American Gods Episode One: “The Bone Orchard”

Welcome, welcome one and all, to our first trip into the strange and wonderful world of American Gods on Starz. Meghan Ball and Kelly Anderson will be your recappers for the duration. For those who have read the book, we, like you, are looking forward to seeing one of our favorite stories come to life. For those who haven’t, we envy you discovering this universe for the first time. Let’s get to it!

Overview

The bulk of the storyline in the premiere episode concerns Shadow Moon, our almost-ex-con protagonist serving out the last days of his prison sentence, who receives tragic news just before his release. On his journey home, he meets a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday, a charming con man who seems to know a strange lot about Shadow, and seems even more strangely eager to employ him. Upon accepting a job with Wednesday, Shadow soon realizes he’s in for more than a job, but a trip into a whole new America he never knew existed—an America of the edges, the America of travelers, thieves, the back roads, the roadside motels, small-time crooks, and big-time strangeness, where not everyone is what they seem…

Our reactions

Kelly: Welp. This show knows how to make an entrance! Pilots are all about being memorable, and I think I can say from the get-go this one certainly succeeded on that level. They went for a combo of stark, Tarantino-esque visuals, husky-voiced, gritty storytelling, and a grimy ‘70s vibe, and it all blends together to create the perfect mood for this story. It’s surrealist noir, if such a genre exists—everything is slightly off-kilter, and even the scenery makes you look twice (that alligator bar! I gotta get me one of those!). It’s as if somebody went back in time and gave Magritte computer graphics and possibly some acid, and I love it.

Meghan: That was an astonishing trippy-as-hell hour of television. I never thought I’d see the day someone actually followed through with bringing this book to life, and certainly not in a way so savagely, monstrously beautiful. I especially loved the use of music. Whoever chose it deserves a raise. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” playing while Shadow stares mournfully at Laura’s grave? Absolute perfection. They also used “Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups in the bar scene, which is also mentioned in the novel. That was especially cool. Everything about the premiere felt lush and organic, and utterly real as it was surreal. I’m a fan of Tarantino movies, and even I was gasping in shock during the opening Viking scenes, which completely set the tone.

I think Tarantino’s style may get name-checked a lot for this episode, but there’s a little Guillermo Del Toro in there too. The wonderful sense of pervasive strangeness, how everything feels a little off kilter. The atmosphere is incredibly well done. And the casting. You cannot convince me Ian McShane isn’t really Mr. Wednesday. Th e airport scene that introduces him was pulled right off the page. Shadow has a quiet strength about him that is engaging, and I found it hard to take my eyes off him. My only real issue was with the updated interpretation of Technical Boy. I loved the idea, and going from the book’s nerdy neckbeard to sleek Silicon Valley techie feels true to 2017, but man, that hair is terrible. Also, shout out to Betty Gilpin as Audrey. She plays heartbroken, drugged-up mess so well. She was both hilarious and deeply sad, and she kind of stole the show.

Book vs. Show

Kelly: I think they wrote this episode knowing book fans would be watching with their knives out. Most of this opening chapter was incredibly faithful to Gaiman’s original, down to a lot of verbatim dialogue (all the best bits, obvi), and even incidental background scene-setting details that they could have easily cut. The plot more or less proceeds as expected, and where it doesn’t, omissions are made largely for pacing reasons..

I noticed two major changes: First, the addition of the opening framing device with a character (who I hope is who I think he is) writing the story of the Vikings coming to America. I love the idea of transforming the book’s marvelous (but narratively extraneous) “Coming to America” interludes into opening vignettes. It centers the importance of storytelling to this world—the opening image was even of an inkwell and pen! It’s a great way of introduce new characters while keeping the big ideas central to the story front-and-center in an entertaining way. I hope they keep it up every week.

Second, additional time and depth is given to Shadow’s relationships right from the start. First, his more-charming-than expected bond with Wednesday (before he finds out there’s something fishy going on there) and second, the hella amazing intro they gave to Aubrey, that wild graveyard monologue the actress should put on her highlight reel from here on out. In the book, her first appearance is brief, memorable mostly for the shocking exposition she delivers, and her interaction with Shadow deeply antagonistic. I like that they gave her (and him!) more complicated emotions, dealing with their grief right from the beginning. It helps us to bond with these characters early on, which is sorely needed in such a sprawling narrative. 

