AMERICAN GODS - Episode 1 "The Bone Orchard"
Disclaimer: This will not be a conventional recap series. I will not be summarising the episode scene by scene, more sharing some general thoughts. Don't read it if you don't want to be spoiled for current and previous episodes of the TV series or spoiled for the novel which is nearly 20 years old now so I certainly don't make any apology for that. I will also be speculating about future events in the TV series, based on both foreshadowing in whatever episode I'm recapping, and my knowledge of what happens in the book. I don't consider this to be spoilers, technically, as obviously I don't know how the TV series will end.
For clarity, whenever I say "American Gods" I mean the TV series; if I mean the novel I will say "the book".
I have been looking forward to "American Gods" ever since I knew it was happening on Starz and Bryan Fuller would be at the helm. This is because Starz's "Spartacus" series is one of my favourite TV shows ever (I don't need "Game of Thrones", I had "Spartacus") and I really really enjoyed Bryan Fuller's "Hannibal" series and think it's a terrible shame it got cut short. The first episode "The Bone Orchard" met all my high expectations and then some. As in, I literally clapped my hands and said "Fuck yes!" loudly at the television screen as we faded up on Mr Ibis writing his journal and "Coming to America" looped elegantly across the screen.
"The Bone Orchard" - where the emotional climax of the show happens, in a cemetery after the funeral of Shadow's wife Laura, suddenly killed in a motor vehicle accident a few days before he was due to be released from prison. Also, the impressively creepy and atmospheric horrorscape of Shadow's vaguely premonitory dreams including a large feature tree that I suspect is foreshadowing of the World Tree, in a skeletal writhing forest stalked by a CGI buffalo with fire for eyes, which I kind of hope does become a legit half-man-half-buffalo at some point in the future, as per the book, because man-buffalo are always lots of fun.
The book jumped straight into proceedings at the prison with Shadow, but I think starting off with a prologue showing an ancient people arriving in America and explaining how they brought a god with them. It was an effective way of setting up the mythology of the show. Also, as soon as the first Viking CGI splatter-sploded in every which way across the screen in the ritual battle-cum-blood sacrifice I knew that yes, this was the network that brought us "Spartacus" and it felt like seeing a beloved old friend again.
An excellent choice was displayed as soon as we meet Shadow. In the book he can come across as, well, something of a shadowy figure, speaking little and not revealing his thoughts to the reader as much as you could expect of a protagonist. In the TV series, portrayed by Ricky Whittle (who I'm only a little bit embarrassed to admit that I know as a contestant from "Strictly Come Dancing", not anything else) he talks more, showing intelligence, empathy and a fairly snarky sense of humour, and gives a classic TV series first episode character-defining speech to his jail buddy about where he stands on the notion of faith versus rationality.
Incidentally it was a smart idea to not actually have anybody say the name of Shadow's jail buddy during the episode. You learn it straightaway in the book but it was tricksy enough to make more than a few readers feel like dumbarses (me included) when All Is Revealed at the climax of the story.
Apart from Shadow and his cellmate, other key characters we met tonight included Bilquis, Mad Jack, Laura, Audrey, the Technical Boy and, of course, Mr Wednesday. I will be completely honest and say that I felt ambivalent when I heard Ian McShane would be playing this role. I wondered whether it was too obvious a casting choice for a scam artist who should not be trusted. And yes it is. But he's growing on me, slowly. The scene where Mr Wednesday cons the airline woman into getting him on the flight wasn't absolutely convincing (we are in a post 9/11 world now, nothing about air travel is that easy), but then again it's harder to show in a TV series than to say in a book how smoothly and effortlessly Wednesday works it.
My personal favourite performance of the episode though was from Betty Gilpin as Audrey, who got to deliver one of my favourite lines of the whole book "Your wife died with my husband's cock in her mouth", and gave us a short, dazzling and very funny spin through anger, grief, anger, grief, drunk, drunk grief, drunk anger, and genuine heartstring-tugging vulnerability.
Thanks to "Hannibal" my expectations for the production design on "American Gods" were high, and met. I've seen some internet whining about the colour palette and choice to use lots of strong colours, saturation, and digital trickery but as far as I'm concerned it all works, and helps create the visual look of a world, and America, that is essentially ours, but one seen from a slightly different perspective, or where things most often hidden or blanked out are on display. My favourite design element of this episode was the bar with the giant alligator head where its teeth were the lamps. If this were a real place I would go there every Saturday night, and possibly Thursdays too.
I am not going to google online whether Shadow and Mad Jack's sleight of hand and coin magic was practical or CGI, because I'd like to think that it was all practically done.
I am unsure whether the show runners intended the obvious real-life real-history images that were invoked by the sight of Shadow being beaten and hung in a tree by the Technical Boy's minions. Updating the Technical Boy to resemble a smirking, vaping Silicon Valley douchebag was another smart choice. The "fat sweaty socially awkward geekboy" from the book was a stereotype that, well, is nearly 20 years old now. We have moved on, and a god of cyberspace would present very differently now.
A choice I'm not so comfortable about was our initial meeting with Bilquis. In the book she's a sex worker from the get go, and that riveting scene in which a man worships a goddess with his body in every sense of the word happens between a sex worker and a client, rather than as an internet dating hook-up. I hope the series doesn't go down a "Bilquis eventually resorts to sex work when she's unable to seduce enough men in other ways" path as (1) ugh, boring and (2) in the book sex work is an integral part of her identity as a god. She doesn't take all her clients "all the way", the offering of money is a little power ritual in and of itself. Having said that, the sex scene itself is everything I could have hoped for. I had wondered how it would work visually, and now I know.
All in all, I really enjoyed the first episode of "American Gods", and am looking forward to Shadow finding out exactly how bonkers this world is. I also really hope that was Laura that rescued him right at the end. :)