American Gods Ep. 101 Recap and Review – ‘The Bone Orchard’
After spending some years in development hell, American Gods has finally premiered on Starz this week. Let me just say that I am already hooked.
We dive right into the mythos of this world by introducing a story about the first vikings, who are becalmed on a hostile land that would become America. Stranded for days, they plead to the All-Father to give them wind so they can sail home. To no avail. They then resort to brutal sacrifices and bloody skirmishes in hopes that the violence will appease their war god. Buckets blood soak the beach before the All-Father is finally pleased and gives them a wind to send them back home.
They don’t realize, however, that they are leaving behind this version of Odin to languish in a foreign land that doesn’t worship him. This version of Odin is left forgotten, and he has an appetite for worship and war that goes unsatisfied for over a century until Leif the Fortunate rediscovers the land.
Fast-forward to the present day, we’re introduced to the main character of the story, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). He’s been in prison for the past three years, but he’s days away from being released. He should be excited, but there’s a “fuckin’ as hanging over [his] head.” Rather than axes and foreboding, constipated clouds, Shadow should really be concerned about all of the nooses following him around. We see it in the viking flashback, in the prison yard, and even in Shadow’s dreams of an orchard filled with dead trees and bones.
Then there is Shadow’s cellmate, Low Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker), who is full of gallows humor. “This country went to hell when they stopped hangin’ folks. No gallows dirt, no gallows deals—”
That there’s about to be a lynching in this first episode is made very clear, possibly indicating that we’re in for a long, hard and sobering look at the ugliest parts of American history. We’ll also visit parts for which people are nostalgic (hmm, how fitting), but right now we’re focused on the hanging of a black man. The symbolism does not go unnoticed. The show doesn’t allow you to not see it.
Shadow Moon is definitely less withdrawn than his novel counterpart. Being the strong, silent, introspective type doesn’t always translate well on screen. Ricky Whittle takes the opportunity to portray this version of Shadow as someone who is struggling to restrain himself from displaying any emotional outbursts. He acts like the kind of guy who’s been in prison for aggravated assault, and doesn’t need to give people any reason to put him back in there. Shadow’s observing his surrounds is replaced with a thoughtful reserve that is about to break at any moment.
Shadow gets an early release when news breaks that his wife, Laura Moon (Emily Browning), was killed in a car accident. It isn’t until later that he learns how Laura died — committing a sexual act with Shadow’s friend while he was driving. As jarring as every piece of news is, especially if they come from a complete stranger, Shadow handles each one with stoicism.
Or maybe none of it is really registering. He’s still trying to wrap his mind around the very thought that his wife, whom he had just spoken to on the phone before his release, is actually dead. Because of his early release, he also has to deal with the fact that his travel plans are completely fracked. Then he meets Mr. Wednesday. This complete stranger already knows more about Shadow’s situation than Shadow does himself. Right away, you can tell that Mr. Wednesday is a frustrating individual. He’s also fekkin’ persistent.
On his way home to Laura’s funeral, Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). We first see Wednesday pretending to be a senile old man, scamming his way into first class. As “luck” would have it, this is the same flight as Shadow’s. He also gets bumped up to first class, next to Wednesday. Here is where the story really begins to unfold.
Wednesday wants Shadow to work for him, though he’s not entirely up front about what the work would be. Shadow refuses, because he’s under the impression that there’s already a job waiting for him back at home. Little does Shadow know that the job no longer exists due to his friend’s untimely death.
Serendipity brings the two of them together again to a bar that should have absolutely no business looking as awesome as it does. There Shadow also encounters a Leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) who can pluck gold coins from thin air. It’s a rather comedic scene to watch, partly because the previously stoic Shadow Moon is genuinely amazed and freaked out by Mad’s impossible coin tricks. Although he may not realize it yet, this is Shadow’s (and our) first introduction to magic in the real world.
Wednesday offers Shadow a job again, this time letting him know that there’s nothing and no one waiting for him at home. Shadow reluctantly agrees, to Sweeney’s apparent disgust. He seals the deal by drinking three shots of mead, then engages in a fight with Sweeney. They beat the living crap out of each other, which is understandable — Shadow has been stewing in anger and frustration for at least two days now, and Sweeney was literally asking for a beat down.
The Leprechaun later gives Shadow one of his coins, which later ends up placed on top of Laura’s fresh grave. Word to the wise: Magical coins and recently dead ladies don’t particularly yield ideal results.
Afterward, Shadow drops Wednesday off at a motel and then proceeds to Laura’s funeral, which is already in progress. Lemme tell ya, most awkward funeral ever. Upon his arrival, not only does he discover that Laura had been cheating on him with his best friend, but he also learns about the nature of both their deaths. The will that this man possesses to keep it together…is staggering. Although, he did have a good yell at a canyon on his way to the funeral.
After the funeral, Shadow is ambushed by one of the many “New Gods” he’ll come across throughout the series: Technical Boy (Bruce Langley). Technical Boy tries to intimidate information out of him; he wants to know what Wednesday is up to. Having only just met Wednesday, Shadow knows nothing about the man nor what he might be planning. Even if he did know, he probably wouldn’t tell this punk an this digitized, faceless goons anyway.
As a result, Technical Boy has his men beat Shadow and then hang him from a tree. This encounter nearly kills him. An unseen force not only cuts him free, but also slices his attackers in half. The scene ends with Shadow understandably shaken.
Elsewhere in America, we watch the most disturbing scene of the entire story (and book) unfold. Of course I mean the introduction to Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a love goddess of sorts. If you read the book, then you know how Bilquis operates. She lures men to her bed and goads them to worship her mid-coitus. At the height of their “worship,” Bilquis devours them with…not her mouth. There’s just no other way of interpreting what happens in this scene, so the show literally takes what is described on the page.
My friends and I are still debating whether or not “death by snu snu” is a good way to go. It didn’t look like he even got to finish.
Bilquis is one of many Old Gods featured in American Gods, but has little to do with the main story. She does hold a little more significance than some of the other side story gods, but not really. There have been reports saying that Starz’s American Gods will end up being different from the novel over all, but where she figures into this remains to be seen.
Either way, I appreciate that Bilquis’ scene deepens her character a little. Her scene could have just as easily become an exploitative. She calms her nervous date (Joel Murray) with her commanding performance, turning his hesitation to eagerness, resulting in a full-on prayer as he is overwhelmed by her power.
I don’t remember much emotion coming from Bilquis in the book. In fact, I’m pretty sure this section of the book follows the point of view from the victim. This one scene in the show is able to convey something more to the goddess herself than the book ever did. It was intense and bittersweet. Bilquis’ desperate need for worship shows a vulnerability. It sort of illustrates perfectly how out of sorts the other Old Gods are in America. It also circles back to the end of the viking story from the beginning of the episode. They’re being forgotten more and more as time overtakes them. Any chance of gaining just a taste of their former glory is enough to compel them to grasp at it.
Throughout the scene, Bilquis starts as some meek woman is seems surprised that this man she is with wants her. As their encounter intensifies, she becomes more commanding and self-assured. By the very end, you can see some fierceness in her eyes as she exudes radiant beauty that wasn’t there before.
American Gods already is a stunning, brutal, and imaginative piece of work. Despite it being adapted from Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name, it feels wholly original. Leave it to the likes of Bryan Fuller and his team to take something and turn it into a visual masterpiece.