‘American Gods’ Season 1: Dead Woman Smoking, Or, Djinn See That Coming

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“American Gods” continues to sizzle and surprise, with its awe-inducing cinematography- take a gander at many of the photo stills include here for just a taste- and decidedly risk-taking story-telling approaches and content. Honestly, I’m as much surprised by what they DID include from the book as what they didn’t, or what they changed.

The first few episodes since my last review followed the book fairly closely, but more recent episodes have shown that the show isn’t afraid to play fast and loose with certain elements of the book that aren’t present, but could well have been. As much as there’s a temptation to say, “Hey, it wasn’t like that in the book!”, there’s also one to say, “But maybe it should have been.”

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For instance, the show’s decision to team up Laura Moon (Emily Browning) with, of all people, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), and then toss in Salim (Omid Abtahi) to even things out, was a brilliant one and I can’t say I mind it at all, even if it makes one wonder how this development will (or won’t) change certain aspects from the book moving forward. The dynamic between the three is by turns wonderfully dry, acidic, and oddly meditative- but then, you could say the same thing about the show as a whole.

Let’s take a closer look at the individual episodes, starting with episode three, “Head Full of Snow.” (For my takes on the first two episodes, go here.) By this point, we’ve already come to expect some wild, somewhat unrelated stuff at the beginning, save in the most broadest of senses, i.e. it always involves a God of some sort. Here, we got a lovely, if ominous tale of an older woman who slips and falls off a stool when preparing dinner for some relatives, killing herself.

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Enter Anubis (Chris Obi), who, as you’ll recall, we saw dishing out Laura’s fate in a previous episode, before she managed to slip through his fingers, courtesy of Mad Sweeney’s magical coin that he gave to Shadow (Ricky Whittle) and which Shadow, in turn, had buried with Laura, thus bringing her back to this mortal coil, much to everyone’s shock.

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Here, we see a completion of Anubis’ job, to weigh each person who died’s fate by, one assumes, judging their good deeds against their bad ones. In this case, one’s heart must literally be lighter than a feather- which Laura’s decidedly was not, but which Mrs. Fadil (Jacqueline Antaramian) passes with flying colors. She fares better than one assumes Laura would have, had she not managed to evade her fate.

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After that, we segue into the sad tale of Salim, who has been pushed around by life to the extent that he’s beaten down by it, living a mirthless, unhappy existence, completely devoid of joy. The whole sequence is straight out of the book, and, as I indicated in my last review, I wasn’t sure if it would have made the cut in a “normal” adaptation of the book, as in a feature-length movie. But this is a mini-series, and it shies away from nothing, so into the pot in goes.

Salim happens to run into The Jinn (Mousa Kraish), who is driving a cab, and who he rightfully identifies as what he is, a mythical being- albeit one who, unlike the Djinn or Genies of legend, “doesn’t grant wishes.” Or does he? In this case, the two end up hooking up in a hotel room, with The Jinn leaving behind his taxi cab and a new ID for Salim, with the intent being that Salim take his place as the new driver, thus shedding his dead-end job in the process.

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As we see later in the series, though, Salim instead goes in search of The Jinn, having lost not only his identity, but his heart to the fellow. I can’t begin to express how radical all this is for any show to tackle, even one as out-there as this one. I mean, think about it: a full-on romance between two Arabic men, complete with a pretty graphic sex scene? People are killed for less in the Middle East IRL- I can only imagine what the more prejudicial Middle Easterners would think about something like this hitting their TV screens!

But even forgoing that obvious forbidden fruit, let’s face it: you don’t see a lot of this sort of thing in American TV, either. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’ve come a long way- there are plenty of gay/bisexual characters in mainstream shows, such as “Supergirl” (can’t get much more American than that), “Arrow,” “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” and “How to Get Away with Murder”- but you rarely, if ever, see anything as graphic as what was featured in this episode.

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And yet, even as a straight viewer, I found the scene to be really beautiful, both in the obvious way- the way it was shot, as reality seamlessly blended into fantasy- and the less obvious one, in the fact that it was one hopeless individual finding solace in another person’s arms, even if that person happened to be the same sex.

