American Gods Gives 'Faithful Adaptation' All New Meaning
By the time you've finished watching the first five minutes of American Gods, in which a boatload of Vikings arrives in the New World, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was about to be the most violent show you've ever seen. A human body becomes a pincushion for dozens of arrows. Ritual eye-gougings render a dozen men sightless. There are bodily bisections both sagittal and transversal. At one point during a frenzied battle, a severed arm holding a sword flies through the air—through even the frame of the image, hurtling into inky letterbox blackness—until the blade skewers another man's neck. This is all the prelude.
Somehow, though, despite the spectacle, every single one of these moments feels like a punchline; it's like the battle royale from Anchorman had been written into an episode of Ash vs Evil Dead. Then, suddenly, the violence recedes almost completely. Almost. Because by the time you've finished the final five minutes of American Gods, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is the most violent show you've ever seen. The blood that ribbons and splashes is the same blood from the episode's preamble—thin and burgundy, more like Merlot than the usual syrupy scarlet concoction—but this time, there are no punchlines. This scene isn't silly; it's disorienting, unsettling.
Yet, between those bookends lies an hour of television that goes beyond simply being a promising first episode of a promising new series. It's an hour that suggests not only that creators Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green have managed to adapt Neil Gaiman's beloved 2001 fantasy novel, but that they've done it in a way that invites fans and newcomers alike—without compromise.
The Tightrope Walk of Adaptation
American Gods the show, like American Gods the book before it, doesn't do much in the way of handholding. You meet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) during his last week in prison, preparing to reconnect with his wife and life back in Indiana. Tragedy at home springs him a few days early, at which point things go from being merely foreboding—"the air feels constipated," he tells his wife on the phone before her accident—to straight-up bizarre. He meets Mr. Wednesday (a gleeful Ian McShane, who treats each line like a chew toy), a mysterious stranger bent on hiring Shadow. He dreams of trees with hands and nooses, of a talking buffalo with flames gouting from its eyes.
Depending on your familiarity with Norse mythology, you may by now have some inkling of what's going on. If not, keep watching; the show's core conceit may not rise to the level of "twist," but it rewards thoughtful viewing. Ultimately, Shadow agrees to work for Wednesday, sealing the deal with three shots of (ahem) mead—but not before the American Gods delivers one of the oddest sex scenes ever shown on television. If you read the book, chances are you've been wondering how an adaptation could possibly gloss over the introduction of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki). The answer is, it doesn't. It gives you, with the exception of some minor details, exactly what the book gave you: A scene in which a beautiful woman turns a man from lover to sacrifice, ultimately consuming him in a manner best described as Reverse Childbirth. And in doing so, it highlights the degree of difficulty that the show's creators are dealing with.
Thanks to all-at-once streaming releases and time-shifted viewing in general, morning-after television discussions are rarer than they've ever been. When they do pop up, they tend to happen around shows that people have already bought into in a big way: Game of Thrones; The Walking Dead; Westworld. For a brand-new series to throw in the Bilquis scene, with zero context or explanation, deserves some sort of merit badge. A coworker of mine, who hasn't read the book, put it this way: "It really got me thinking about how much fans of genre stuff just take on faith when it doesn't make sense."
Faith is the perfect word. Not only because this is a show about gods (sorry, but seriously, c'mon), but because faith is the basis of a two-way street between the show's creators and its viewers. Fuller and Green, as well as director David Slade—who's no stranger to realizing Fuller's gothic sensibility, having directed numerous Hannibal episodes—pledge to give you everything the book does, with only minor breadcrumb trails to navigate by. In return, you pledge to accept their vision without question…or at least without changing the channel.
There's much more to the episode—Shadow attends his wife's funeral and discovers the truth about her death, Shadow gets virtually kidnapped by a toadskin-smoking VR bad guy and his faceless goons—but don't expect clarity when claustrophobia is so much more compelling. Shadow is a big man trying to re-enter the world, squeezing his way into airplane seats and rental cars and nightmares he has no idea how to interpret. Inside prison, he was a voracious reader with a sage outlook; out here, everyone seems to know more than he does, and the viewer by extension is just as unmoored.
Fuller and Green seem to want to reward that faith, though, and the show's early episodes coalesce into some semblance of a plot—even if it's one you only see at lucky angles, if you squint just right. The mysteries and wordplay pile up; Shadow finds enlightenment in small, halting steps. Uncertainty is everywhere, but some things are constant. There will be gods, and there will be blood.