Ten new American Gods posters? Seems like a ripe opportunity to delve into the mythology and mystery behind the show’s leading characters.
There’s just one month to go until American Gods lands on Starz and Amazon Prime. Ever since the series held its world premiere screening at SXSW, the network has been dropping gorgeous promo left and right, including a trio of classic American paintings — American Gothic, Nighthawks and a Rockwell, all reworked to include technology in order to emphasis the problem that sits at the heart of American Gods; the lurid, discordant and rather threatening opening credits, which we posted about yesterday; and of course, these 10 character portraits, which have been widely shared on social media.
But instead of just showing you the pictures, I wanted to take a minute and give you a bit of a breakdown about the characters that Starz have chosen to showcase in this campaign. American Gods is rather a tough beat in terms of writing spoiler-free, as Neil Gaiman’s cult classic novel is over 15 years old and a staple of every genre-lover’s library, but Bryan Fuller’s hotly anticipated adaptation does still pose a lot of questions and promise a lot of surprises even to the most knowledgable of readers. Here’s a few things to ponder about each of your American Gods leading players.
Portrayed by: Ricky Whittle, best recognized by Hypable readers as The 100’s Lincoln.
Our hero — Shadow is a seemingly normal guy, doing time in prison after taking the fall for a robbery. You’ll meet him right before his sentence ends, as he’s looking forward to returning home to his wife. When said wife’s unexpected death allows for his early release, he meets a mysterious stranger who offers him a job, and directionless, Shadow accepts. He’s then introduced to a world of magic, of dreams and dimensions and destinies, and most importantly, of gods. As huge chunks of the novel take place in the third person limited from Shadow’s point of view, a lot is riding on Whittle’s performance in terms of showing us what was there on the page and inside Shadow’s mind.
Shadow is not the most garrulous of characters — the fact that most people mistake him for the big, dumb, pliable thug he appears to be is one of his primary strategies in terms of keeping his head down, but inside that head, it’s a very different story. Most of the book’s cleverest, most complex, and most endearing moments happen via Shadow’s thought processes, so for the show to pack the same emotional punch as the book, Whittle and the writers will have to pull off one of the deftest page-to-screen transitions of all time in order for readers to believe that this is still our Shadow and for new fans to understand what’s going on. Fuller’s showrunning partner on this project is Logan screenwriter Michael Green, so I think Shadow’s lack of verbosity is in safe hands.
Portrayed by: Award-winning British veteran Ian McShane, known for Deadwood, The Pillars of the Earth, the criminally underrated Kings, and most recently, Game of Thrones.
Probably due to the fact that American Gods has become so iconic over the past decade, the Starz adaptation hasn’t shied away from immediately divulging Wednesday’s true identity as an aspect of the Norse god Odin. This poster is no different, featuring Wednesday on a stretch of highway reminiscent of the novel’s original cover, his missing eye very noticeable. He’s accompanied by two ravens presumably meant to represent Odin’s trusty messengers Huginn and Muninn (“thought” and “memory,” in the old Norse.) The book’s initial reveal was perhaps a little slower — to Shadow, at least; to the reader it’s pretty overt subtext. I mean, the clue is really in the name — as the trailer teases, “today’s my day.”
Odin is the All-Father, ruler of the Norse pantheon of gods, brother of the trickster Loki, father of Thor and, ahem, Balder, but Wednesday, according to McShane, doesn’t really think of himself and his cohorts as gods, just as people getting on with their lives — in Wednesday’s case, he’s a professional con-man, “a small-time but elegant, dressed by GQ grifter.” Gaiman recently revisited Odin — though not Wednesday — as a character in his newest publication Norse Mythology, a retelling of the traditional stories from the Poetic and Prose Eddas.
Portrayed by: Emily Browning, who broke through as the original Violet Baudelaire in 2004’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Laura is Shadow’s wife, and her death opens the book, triggering Shadow’s early release from prison and his “chance” meeting with Wednesday. However, she doesn’t stay in the grave long. Her poster shows her posing in front of her own coffin, surrounded by flies — Laura’s return from death is viscerally unlovely in the book, and unsurprisingly, since Bryan Fuller famously adores his living dead girls, Laura’s role is set to be even further expanded in the series.
