American Gods is here and it demands discussion. Read our reaction to American Gods episode 1, “The Bone Orchard.”
The highly anticipated TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s cult classic novel American Gods, helmed by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, has finally, thankfully arrived. Airing on Starz in the USA and being made available weekly worldwide on Amazon Prime Video, the show’s first season will consist of eight hour-length episodes, taking us only a portion of the way into the book — with hopefully more to come.
As Brittany wrote in her spoiler-free review of the advance screener episodes, American Gods does not necessarily lend itself to standard recapping. At least, not for us — it feels too thought-provoking to simply rehash, and too multifaceted to publish just one echo-chamberish perspective about. Instead, each week, we’ll be discussing the new episode and the questions it raises as a conversation. Here’s our (rather extensive) reaction to “The Bone Orchard,” in which Shadow Moon is released from prison early due to the death of his wife, and meets a mysterious stranger on a plane.
Natalie: SO it’s happening, it’s finally here. After all that. What were your first impressions of the premiere?
Brittany: Blood. SO. MUCH. BLOOD. But really, should I be that surprised? I made it through Hannibal; I can make it through this. That aside, it was visually stunning. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have raised their own bar with this project.
Natalie: Oh my god, I was going to talk about that later but I almost felt like that opening battle, the blood imagery in that, was directly and specifically meant to be an homage to the Hannibal opening credits.
Brittany: It’s definitely their style. Presenting right up front the details you know you don’t want to see, but can’t turn your gaze away from the screen. I was queasy, unnerved and knew I’d be in for plenty more before the episode ended.
Natalie: It is a noticeable, immediate change in that the show opens on a “Coming to America” moment – specifically, the one showing Odin’s believers bringing an aspect of him to America – rather than opening, like the book does, on Shadow in prison. That’s one of the biggest things that I’m curious about in terms of this adaptation – what they’re going to immediately “spoil” due to people knowing the book, and what they are going to hide. Like, Wednesday is Odin. They are NOT hiding that. Whereas in the book, when we open on Shadow, it unfolds slowly and subtextually and at least first time readers aren’t immediately aware.
Brittany: I think it’s doing a great job keeping fans of the book at arm’s length. Almost in a “Oh, you think you know? Well you have no idea” type of way. Meanwhile, in the scenes where you are meeting characters for the first time, you are swallowed whole. I was shocked by how much I almost didn’t care about the book while watching Wednesday and Shadow on the plane or Bilquis in bed. I just wanted more of whatever they were doing and I didn’t want it to end. But in terms of general impressions, as I was watching the premiere I was shocked by how much they flew through, but at the end shocked by how much more we had to go. It was weird trying to get a grip on the pace having read the book quite a few times.
Natalie: The familiarity that most people looking forward to this have with the book is something they’re [Fuller and Green] super aware of and must therefore be combatting against. So that yes, we all know Wednesday is Odin – they’re definitely not trying to hide that, in their panels and their promo – so where else can we find the dramatic tension? But the speed is the biggest thing I noticed too. This felt fast and loud, whereas the book is slow and quiet.
Brittany: Huh, that’s interesting. I didn’t feel the loudness of it at all. The pacing was certainly quick, but that may have been more due to the engrossing nature of the show. I felt very connected to Shadow’s controlled silence, in more than one scene.
Natalie: But Shadow is the real clincher, isn’t he, because the thing about Shadow is that so much of what you know about Shadow — so much of what makes you love and understand him — is inside his head. It’s the thoughts he has and choices he makes, including his real thoughts when he’s staying silent. So how do you do that in a TV show?
Brittany: You cast Ricky Whittle. It was unnerving how much he gave away by giving nothing away. He is Shadow Moon.
Natalie: “I like math, who knew?” I died.
Brittany: I am almost furious that I never had him in my head reading the book.
Natalie: Because Shadow is sweet and smart, Shadow is basically a self-taught genius and, like Wednesday said, his most effective strategy is letting people underestimate him.