In other words, it wasn’t just a case of “let’s just randomly make this character gay,” as you see in certain shows that aren’t afraid of making characters gay, but seem to stop short of making them, you know, human. Although all of this is straight from the book, you have to give kudos to the show for not only keeping it in, but taking their time with it so the characters feel real, not just the “token” representations of a certain “type” that you see on a lot of shows.

Kind of ironic that it took a fantasy show to go there, but as you may have noticed from my list above, shows that aren’t necessarily grounded in reality tend to have less of a problem with such things than ones that are. Go figure. Either way, pretty ground-breaking stuff, and much-appreciated from a viewer/reviewer that can occasionally take it for granted that TV is so good as of late.

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Elsewhere in the episode, we also see another less represented category of people on-screen, that of the elderly. It’s a kick to see Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, in what may be his best role ever) getting all flirty with Zorya (Cloris Leachman, also clearly relishing the role), without seeming condescending or it being played for laughs. Between the opening bit with Mrs. Fadil and this interaction, once again, we see a fantasy show treating an underrepresented category of people with love and respect and tenderness- truly a rarity, even these days in TV’s so-called second “Golden Age.”

I’ll allow that this show isn’t for everyone, and may not even reach the people who might truly appreciate the sort of things I’m talking about, but the fact that a show like this even exists, as far out as it is and can be, is cause for celebration. That certainly goes double for the “Twin Peaks” revival, which is as challenging a show that has ever aired on TV, period, and unapologetically so.

Indeed, let’s face it, we all owe a great debt to “Peaks,” as we might not have gotten a show like “Gods,” without it paving the way decades before. How apropos, then, that the two shows should be airing on the same night. Is there a more rewarding night of television at the moment? (You can throw “The Leftovers” into that batch as well, for that matter.)

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Elsewhere in the episode, we get two wonderfully-rendered set-pieces from the book, as Shadow crawls up a ladder that we later see doesn’t exist to visit with the “other” Zorya (Erika Kaar), who is keeping an eye on the sky- once again, literally. When she reaches into said sky and grabs the moon and hands it to Shadow- another Moon, himself- in the form of a coin, it’s a breathtaking, wondrous moment.

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In the other, Shadow and Mr. Wednesday pull off a roundabout bank heist, which begins with the latter requesting that the former “think of snow,” which he does, and eventually, it does, in fact, snow, providing a sort of cover for the shenanigans the two later get up to. Both of these scenes are near-perfectly replicated from the book, and excellently executed. (Ditto the two fateful rounds of chess with the sinister Czernobog, played by the wily Peter Stormare, clearly having a blast.)

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Next up, we have our first really major diversion from the book, in the episode, “Git Gone,” which mostly relates the back-story of Laura. While the business of her unfortunate dalliance with Shadow’s former best friend, Robbie (stand-up comic Dane Cook, perfectly cast for maximum sleaze) hews pretty closely to the source material, down to the bitter end, the flashbacks to the way she and Shadow met and fell in love is pretty different, but, once again, not necessarily in a bad way.

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We see Laura and Shadow’s obligatory “meet cute,” but it’s not your typical rom-com version, it’s more one grifter recognizing another and stopping them from doing something stupid, while being charmed by him in the process, in spite of herself. In a way, it’s a funhouse mirror version of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday, only here, Shadow is the smooth-talking con man and Laura is the smarter-than-she-looks sidekick. (Bonus points for the foreshadowing inherent in where Laura works, seen in the Egyptian insignia of the casino and her overall surroundings- even then, Anubis literally has his eyes on her- note that tie.)

Given how down-in-the-dumps Shadow has been throughout the proceedings, albeit not without good reason, it’s fun to see him in more playful, flirty times. And yet, a palpable sense of doom hovers over the two from the jump. Laura is no typical dame/mark, and Shadow is a little too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for his own good. (No wonder she dubs him “puppy.”) We already know things are going to end badly for Laura, but what we see here is that they were already pretty bad in the first place, as Laura drowns her sorrows in covered hot tubs and inhaling bug spray (!)- hence the title.

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People like Laura don’t just heal overnight, much less because they fall in love, and just because someone falls in love doesn’t keep them from doing stupid things, if they were already prone to doing so. The problem here is that it’s Laura who ropes Shadow into doing something stupid, and no sooner is he caught and pays the price for it by going straight to jail and not passing go, than she is back to her self-loathing, self-damaging ways with a loser like Robbie.

