‘American Gods’ Premiere Recap: A Sexy, Gory Mashup of Genres

Warning: This recap for the “Bone Orchard” episode of American Gods contains spoilers.

Neil Gaiman is a fantasist, and a lot of his work — his 2001 novel American Gods included — is told with the rhythms and tone of a dark fairy tale. For the TV adaptation, showrunners Michael Green (Heroes) and Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) have pumped that full of neon and gore, resulting in a thrilling new beast. Fuller says, “We’re mashing up The Grifters with Clash of the Titans,” which sounds unworkable until you see it on the screen.

The Plot

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is in his last days of incarceration. He is let out early to attend the funeral of his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), who dies just before his release. He meets Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) on the flight back, and is offered a job that he refuses. An emergency landing forces Shadow to drive; he ends up at Jack’s Crocodile Bar, where Mr. Wednesday is waiting. He again offers him a job, which Shadow doesn’t want, but offers to flip for. Despite rigging the flip, Wednesday wins the toss. Shadow meets the leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), who goads him into a fistfight. Shadow wakes up sore the next morning to attend his wife’s funeral. He learns from his best friend’s wife, Audrey (Betty Gilpin), that Laura was cheating on him with his best friend. Later, Shadow is apprehended by Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), who grills him about Mr. Wednesday’s plans, then tells his goons to kill him. Shadow is strung up, but freed by someone or something that brutally murders his assailants.

Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane in American Gods
Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon and Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday in Starz’s American Gods. (Photo: Starz)

Tales of the Gods

Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) — an incarnation of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and wisdom — recounts the story of Odin’s first landing on American shores in 813 CE. Later, we see Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) — the Queen of Sheba, a semihistorical figure who was seen as a temptress and possibly demonic in origin.

Today’s My Day”

From the doddering old man conning the airport lady (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) to the steel-eyed swindler who turns Shadow’s own con against him, this episode — and likely the series — is slave to Ian McShane’s rhythm. It’s clear, once we see him at the bar in the middle of nowhere, that the job he offers Shadow wasn’t a happy accident and there’s no doubt that whatever bargain gets made, Shadow gets the short end of the stick. When he says, “You’re my man now,” it echoes the feeble “Will you take care of me?” that gets him into first class: It’s the sound of the trap’s steel jaws slamming shut. Even though Loki — er, Low Key (Jonathan Tucker) — isn’t his son, there’s more of a resemblance between them in the ancient texts than in the modern Marvel version.

From Book to Screen

The book opens with Shadow’s last days in jail, but the show starts with the first Vikings to reach American shores. It’s a small difference, but it suggests that the series is more interested in the characters (the gods among them) than the plot of the book. All of Season 1 only covers about a third of the book, so they’ve got time to linger on interesting places and people.

In the novel, Bilquis is a prostitute who lures the john into worshiping her. Presumably, when it was written in 2001, that would have been the most logical way for a goddess who uses sex as worship to ensure a steady stream of devotees. But, of course, now that we have Tinder, she doesn’t have to cheapen the exchange with money.

The Music

The song playing over Laura’s funeral is “In the Pines” by the show’s composer, Brian Reitzell, featuring Mark Lanegan, former singer of the Screaming Trees. It’s a traditional American folk song that’s around 150 years old. It was recorded as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” by blues singer Leadbelly in 1941, but you may recognize it from the Nirvana Unplugged album. Kurt Cobain and Lanegan were part of a Leadbelly cover band that never recorded an album, but an earlier version of this song made it onto Lanegan’s first solo album, The Winding Sheet.

“Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups is heard in the Crocodile Bar just like in the book. There’s also Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” (as Shadow does later in the episode) and Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun” (a reference to Mad Sweeney that will become important later).

Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney in American Gods
Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney in Starz’s American Gods. (Photo: Starz)

Godly Thoughts

We only see Mad Sweeney once more in the book, but showrunner Bryan Fuller says once they saw Schreiber work, “We just got more and more excited to spend more time with him and are hoping to begin a very long and very amusing set of stories with him.”

Speaking of Fuller, who last ran NBC’s Hannibal: Even if you didn’t know he was involved in the show, the multiple bodies hacked in half, the rain of blood, and the severed arm holding a sword flying through the air that goes through a Viking’s neck probably would have been a good tip-off.

American Gods airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.

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