At SXSW, it was announced that Browning will also portray another character, Essie Tregowan, in one of the crucial “Coming To America” flashbacks. In the novel, these sequences show the audience how the various gods were brought over to America by their believers, and Essie’s tale of immigration is directly linked to the leprechaun Mad Sweeney. Given Sweeney’s connection to Laura’s resurrection, it’s gorgeously fitting that the actors will be linked back together in this way.
Portrayed by: Pablo Schreiber. You know him as Pornstache from Orange is the New Black and Nick from The Wire.
Mad Sweeney calls himself as a leprechaun, one of the mischievous Irish sprites. However, his name alludes to a different history in Irish folklore — that of Buile Shuibhne, a king driven insane by the curse of a saint, doomed to wander until he dies in refuge. It could be that his self-identification as a leprechaun is in reference to the negative stereotypes pinned on Irish immigrants in America, or it could be perfectly, or at least partially, true – he can certainly pull gold coins out of nowhere.
The Sweeney of American Gods is a six-foot-something, hard-drinking, aggressive and deeply traumatised figure, one of the first Old Gods that Shadow encounters. Gaiman has supplied the American Gods production team with an extensive history of his Sweeney, and promises that Schreiber’s performance is a “tour de force,” so it’s safe to expect great things from Mad Sweeney, whatever he turns out to be.
Portrayed by: Nigerian-born Yetide Badaki, who most recently appeared as a featured voice in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
The tale of Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, transcends a singular religion or culture, and appears in — just to name a few — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Ethiopian, and Coptic texts. According to legend, she visited King Solomon to test his wisdom. Some myths claim she was half-jinn; some, a seductress. Her title is used in colloquial English to describe women who seem to expect only the highest luxuries and treatment, and she’s a symbol of female regency.
In Gaiman’s novel, Bilquis’ story appears in isolated snippets, as an example of another Old God struggling to procure the worship she needs to survive in America, posing as prostitute to obtain sexual, sacrificial love. Given that Badaki is a regular cast member who appeared with the cast at San Diego last summer and whose name is featured in the American Gods opening credits, one of the biggest book-to-screen unknowns is the the potential for Bilquis to possibly be brought into the main plot alongside Wednesday and the gods he recruits to his cause.
Portrayed by: British newcomer Bruce Langley.
One of the youngest but most powerful of the New Gods, those who came into being due to the dependence, social relevance and obsession modern society has placed upon certain concepts, whose war with the Old Gods of traditional belief forms the central conflict Shadow finds himself in the middle of. The Technical Boy is a god of the Internet — in Gaiman’s 2001 novel, he’s described as an overweight young man sporting acne and a long leather jacket, signifying the personification of Internet culture in those days — the basement-dwelling toxic dweebs one prom rejection away from committing a school shooting.
But out of every aspect that’s deified in American Gods, nothing could have possibly changed more in the past 16 years than our perception of the Internet. While the erasure of fat characters in media is not an ideal scenario, Tech Boy in particular is a unique circumstance where the change makes sense: chubby nerds are no longer viewed as loathsome and creepy, but Langley’s portrayal — a slim, attractive, entitled, vaping white boy straight out of Silicon Valley, with up to the minute futuristic fashion and a cold, smug and hyperactive rage, is absolutely intimidating. Do not underestimate this one.
Portrayed by: Tiny triple-threat Kristin Chenoweth, who starred in Fuller’s whimsical Pushing Daisies and who is, if the Wicked cast recording is allowed to count in her favor, a single letter away from an EGOT.
Easter, Ēostre or Ostara, the Germanic goddess of spring, of dawn and rebirth, is doing quite well in this day and age thanks to the pilfering of pagan symbolism by modern Christianity. Much like the Yule traditions in December, most of the non-Jesus-specific festivities of Easter were appropriated from a pagan festival occurring around the same time of the year, perhaps due to early Christians attempting to rack up conversions by explaining how their rather grim Paschal month was actually totally the same thing and that the ex-pagans could still do all the fun stuff they were accustomed to. As it’s become one of the most commercial Western holidays, one in which even non-Christians partake for the candy and time off of work, this tactic apparently worked.
