American Gods season 2 begins, funny enough, inside the perfect metaphor for American Gods season 2: The House on the Rock, a tourist attraction built by Alex Jordan in bumfuck nowhere Wisconsin, a sprawling maze that the slightly mad architect filled with gaudy attractions and flashy bits of eccentric nothingness. Animatronic fortune tellers and preserved animals, shiny baubles and the world’s largest carousel covered in 20,000 lights and no horses. Attendees just sort of wander, surrounded by random assortments of light and sound, stopping occasionally at a particularly eye-catching exhibit but with no clear destination in sight. As American Gods‘ voice-over tells us, “They could not honestly have told you why they came.”
That, my friends, is what watching American Gods season 2 feels like, at least over the first three episodes I’ve seen. Last season established a brewing war between the Old Gods (think Odin, Zeus, Anubis, and even old J.C. himself) and the New Gods (think iPhones, Yelp, and Tinder). This season promises that the war is…definitely still brewing. It could start any second now, says Ian McShane‘s Mr. Wednesday. It’s really coming, really, but until then Wednesday, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), and the undead Laura Moon (Emily Browning) spend episodes meandering, direction-less—goal-less half the time—in one of the most obvious wheel-spinning bits of storytelling I’ve ever seen. And I do mean “wheel-spinning” literally; roughly 60% of those first three episodes consist of car rides on empty roads to nowhere.
This might have been easier to swallow had season 2 at least carried the unpredictable balls-to-the-wall madness in its visuals that made season 1 worthwhile. On one hand, American Gods‘ first go-around was sometimes light on forward momentum. On the other hand, it also featured Laura Moon kicking a bad guy in the balls so hard his spine flew out of his body. That sort of mythology-meets-punk-rock spirit has been sucked out of season 2. Gods know it tries; there’s a half-way dazzling sequence set on the Rock’s massive carousel in the premiere that comes close to popping the eye with the same sizzling energy as season 1. But overall, it’s parlor tricks. It’s a boardwalk magician trying to pass off card reveals as that real high-grade Harry Potter shit.
I usually hate to point to behind-the-scenes hullabaloo as the defining factor for on-screen quality decline, but it is so, so keenly felt here. The reasons for the George R.R, Martin-ian amount of time between American Gods seasons began with the almost immediate departure of showrunner Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan) The pickle being, of course, that the duo’s sensibilities and eye for beautiful bloodiness is what made the lack of plot pop in the first place. You honestly have to feel for their replacement, Jesse Alexander (Heroes), who was handed the work of two singularly unique filmmakers—minus major stars Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth, who exited the series in solidarity—and told, according to an exhaustive THR report, to stick closer to the source material novel by Neil Gaiman. Alexander, too, was soon sidelined in the middle of production.
The result is clearly a ship that had no capable captain to guide it through the fog. Wednesday’s withholding of information, which once seemed playfully impish thanks mostly to McShane’s performance, is now downright infuriating. Characters simply move from place to place but never in service of any final goal, only to kind of, sort of prepare for a war that is somehow ill-defined while still being mentioned so often you could turn it into a drinking game. (A shot of mulled mead for every vaguery!) Eventually, even the visuals that are impressive—like a genuinely cool, extremely Guillermo del Toro-esque creature design for Argus the many-eyed giant from Greek mythology—come off transparently as a means to distract from the fact that nothing. is. happening.
The biggest shame, though, is that the cast remains spectacular and endlessly watchable pretty much top to bottom. I’ve bagged on McShane’s material a lot here, but that devil-eyed bastard is still having the time of his life playing a devious god, and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t occasionally rub off on you. Browning brings several dimensions to a dead girl, Schreiber is a gifted and surprisingly subtle physical comedy actor, and as the West African spider-god Anansi, Orlando Jones still brings enough crackling charisma to power three House on the Rock-sized carousels alone. While the New Gods are sorely missing the presence of Gillian Anderson, I still really enjoy Crispin Glover as the series’ big bad, Mr. World; the actor’s natural sense of uncanniness lends itself perfectly to a villain that’s basically impossible to comprehend. Honestly, I could do this part all day—did I mention that Yetide Badaki remains the show’s low-key MVP as Bilquis?—because the cast is truly a treasure, and you find yourself praying to the god of prestige cable networks to transport them into a better-told story.
The final nail in the coffin, though, is the one performance that still doesn’t click, the main character, the Rock of this particular house, if you will: Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon. It’s not entirely on the actor. The character is an intentionally stone-faced observer who only offers up his thoughts when absolutely necessary. (Dude’s name is literally Shadow, for gods’ sake.) But despite his impressive physical presence—and a few flashbacks to a younger Shadow, played by Gabriel Darku—Whittle hasn’t figured out a way to translate that into something we can understand at all, much less relate to. Instead, American Gods‘ main character is a backseat passenger in his own story.
Without a concrete reason to care about Shadow, we’re essentially out of reasons to care about a show that once had so much wacked-out promise. Now, the best way to sum it up is with a line spoken by Bruce Langley‘s Technical Boy. In the moment, he’s describing Kahyun Kim emerging as “New Media.” But really, it serves pretty well as an American Gods season 2 tagline:
“How the fuck is that an upgrade?”
American Gods season 2 premieres Sunday, March 10 on Starz.