Brittany: The tension he carries is so well conveyed, down to how he holds his silverware and takes his shots at the bar. There was something in even those moments that stuck out. How do you do that? You make small choices that convey so much.
Natalie: So much of what is beautiful about Shadow is in his thoughts and that factor was my biggest worry about the show, that it was getting us out of his head – but so far, it’s really done well at keeping us in there — the discordant sound (the sound editing in this show) when he doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, his patience with the stewardess on the plane when he’s not got a seat…
Brittany: There’s a lot to be said about how the show’s direction, and like you said, sound editing, plays into every shot. They were able to accomplish so much without words on Hannibal as well. The music though, [Brian Reitzell’s] original orchestrations and the chosen selections, were incredible.
Natalie: I think when I said loud before, I didn’t even mean sonically loud. I meant… high pitched. Like, immediate tightly strung stress, whereas I think the book unfolds slower in that Shadow doesn’t know quite what’s going on, and you don’t quite know what’s going on either until the true weirdness – when Tech Boy kidnaps him – starts. This episode hits that scene, but it feels dizzying before that too.
Brittany: I still think that’s interesting because I didn’t feel that overall. Only in three specific moments — when he first talks to Wednesday and the storm is happening, when he gets kidnapped (but only as he is coming out of the haze,) and when he is fighting at the end. The rest of the episode, I felt so drawn to how steadfast and unfeeling Shadow was. His stoic nature. Everything is maddening around him, but he is still. The eye of the storm. Occasionally he is picked up by something happening, but otherwise he tries to keep himself steady. I did enjoy that they kept taking us back to prison. We weren’t done when Shadow walked out, just like Shadow is not done when he leaves. He is constantly in the prison of his mind. So playing up his memories with Low Key – for example, like you said, his patience in the airport – is a narrative choice I am happy to keep up moving forward.
Natalie: Yeah, I think that is an important tool. I loved that they showed us the “do not piss off those bitches in airports” conversation, even though that originally only happened in a memory for Shadow — so again, inside his head, not a scene as part of the plot — because I am obsessed with how much you learn about him in his answer — the mind that produces that answer: “one of those behaviors that work inside a specialized environment such as a prison would fail to work when outside such an environment” — someone who is constantly assessing the world in this way. I am very happy for us to keep seeing Shadow’s memories as a way of learning about him.
Brittany: It’s a necessary tool here, for sure. Do you think viewers who did not read are going to be at a disadvantage? I was nervous about that, but I don’t feel that at all now.
Natalie: Mmmmmmm, no, I just wonder about whether there’s going to be spoiler drama. Like Game of Thrones, my Lord, SUCH spoiler drama and real fights between readers and non-readers, for example non-readers objecting to any discussion of published book plots in show articles and stuff. I have a worry about that, but I think in watching the show itself, it’s actually not an issue.
Brittany: I mean, it would be about as spoilerific as knowing what happens to the Red Dragon in Hannibal.
Natalie: True, and this issue or these obstacles were certainly discussed, even at the recent press junket. Bryan seems unworried about spoilers. I think when making an adaptation of a well known text, discussing the HOW of a well known plot is always necessary. The thrill is in the changes and interpretations.
Brittany: Can we talk about hurricane-level crazy and nominate my MVP? Because. Fucking Betty Gilpin.
Natalie: OH my god.
Brittany: She killed that scene, brought it back to life, killed it again, and then peed on its grave.
Natalie: I was hoping you’d pick her. That scene was beyond anything from my expectations for that character. Audrey in the book is deeply unpleasant, and I had written her off in my mind.
Brittany: Incredible. I had zero expectations for Audrey. ZERO. And now, I want a spinoff based on one episode.
Natalie: This was just insane. Just from her first line, it was all there. You could tell she was drugged off her tits, rather than just cold and mean and bitchy, and everything in the graveyard was all-new content but made perfect sense.