All the bunnies and eggs and feasting done in Easter’s name have kept her alive and well, even if her worshipers have no idea of the origins of the holiday — somewhat of a sore spot for the goddess. Chenoweth’s casting – a reunion of sorts between herself and Fuller — was announced as a surprise at San Diego Comic-Con. The Easter of the books is a little more wholesome than the showiness of this styling, but Chenoweth’s effervescence is a good fit for the role.
Portrayed by: Peter Stormare, a legendary Swedish character actor who possesses a mind-boggling total of 172 iMDb acting credits.
A rather obscure Slavic deity, Czernobog, whose name means “the black god,” appears fairly early on on the novel as one of Wednesday’s first attempts at recruitment to the cause against the New Gods. He’s a brutal figure, a god of the dead, of the night and of chaos, and he and his relatives, the Zorya, await the return of his brother or mirror aspect, Bielebog, the god of light. During his life in America, Czernobog worked as a “knocker” in abattoirs, killing cattle with his hammer, before technology rendered him obsolete as an employee just as lack of belief rendered him obsolete as a god.
Here, in his poster, he’s pictured with his signature weapon on the killing fields. In the novel, Shadow’s time at Czernobog’s home is an enlightening one, somewhat of a turning point regarding his awareness of the mysterious world he’s stepped into, and he also finds himself making a deadly bet. Starz bills Czernobog outright as the god of evil, which is going to be an interesting idea to balance, since he’s not technically an antagonist.
Portrayed by: Fandom-savvy social media genius and extremely woke bae Orlando Jones.
Ohhhhhhh *rubs hands together* this one is going to be so good. Nancy is, of course, Anansi, the trickster-spider of African folklore, and the one American Gods character who ended up spilling over into a Gaiman novel of his very own, 2005’s rather more comedic Anansi Boys. Many Anansi tales were passed by oral tradition into American folklore via the slave trade, and became the stories of Br’er Rabbit. Nancy is one of Wednesday and Shadow’s staunchest allies, and on a personal note, there’s a particular scene between him and Shadow that’s my favorite in the entire book. Jones, frankly, is a little younger and more attractive than I expected our Nancy to be — he’s described as a very old, rather small man. It will be interesting to see whether this Nancy, who appears in his prime, can get away with the naughtiness of his elderly novel counterpart, who’s brushed off as harmless.
I’ll take the trade-off, because Jones is a gift to any fandom lucky enough to have him, and given that the bizarrely positive fannish environment surrounding Fuller’s last project Hannibal — who would have thought that a graphically gory show about cannibals would have a happier and healthier fandom than like, for example, a show about a teenage singing club? – was in part due to the inviting and understanding relationship between the fandom and the cast and crew, I’m already anticipating the glory that is Orlando Jones in a Bryan Fuller fandom.
Portrayed by: Professional creepy person Crispin Glover.
As the primary antagonist and the leader of the New Gods, Mr. World is Mr. Wednesday’s opposite number, a general in the war between the factions of belief. Since the first season of American Gods is only set to cover around a third of the book (renew it right now, Starz, I swear to… well… all these gods) it’s uncertain where and how World may appear in the upcoming episodes, as at this point in the novel he was still very much the man behind the curtain – perhaps his immediate presence is a sign that we’ll see behind that curtain much earlier than Shadow gets to.
I have no idea how many anticipatory viewers are fans of the novel and how many are going in blind, so it’s sort of hard to say more than that. Right now, I’m very curious about whether Fuller has chosen to reveal all of Mr. World’s secrets to the audience early on, finding his dramatic tension elsewhere; whether they’re spoilers that book fans may need to try and protect; or whether this adaptation will take twists and turns that shock even those familiar with the novel in new ways.
The American Gods title sequence, released yesterday, does not actually feature footage of any of these actors, rather relying on the imagery of old and new worship to introduce the show. Religious iconography, technology, masks and pills and machines and idols all blend into one another in a clinical mess of neon and smoke, soundtracked by frantic music sampled directly from your latest anxiety attack. However, there’s one more little hint to look out for there — as the items come together to form a final totem pole under the show’s red fluorescent logo, they’re topped by an eagle — or is it a thunderbird? Watch this space. And, you know, the video again, if you don’t mind your brain getting scrambled this early of a morning.