Kelly and Meghan Talk it Over

Kelly: As you can probably tell, I thought this episode was a pretty solid intro to the AG universe for both book readers and newcomers. The characters are appealing enough that we want to spend time with them, no matter where their stories are going, be they places magical, drug-fueled, or purely delusional. (Giving Ian McShane that much screen time will take care of that for you.) I also liked that they made it clear already that the buddy comedy road trip isn’t the point of the thing, but a means to explore the wider, weirder America. Bliquis’ sensual red world and the pixelated gangsters in the stretch limo made that clear soon enough! It offered a lot of hooks to grab hold of the audience and pull them into the next episode.

The only thing I’m sure I loved is the Technical Boy’s presentation—I assume they wanted to give him a 2017 update, but I liked the way he was presented in the book, where his possibly-soon-to-be insane amount of power was all the more terrifying due to his his clear boyishness, fear, and immaturity. But maybe that doesn’t work for our more mature, tech-infused world? Things have changed in the last 17 years. Nevertheless, I found the fully confident Technical Boy slightly less thematically appropriate.

Meghan: I agree, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I understand the update—the internet has moved on, from domain of basement dwelling dweebs to the big business impacting every facet of our lives. They wanted him to be less “m’lady, tips fedora” and more cutting-edge venture capitalist bro. It makes sense. I do hope it doesn’t become gimmicky, or date the material too quickly.

Everything else, though? Freaking incredible. I had no idea how they were going to handle Bliquis, but it worked marvelously. It was so weird seeing that actually happen. You can tell a lot of tender love (no pun intended) went into getting this first episode right, though I didn’t expect anything less from Bryan Fuller. His touch all over it, especially in the use of color and the framing. It’s visceral and unusual, and I am so excited they pulled it off. 

Kelly: I totally agree about Fuller—I loved Pushing Daisies in large part due to exactly what you’re talking about: gorgeous, vivid colors everywhere. I hope you’re right about Technical Boy, and he doesn’t remain a style statement and a nod to the changing times. There’s so much potential there if they get it right over the long run, and it would be a waste if he stayed this flat of a character. Especially in contrast to everything else they got right. I am so stoked for the storylines to come—this episode took away a lot of my book-fan wariness. Now, I think we can sit back, and trust they understand what this story is about.

Meghan: I may or may not have watched with a copy of American Gods next to me, spot checking details, because I am the worst kind of nerd. They really got the important stuff right, and threw us hardcore fans a few bones. I’m sold. Let’s do this.

Wisdom of the Gods (aka: Our Favorite Quotes)

Shadow: “I’m not superstitious. I believe in plenty when there’s reason and evidence to believe. I don’t believe in anything I can’t see. But I feel like there’s a f–king axe hanging over me. I can’t see it but I believe it.” Oh, Shadow, honey, you have no idea…

Prison guard: “It’s like one of them good news bad news jokes. Good news, we’re letting you out early. Bad news, your wife is dead.” This comes straight from the book and it is perfectly delivered.

Mr. Wednesday: “It’s all about faith. Take this plane, for example. This is an eighteen ton pile of metal, seat cushions, and Bloody Mary mix that has no business soaring through the sky. But along comes Newton, with something about the updraft under the wing or some such shit, none of which makes a lick of sense, but eighty two people back there believe it so fiercely the plane continues its journey. So what’s really keeping us aloft? Faith, or Newton?” Wednesday, pontificating for the WIN.

Mr. Wednesday: “You work for me now. You’re my aide-de-camp, my castellan. Protect and serve. You drive where I need driving to. You take care of things generally on my behalf. And in an emergency, and in an emergency only, you kick the asses of those whose asses require kicking. And in the unlikely event of my death, you will hold my vigil.” Making him an offer he can’t refuse, huh? Can you say “foreshadowing”?

Audrey: “But there’s no arguing with… dead. No debate. Dead wins ten out of ten.” I can not begin to tell you how amazing this scene with Audrey is. So well delivered. Get that woman an Emmy.

Technical Boy: “Wednesday is history. Forgotten and old. He should just let it happen. We are the future and we don’t give a f–k about him or anyone else like him until they are consigned to the dumpster. Now we have reprogrammed reality. Language is a virus. Religion is an operating system. Prayers are just so much f–king spam.” I mean, they did get Technical Boy’s way of speaking down. We’ve read stuff like that on edgy subreddits for sure. He sets up the opposition perfectly.

Final thoughts

Meghan: For the longest time, I thought American Gods was unfilmable. I am very happy to be proven wrong. This is the world I imagined each time I read the book. It feels authentic, a touch grimy. The casting is spectacular, and the way they are handing the “Coming To America” vignettes is inventive and well-suited for television. They hit the ground running, and don’t hold back on showing us just how violent and weird things going to get. I cannot wait to see more. I’ll lay my cards down on the table and call it: this is going to be one of the best shows of the year.

What did you think of the premiere?

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