It’s no mistake that Laura, even in her “afterlife,” such as it is, is constantly plagued by flies. They’re a constant reminder that even death can’t wash off the stink of a life lived in, well, shadows, no pun intended. She can spray all the “Git Gone” she wants, but her misdeeds and depression will always haunt her, even in death. It’s appropriate then, that, not unlike “Reservoir Dogs,” this is a heist film without the heist- it’s all about the lead-in and fall-out from one.

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Of course, we’ve just seen a heist in the previous episode, but this episode stalls the fall-out from that particular heist, and with good reason. Laura deserves her back-story, and we deserve to see why Shadow fell for her in the first place, and why it basically took death for Laura to realize she didn’t know what she had- or how good she had it- until it was gone.

So, while it ends up taking three episodes to get from Point A (Laura shows up in Shadow’s motel room) to Point B (Laura and Shadow hash out their grievances), as it were, it’s a worthwhile side journey overall and informs what comes next. If we didn’t get “Git Gone,” then what happens moving forward in “Lemon-Scented You” wouldn’t be as effective as it is.

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We begin that episode with another patented “flashback” to the life of a God, in this case, one who wasn’t so lucky, and perished with time. In remarkable, eye-popping animation (which appears to be stop-motion, a la those old “Rudolph” cartoons and, more appropriately, the previous Gaiman adaptation, “Coraline”), we see the rise and fall of a God in America, as He goes from all-powerful to powerless, forgotten in time as the people who perpetuated Him lose faith, and He subsequently dies an ignoble death, an upper-case “He” no more.

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This serves as a lead-in to the arrest of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow, who had the dime dropped on them for the aforementioned heist by the “New Gods,” who, as it becomes more explicit in this episode, are at war with the “Old Gods.” The “New Gods” have already appeared, of course, in the form of Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson, having a (Lucille) ball), but here, we get to meet the head honcho, Mr. World, played by a scenery-chewing Crispin Glover.

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I’ve long been a fan of the eccentric actor, who seems to have gone completely underground as of late. More likely it had more to do with people in Hollywood just simply not knowing what to do with him. In “American Gods,” they finally find the perfect role for him, I’m happy to say. Mr. World is a seductive, seemingly-reasonable dapper chap who claims to want to happily coexist with the “Old Gods,” not fight with them. But what he really wants to do is defuse them, keep them in check, as we see in the next episode, with a certain God of Fire.

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His pitch to Mr. Wednesday and Shadow, alongside a Marilyn Monroe-channeling Media, an apologetic-if-insincere Technical Boy, and a cavalcade of colors, cartoons, and shiny, deceptive visuals, wows Shadow, but leaves Mr. Wednesday unimpressed. And why wouldn’t it? He’s seen it all, done it all, lived it all. Not interested in making any deals, he turns Mr. World down flat, but he gives Mr. Wednesday time to think it over anyway, despite Tech Boy’s protests.

Of course, this doesn’t stop them from leaving behind a mass of carnage in their wake, which Mr. Wednesday and Shadow will surely be blamed for. They manage to get out of there in the nick of time, as does an arriving Mad Sweeney, who Laura gleefully pinned her “death” on, after he tried to browbeat her into giving him back the coin which gave her a second life of sorts- though Sweeney never lets her forget he can “smell” the rot on her, which he says will only get worse.

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There’s also a great scene in which Media comes to Technical Boy in his limo in the form of none other than David Bowie, circa his “Life on Mars?” phase, spouting out quotes from the man’s repertoire, much as she will later do with Marilyn later on in the episode. Of course, it’s all a little off, just as it was with Lucille Ball in a previous episode. What we see isn’t the actual Bowie or Marilyn, but more of an approximation of their perceived image. It’s the fans’ interpretation of an icon made flesh, not the real deal.

Likewise, Mr. World is not what he seems either, in actuality a bubbling mass of a mess of a man concocted from information overload- he’s everyone’s hopes and dreams and nightmares made up and bound in flesh, flesh which can barely contain all that lurks within. The “showdown” scene between the “New Gods” and Mr. Wednesday and Shadow is wow-inducing, and the obvious centerpiece of the episode, setting the stage for what will come later in the series, when the “real” showdown occurs.

