American Gods, season 2 review: beautiful, psychedelic, and one hell of a ride

Ricky Whittle (left) and Ian McShane (centre right) star in American Gods - © 2018 Starz Entertainment, LLC
Ricky Whittle (left) and Ian McShane (centre right) star in American Gods - © 2018 Starz Entertainment, LLC

It’s a tale of clashing egos and great plans brought to the brink of disaster. Not American Gods (Amazon Prime) itself, but the behind-the-scenes story of the troubled production of Neil Gaiman's magical-realist fantasia.

The first series had soaring ambition and a budget to match. It was set in a world where the down-on-their-luck gods of various ancient mythologies, led by Odin (Ian McShane), were preparing to wage war on the new gods Technology and Media. A world where six-foot leprechauns got into barroom brawls, and death was merely an inconvenience. A world where Ricky Whittle from Hollyoaks was a credible leading man.

It had a plot, more or less: absurdly named ex-convict Shadow Moon (Whittle) was recruited as a bodyguard for a road-trip by “Mr Wednesday” – Odin in disguise – who dragged him into his war for reasons unknown. Along the way, Shadow accidentally revived the corpse of his unfaithful wife Laura (Emily Browning), who set about trying to win him back, helped and hindered by leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber).

But the real highlights were the digressions from this shaggy dog story, and the parade of weird minor characters; man-eating sex goddess Bilquis, slavic grump Czernobog. There were long flashbacks following the lives of America’s immigrants – all the way back to the Vikings – that expanded the show’s rich tapestry without moving the plot forward one inch.

The critics were dazzled. And then it all fell apart. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, the duo who created American Gods’ psychedelic, neon-soaked aesthetic, were “fired” (that’s how Green put it, though producers beg to differ). Six scripts they had written for season two were binned, and supporting star Gillian Anderson (Media) dropped out.

Laura Moon (Emily Browning) and Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) - Credit: Starz
Laura Moon (Emily Browning) and Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) Credit: Starz

Then, after claims of “screaming matches” with McShane, replacement showrunner Jesse Alexander was “fired but not fired” – kept on hand but told not to actually do anything – according to an incendiary Hollywood Reporter article.

When Neil Gaiman, on whose bestselling book the show is based, tried to brush off “fairly hysterical” reports of on-set trouble, he only added fuel to the flames. American Gods is now seeking yet another showrunner for season three, presumably via the same employment agency Hogwarts uses for Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers.

The bad press and delays mean fans have spent two long years praying that this second series won’t be rubbish. From the two episodes available for review, it seems those prayers have been answered. American Gods remains as artfully unhinged as ever, gorgeously shot, well acted and with a killer soundtrack. It’s certainly not a trainwreck, though there is a trainwreck in it: one of the best scenes sees the hypnotic McShane bid a heartfelt farewell to his car as he leaves it on a railway track. The car is a berserker, he explains. He is giving it a warrior’s death so it can join him in Valhalla. There’s a twinkle in his eye, but he means every word. Surely no other show could get away with this.

Anyway, the second series picks up with Shadow, Laura, Sweeney and Odin en route to The House on the Rock, a bizarre Wisconsin tourist attraction. Odin has summoned the old Gods here, reconvening several minor characters only briefly glimpsed in season one, and tying together previously disparate threads, before a violent clash with their enemies. (While the Green/Fuller era was mostly gore-free, Alexander isn’t averse to a bit of skull-crushing.)

Whittle is still the weakest link among the four leads, but in his defence he’s not given much to work with. McShane’s Odin is an ur-Lovejoy, oozing charm; Schreiber’s charismatic Sweeney is building a rapport, perhaps a romance, with Browning’s tragic zombie Laura, who’s putting on a brave face while her body decomposes. By contrast, Shadow is just a flat strong-but-silent type, unknowable but hardly worth knowing.

Flashbacks to Shadow’s childhood give him more depth, thanks to an exceptional performance from newcomer Gabriel Darku as his younger self; in one wordless scene in a church, his troubled eyes speak volumes. But his scenes with his mother (Olunike Adeliyi) don’t quite ring true, largely because she speaks entirely in inspirational slogans. Iffy dialogue is a problem elsewhere, too. “The gutters will run black with Icarus spew,” leers Crispin Glover’s villainous Mr World, convincing no-one.

There are also a few wobbles on the visual side. One scene in which we glimpse the gods’ true forms – all facepaint and CGI fireballs for eyes – looks tacky. The best set-pieces are smaller, and more unexpected, such as a 20-second journey through the guts of a vending machine. It’s beautiful and pointless, like all the best art.

Watch this show cynically, and the whole edifice might topple down. But go along with it and it’s one hell of a ride. Like the gods themselves, American Gods requires – and rewards – your unquestioning faith.

The first episode of American Gods, Season 2, is available on Amazon Prime now; new episodes are released weekly