactly what Sweeney’s role will be or what his relationship is with Mr. Wednesday.
There’s also Bilquist, a quiet, tired-looking woman who goes to meet an awkward gentlemen in a restaurant after they match through an online dating service. She takes the man back to her room where they begin to have uncomfortable-to-watch sex. Bilquist makes the man worship her as a goddess during the act, which appears to make her increase in size to the point where she sucks the entire man up into herself. Yes, you read that right. I swear I’m not making this up.
When Shadow finally arrives at Laura’s funeral he finds out through his best friend’s wife (who lost her husband in the same crash that killed Laura) that the two had been having an affair. I can’t remember the character’s name now because she mostly irritated me with every moment that she spent on screen– I’m hoping she doesn’t have a big role to play in the rest of the series. Anyway, after learning of his wife’s infidelity from the irritating woman, Shadow tosses a magic coin he got from Mad Sweeney onto her grave which, as he’s walking away, gets sucked into the earth. Because Laura Moon is shown walking around in the show’s promotional trailer missing an arm I can only assume that this coin somehow brings her back to life. Strange.
The episode reaches its conclusion as Shadow walks along a deserted stretch of road and the street lights begin to shut off. He spots an angular shiny object in a field off the road and goes to investigate. The object opens up and latches on his face like some sort of mask, transporting him to a virtual limo where he meets Technical Boy, the young god of technology. Technical Boy grills Shadow about Mr. Wednesday and what he’s up to while smoking synthetic toad skins. When Shadow refuses to answer Technical Boy’s questions, he’s transported back to the field where a handful of (literally) faceless goons in white outfits begin to beat him to death in what appears to be a clear nod to A Clockwork Orange. As Shadow is strung up by the neck to die in the pouring rain, in what is perhaps the episode’s most visually striking moment, his attackers are brutally killed by an unseen saviour. Blood cascades on and around Shadow and he regains consciousness just in time to witness his final attacker being cut in half. The episode ends with Shadow, laying in the field, looking at the pools of blood and dismembered bodies surrounding him.
If you haven’t seen the episode yet and are confused by what you’ve just read then you have a pretty good understanding of how I felt after watching. American Gods is based on a popular novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman and I feel like I would have understood more of what I saw had I read the book. While the visuals were absolutely stunning (in classic Bryan Fuller fashion) there is a bit of a sacrifice demanded from the audience. Fans of the novel will undoubtedly understand what’s going on, but viewers coming in cold will likely be feeling utterly confused and bewildered for the duration of the episode. The sacrifice demanded of these American God virgin-viewers is to power through the first couple of episodes where nothing will make any sense and everything is weird until the mid-to-later episodes when things will start coming together.
There’s obviously much more to discuss with this show, notably its exploration of immigrants’ journey to the U.S. and the role of religion and spirituality in American society as it relates to newcomers, but I just had these quick thoughts to get off my chest. So far, having not read the book or too much about the show itself, I’m mostly confused. The characters are strange and few of them are particularly likeable. It’s unclear what the rules are in this new world and what limitations are in place for the gods that occupy it. I’m sure many of the details will be fleshed out and the characters will become easier to relate to, sympathize with, and enjoy as the show goes on, but as it stands after episode one, the only thing that will keep me tuning in for episode two are the visuals and the fact that it has Bryan Fuller’s name attached to it.