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Finally, in the most recent episode, “A Murder of Gods,” we see first-hand what might have occurred had Mr. Wednesday taken Mr. World up on his offer. Mr. Wednesday and Shadow pay a visit to the former’s old pal, Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen), as in the God of Fire, here more the God of Firepower, which seems about right in this day and age. Vulcan rules supreme over a town full of worshippers, all of whom are packing heat, even the kids. Every now and then, a sacrifice is made, and life goes on.

Vulcan may not rule the world, but he is the master of his domain, as it were. Had Mr. Wednesday accepted Mr. World’s offer, the rest of his life might have looked something like this: a corner of the world to call his own- but only a corner. Mr. Wednesday is naturally revolted, and though he does have Vulcan manufacture him a worthy sword for his quest- every quest needs a worthy sword, right?- upon discovering Vulcan has sold out, Mr. Wednesday promptly kills him with it.

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It was a hoot seeing Vulcan made flesh, especially for me in particular, as I used to awake each day to look out my balcony in Southside of Birmingham to see Vulcan’s shiny ass looking back at me for years on end, much to my amusement. I’m not being metaphorical, either- it was literally his ass facing me- have a look for yourself, if you dare. I thought it was inspired choice to make him a gun fanatic, leading up a town full of them. Now, THAT’S an American God, to be sure.

We get a glimpse of a similar circumstance in the opening sequence, in which a group of Mexicans swim across a lake to get to America, with one of them nearly drowning, until what one assumes is the Mexican Jesus- as noted previously in the show, there’s a world of Jesuses out there, for every race, color and creed- saves the man from drowning.

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No sooner than this happens, than the entire group- Jesus included- is set upon by another group of God-fearing Americans, who then proceed to blow them to bits with their guns as they attempt to cross the border, with Jesus falling into a familiar pose, laid low by familiar wounds on his hands and body. Even Jesus isn’t safe from the God of War, it seems. (I halfway expected a Trump look-a-like to walk up after and say, “Good job, boys! You took down some bad hombres right there!”)

We get reflections of this racially-charged scene in the reactions of the noticeably white townsfolk of Vulcan’s neck of the woods, who give Shadow the stink-eye as he rides into town with Mr. Wednesday. This reaction doesn’t go unnoticed by Vulcan, who doesn’t hesitate to reference a “hanging tree” as he eyes this new interloper.

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As with the previously-mentioned subject matter of homosexuality and the often ageist treatment of the elderly, the show doesn’t flinch from addressing another hard topic, that of inbred racism, albeit not quite as spectacularly as it does in that scene on the slave ship with Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones). Still, that it addresses it at all, even alongside such, if you’ll pardon the pun, an easy target as America’s rampant obsession with guns, is something to be celebrated. The show may be as subtle as a jackhammer at times, but point taken.

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That about catches us up, as we careen towards the final run of episodes of the first season. As the show has already been renewed for a second season, I’m happy to say, I’m not entirely sure where this is all headed, in terms of how the season will end. Will we get the scene that takes place at the House on the Rock, or something else altogether? Given how the shows have bobbed and weaved throughout the narrative of the book, playing fast and loose with some plot points and exceptionally faithful with others, it’s hard to say.

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But what is worth saying is that, changes and all, I can’t imagine any fan of the book being disappointed with all this. Yes, there are some changes- there almost always are in adaptations, even one like this where they can spread out the material in a more generous way than they would in a single film. But overall, I’m loving the show, and feel that, as a huge fan of the book, they’ve completely done it justice on the whole so far.

Only time will tell how much more they diverge from the source material in the future, but so far, I’m digging the changes. The cast is great across the board, and as I mentioned, the cinematography in this thing is to die for. Despite the occasionally ugly subject matter and content, it’s just a beautiful show to look at, even if you’re repulsed by the material at hand. Well done all around.

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What do you think of “American Gods” thus far? If you’re a book lover, what do you think of the changes? If not, what do you think of the show as a whole? Are you understanding the gist of what’s going on? Do the digressions, in the form of the “Somewhere in America” segments help- or hinder- your enjoyment of the show? Who is your favorite character? How about your least favorite?

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Sound off on this and more and make your predictions for the next few episodes down below, and I’ll see you for my next review in a couple of weeks. Thanks for reading!