Brittany: The cemetery scene was Emmy-worthy. You could feel the unleashing of the grief, anger, betrayal, love, everything just pouring out of her. I watched that scene again after I finished the episode, just to make sure it was actually that great. I’m glad they are expanding her character.
Natalie: I have no idea how much we’ll see her again, or through memory – we obviously didn’t see Robbie, but we know he’s going to appear.
Brittany: Ugh, Dane Cook. I’m actually okay with his casting because I am rooting for Audrey to have someone better now.
Natalie: And not to get into it too much, but the Lakeside portion of the book, which we will not see this season, is probably my favorite part, and I’m just imagining her reappearance in future seasons.
Brittany: Yeah, there is room for her in the future for sure.
Natalie: She was definitely one of the big shocking shut-up-and-listen moments for me, in terms of character performance. The other was Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney. When I say these things, this isn’t writing off Whittle and McShane. They were exactly as great as they needed to be, but it’s like, we knew they had to be because they’re the leads and it’s all riding on them.
For me, an MVP is usually someone who comes out of nowhere and shocks the hell out of you, which Audrey did and which Sweeney did. I like that character a lot — on my last re-read particularly, he really got to me — but this was something else. I am totally captivated. From the way the music changed when he entered and snatched the coin from the air, I was just gone.
Brittany: Interesting. I thought he did a fantastic job. But I’m more excited for what’s to come rather than what we got. It was certainly a great set up. The coin tricks were a great way to fuse some levity into the scene and get under Shadow’s skin at the same time.
Natalie: Yeah – there’s a lot to Sweeney, and I’ve been warned that I am Not Prepared for what is coming, but I just didn’t expect him to feel the way he did, immediately, to me — very electric and captivating. I am somewhat of a sucker for smooth motherfuckers, and he had an unexpected dose of that along with the expected mania. I wish we’d gotten to see the scene of them getting wasted together after the fight — the book cuts it, too. And he wasn’t the original casting, which has to hang heavy – they cast Sean Harris and he dropped out, so if Schreiber initially auditioned and was told no, and was then asked to come back… I know it happens, but to me that would always feel weird, so I’m thrilled that it really seems so right for him. But if there’s one medal, Gilpin takes it.
Brittany: Absolutely. Sweeney has plenty left to make me offer a standing ovation.
Natalie: So as I mentioned, with a text people know so well and are expecting so much from, the thrill (or rage) of adaptations can be in the huge changes from book to screen, or in the perfect duplications — did any stand out to you in particular? Obviously the expansion of characters like Audrey is one thing , but what did you notice most in terms of changes, and what did you love seeing play out perfectly as is?
Brittany: Two scenes stick out more than others in terms of playing out perfectly — the first class meeting and the bar scene deal/fight. You really get who Mr. Wednesday is in those moments and I was glad to see that they let Ian McShane just run away with the role. As far as changes, the only thing that stuck out to me was the inclusion of the Vikings. I loved it. I think that really set the series’ tone better than running straight into prison with Shadow.
Natalie: Yeah — I think the plane meeting was so crucial, and it was so perfect. As Wednesday follows him to the bar, there are still all these perfectly plausible reasons he knows about Shadow’s life — the newspaper, etc — and though I think it’s introducing the world of the gods, or the surreality, to the audience really fast, it’s still keeping Shadow out.
And I think that’s the biggest difference – what you said there about setting the tone. I think back in the day, when no one knew what American Gods was, you open up the book and you do not know what the hell it is about. You unfold the twist and discover along the way. A TV show is marketed or engages people very differently, so setting up the overall premise, this is what this universe is, seems super necessary.
Brittany: I go back and forth about that. Here I enjoyed it, but I know the story and feel it might be a necessary guidepost. But, for example, I was happy being thrown immediately into the deep end with Legion. I don’t think that show had a single tone meeting and I loved it for that.
