There’s so much more to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods than what readers saw on the page, even before Starz brought it to life on screen. About 12,000 words were added to the book for the author’s “preferred text” version, and he later wrote a spinoff called Anansi Boys, about the sons of Mr. Nancy; Orlando Jones, playing the African spider god on television, mentioned potential plans to expand that tale on TV should American Gods garner a following.
In short, there’s a lot of story still left to be told — both with and without the protagonist, Shadow Moon — and Starz’s series is already broadening the scope.
There are clear delineations between American Gods on screen and American Gods on page: Technical Boy is no longer a plump kid with acne, Mr. Nancy isn’t a short man with a lime-green fedora, and Laura, as we’ll see later on, is no longer a travel agent. In spite of this, the show can be seen as a companion to the text in many ways, pulling back the lens so viewers and readers can glimpse the larger world.
Jones, an immediate delight to behold, debuts as Mr. Nancy in the latest “Coming to America” cold open. He first appears as a prismatic tarantula, called upon by a desperate captive chained in the belly of a Dutch slave ship in 1697. The actor —arising in a purplish suit, a product of the cotton his flock will be forced to pick in American fields — relishes in the theatricality of the deity. Though his zest for performing is tinged with a warning for slaves: they are looking at “300 years of subjugation, racist bullshit, and heart disease” in the New World. Enraged, the prisoners set fire to the ship, though the spindly Anansi escapes to land on a floating piece of wood.
This is the story of how the god comes to America, and the sequence is catered to Jones’s charisma and enthusiasm for the role, as well as the racial overtones explored in the story. Much as the New Gods are trying to forget the Old Gods and their traditions in favor of modernity, there are those in the real world who want to wish away racism and pretend like it’s a thing of the past. It’s a different war that is so brilliantly composed in this brief beginning, and it makes Anansi uniquely important to the themes weaved throughout American Gods. Already I want to see more of Jones, and Starz might as well get to green-lighting that spinoff sooner than later, as far as I’m concerned.
Another previously unexplored aspect of the book is Bilquis. We’ve seen the goddess gorge herself on a feast of lovers, but a question that’s poked readers is where exactly do these people go? Another erotic moment this week reveals one of her victims floating frozen in the moment of ecstasy amid an endless space, forever bringing the goddess worship from this mysterious void.
Casting, as Jones and Yetide Badacki prove, is the backbone of American Gods. Those unfamiliar with the source material beginning this journey for the first time may be looking for something more grounded beyond the alluring visuals and fantastical concept, but it’s the delivery from the likes of Cloris Leachman and Peter Stormare that keeps them going.
Zorya Vechernyaya is far less forgettable with Leachman. We meet her as an old woman, one of an apartment full of immigrants, who gives lip to Wednesday and proves her badassery by chugging Ketel One straight from the bottle. Stormare changes the tone of the setting when he storms in as Czernobog, her relative and the “hammer” Wednesday needs to rally the troops. Once a prominent Slavic god of darkness, he’s now a chain-smoking grandpa, lecturing his dinner guests about the good ol’ days, complaining about the new technology coming to replace him (“They took ‘er jerbs!”), and promising Shadow that he’s not as racist as many others. And yet, Czernobog challenges his guest to his preferred game, checkers, where everything is, in fact, as black and white as he might like to forget.
Of these new faces, however, none may be more of an instant fan favorite than Gillian Anderson as Media, the goddess of television. Her followers are blissfully unaware of her existence, but they’ve already inadvertently agreed to her worship by coming to her altar daily to pay tribute — as Vechernyaya says, “time and attention” are “better than lamb’s blood.” Joining her flock, however, comes with a price. As Shadow scrapes his knuckles bloody against the floor of Laura’s home, the camera cuts to a close-up of soap tainted by blotched blood; the bubbles, mimicking the many eyes of Anansi, are a reminder that someone is always watching. He’s later accosted in a supermarket by Media, appearing to him as Lucille Ball on a nearby television screen to try and sway him to fight for the New Gods. The joy that comes from seeing Anderson get into character as the I Love Lucy star — and later as David Bowie, Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland — distracts from the attentive eye of Big Brother.
These themes and issues bear more weight now in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, blossoming digital terrorism, and continuous attacks on immigrants than they did when the book was first published in 2001. In going beyond what’s on the page, the show is more poised to tackle them — and provide some captivating performances along the way.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
— The Buffalo made another appearance again, though not in a dream sequence. The white t-shirt Shadow wears while packing up Laura’s belongings features a red buffalo with “Motel America” printed on the front.
— Who was that man with flaming eyes seen walking away from Wednesday in the diner? The actor is Mousa Kraish and he plays The Jinn, an ancient creature of flame thought to be able to fulfill human’s deepest desires. He’ll have a standout moment next episode.