Natalie: It’s definitely a brave move, to just start something and expect people to keep up and not actually give them something to hold on to or orient themselves with. It implies great trust in the audience and not underestimating their intelligence, which is a good thing and I love the idea of it for original series. I think here, given the book, given that the information is available to know, it could have gone either way. They could have had it unfold naturally as if you were a first time reader, but with the hang-up of lots of people knowing the twists they’re trying to hide, or you can tackle it head on, which is what they’ve chosen to do. I think it works here, and it doesn’t feel like a dumbing down or anything.
Brittany: I agree, it doesn’t dumb down the show at all.
Natalie: The biggest change that I noticed, and the biggest implication for a character, maybe, was one that — if people haven’t read the book for a while, they might not have picked up on this — Bilquis wasn’t a prostitute, and it changes a lot of things. I have a lot of questions about her — she’s a lead cast member, and I just have no idea how they’ll end up tying her into the main plot, but in the book she serves as an example of another god losing her strength and trying to find ways to get some sort of worship, how they’ve had to lower themselves or hide. And she was a hooker, and kind of sassy about it.
This Bilquis was NOT, and they go out of their way to say that — like her date says “sexiest goddamn thing I’ve ever gotten to touch for free,” and her reactions, performance, is really… Sad. Like that she’s sad about having to eat people with her vagina. Poor Bilquis.
Brittany: And I think that is going to be trend we see with the other gods. Spoiler, there are more! That they are so resigned to doing whatever they have to in order to feel worshiped. Whereas these punks or new gods make it so effortless. It’s a sad story for a lot of the characters we have yet to meet. I think Bilquis sets the stage for the gods Wednesday is fighting for.
Natalie: Yes – the book has an odd structure, lots and lots of characters who appear in their own isolated scenes, I cannot wait to see how they tie those characters into the Wednesday/Shadow scenes.
Brittany: We can’t take them all based on what we see and know about Wednesday thus far.
Natalie: But in terms of her being a sort of less brazen character — she’s still sad as a prostitute, it’s made out to be a really shaming situation after being the Queen of Sheba. I think the real issue at hand either way is not being worshiped or believed in for her true self, but the shift from prostitute to online dater may have been Fuller’s way of not vilifying sex work — not that Gaiman does either, but it was a very different cultural climate when the book came out. This show is slated to be extremely confrontational about a ton of social issues – again, something that I think the book does quietly and incidentally. Most of the cleverest things Gaiman ever writes always seem incidental – not unintentional, just matter-of-fact and normal. I think in the show it may be a bit more in-your-face. They’ve spoken about including things about race, women’s’ rights, gun control, police brutality, homosexuality, all sorts. I wonder if the sex work thing is in any way part of that — but the other HUGE thing was Shadow’s lynching, which does not happen in the book. On the page, he walks away from that first meeting with Tech Boy, literally just gets dropped off and walks away. But the fact that they literally strung him up from a tree, episode 1, was… well, it sure did happen, and I need to know how he reacts to that.
Brittany: It’s been said that the social commentary is coming and as a reader of the book you know it is embedded in the story, nothing felt heavy-handed to me. But the lynching in particular I think it was a choice that again sets what we are going to be seeing a lot of this season. Big issues are worked seamlessly into the scripts because they are this “new normal” of society, one that Shadow is working his way back into, but we’ve been living for the years he was away. The scenes deliver a bigger punch when they are done in this way. At least to me they do. It’s not your Ryan Murphy screaming “This is what I am trying to tell you.” It’s more subtle, and at the same time, more powerful or impactful.
Natalie: Yeah — I think it’s still incidental, or at least woven into your fabric of the show. Ryan Murphy throws an issues-brick through your window. Bryan Fuller builds you a house made of those bricks, so you’re both never and always being directly influenced by it.
On a purely technical note, the entire playing out of that limo scene scene was bizarre in the genuine sense of the word — the book feels more quote unquote realistic. He just gets picked up in a car and does not yet realize anything supernatural is going on. Here, I think he still doesn’t realize himself due to his mind glossing over things, but we see things very differently — we see the weird piece of tech that sucks him into the limo, we see the faceless droogs who Shadow just registers as people who he couldn’t remember the look of very well. There are a lot of special effects that take us deeply outside the realms of reality — Shadow’s dreams, of course, the bone orchard and the buffalo, but the virtual reality threw me for a loop, because in the book, in Shadow’s head, it felt like still normal and explainable reality, just a weird guy saying weird things in a car. But this is seeing it outside Shadow’s head, and I was like, “whoa, what the hell is going on?”
Brittany: I think the change to having him sucked in via virtual reality was a necessary timeline update. This isn’t 2001, it’s 2017. I think that the tech updates were much better in the show than the book. I loved the VR element and how now the lines are blurred between reality and fiction. What is real and what is fabricated is going to be a huge element of this show. Making the violence so real and the meeting so fake introduced that concept brilliantly. I am also curious who delivered that literal blood rain.
Natalie: Yeah — Tech Boy is the biggest, most obvious change in terms of technology changing so much from 2001 to 2017… so the potential for what he’s like, based on the internet of today, is terrifying, because the internet is the fucking worst.
Brittany: And yet, here we are worshipping at the altar to make this post a reality.
Natalie: I have a feeling this show is going to be shaming the hell out of me in terms of bringing the New Gods to life. Perhaps it will be the final reality check I need to ghost everyone I know and go live in the woods.
Brittany: I’m already on my way.
Natalie: Do you have any little snapshot moments that you’re taking away this episode, that just encapsulated it? For me, it was the grave-lowering device not working at Laura’s funeral — it was such a weird tense black humor moment that 100% signified for me the entire issue at the heart of the show, the dependence on the new ways that suddenly makes an old sacred tradition like burial suddenly so absurd and bastardized.
Brittany: The moment in this episode that solidified it for me was when Wednesday gave him the car outside the motel and said, “I’ll tell you this once and once only, ever. Take all the time you need” — from that moment, Shadow walking into the funeral, I felt like it was Game On. It was oddly satisfying and one that stuck out for me among all the insanity around it.
Natalie: I’m actually pretty startled by the hype from this show — like I knew it would be big, I knew how anticipated it was, I saw the reaction at San Diego Comic-Con, but it still felt like inside my little world. But now, the promo being done, the reaction at SXSW, the premieres, the explosion from every major outlet… The Starz site apparently crashed the day screeners came out, due to every journalist desperately jumping on immediately. People have been waiting for this for a very long time, waiting for the idea conceptually before this version was even green lit, and I’m so thrilled with the end result. I don’t think I’d have trusted anyone who’s work I currently know but Fuller with it. And his co-showrunner Michael Green, who worked with Fuller back when they were both staff writers on Heroes, who made Kings back in the day and who is one of the Logan screenwriters. I have a LOT of good things to say about Michael Green.
Brittany: I agree that I would not have trusted anyone else with this material. And as bitter as I am about losing Fuller on Star Trek, I’m so happy what all of his energy is on this project. If the premiere is any indication of how this series is going to play out, I’m in 1000%. It also makes me feel better about walking around with my American Gods tote from Comic-Con. They got a lot of free promotion out of me.
Natalie: Maybe it’s just the bubble I live in, but it feels like the release of this show is such a world-stopping, all eyes on this moment, and if it’s as big as my skewed perspective thinks it is — or if it even surpasses that, like Game of Thrones or something, where a genre show becomes the next big water cooler TV moment for the whole world – then it has the potential to have a lot of influence with what it does choose to include about the social commentary, about how we live our lives these days, how we view faith, and a ton of other things. Yet it’s not going to be a lecture or even one right answer.
Brittany: There are so many “darker” shows on TV now. But American Gods is carving out a special place in all of that. It just has an energy that I haven’t felt from a new show from the get-go in a long, long time.