Whenever a beloved work of fiction gets adapted to film or television these days, one can almost hear the prayer murmured in unison by fans: please don’t suck, please don’t suck. As someone more or less indifferent to the Marvel and DC universes, I have been spared the worst of pop culture’s sins on this front in recent years, and have in fact been rewarded with Game of Thrones and The Expanse (the less said about the three Hobbit films the better, however).
When I first heard that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was going to be adapted by Starz, however, I was more than a little concerned—Starz not being known for high-quality drama on par with, say, HBO, AMC, or Showtime. (I will admit that my attitude about Starz is largely coloured by my experience of watching the first few episodes of Spartacus shortly after finishing HBO’s Rome. Where Rome is a beautifully written and acted show, watching Spartacus was not unlike having a DVD of 300 taped to a brick, wrapped in a 1970s Penthouse, and flung at your head). But as we learned more, some of my anxieties lessened—especially after learning it would be co-produced by Bryan Fuller (late of Hannibal), and that Mr. Wednesday would be played by Ian McShane.
Still … you just don’t know until it airs. The early reviews were positively orgasmic, which could be a good or bad sign. But then I watched the first episode “The Bone Orchard,” and I have to agree with the reviews.
So given that Game of Thrones will not be airing until mid-July and thus you’ll have to wait several months for my co-blogs with Nikki, I think I will endeavor to post about American Gods episode by episode. I won’t do recaps: ideally, I’ll find something intriguing in each episode that I can tease out into a discussion related to the original novel. So without further ado, here’s my take on episode one.
First, a review.
I have now watched “The Bone Orchard” twice; my first viewing was largely suffused with delight and relief at how good the show is. Ricky Whittle is powerful and compelling as the laconic, brooding, watchful Shadow; Jonathan Tucker is a minor revelation in the role of Shadow’s cellmate Low-Key (especially considering what we’ll learn about him in later episodes); the scene with Bilquis was startling in that it was precisely how I pictured it unfolding in the novel (which, I presume, inspired a good number of “WTF?” moments among those who haven’t read it); I’m always stoked to see Pablo Schreiber, whether as Nick Sobotka in The Wire or Pornstache in Orange is the New Black—and he’s amazing here as the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (“Okay, you’re a little tall for a leprechaun.” “That’s a stereotype. Represents a very narrow view of the world”); and of course, Ian McShane steals every scene he’s in, bringing a hint of the old Al Swearenegen darkness, but embroidering it with an outrageous, loquacious, and audacious charm. Already there’s a substantial amount of Gaiman’s text making it into the show more or less verbatim, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the balance of it will be coming out of Mr. Wednesday’s mouth over the course of the series.
There were a number of near-squee moments in this episode, the first one coming when we open, not on Shadow in his cell (as in the novel) but on Mr. Ibis in his study, writing out the history of mendicant gods brought to America in his elegant script. Opening with the story of Vikings touching American soil a century before Leif Eriksson—and the sacrifices they made to flee—is a very smart framing device for reasons I’ll get into momentarily. Visually, however, it signaled its aesthetic kinship to Hannibal: the gouts of blood thrown up into the air as the Norsemen engage in ritual combat, would, in other contexts, be comically excessive—and indeed they are here, but we soon see how consonant they are with the saturated colours of the rest of the episode. The palette on display is a mark of how Bryan Fuller and Michael Green take visual ownership of Gaiman’s text. When I read American Gods, the visuals in my mind (and this is a purely subjective reading) are pale and washed out, as if filmed through a blue filter. The rich and vibrant world on display here is not dissonant, just a different interpretation: one that will, as I will hopefully discuss in this post and the ones to follow, tease out elements of Gaiman’s text not immediately apparent.
Second, my thoughts.
On my second viewing of “The Bone Orchard,” I was struck by the way in which the episode starts laying thematic groundwork for a story about “foreign” or immigrant gods—brought to the continental U.S. by immigrants, refugees, indentured servants, and slaves, and then more or less forgotten by their erstwhile worshippers—in the context of American history. In this episode the striking motif is that of hanging, which bookends the story.
In the novel, Shadow is presented as racially ambiguous, described as having “coffee and cream skin.” In the early pages of the novel, one of the prison guards quizzes him on his ethnicity, suggesting that he might have black blood in him (except he doesn’t say “black”). Shadow’s indeterminate ethnicity and race, coupled with his tendency to be quiet and watchful and aloof, establish him as a liminal figure in a nation preoccupied—both historically and presently—with assigning explicit identities to anyone not falling under the broad rubric of whiteness. In this respect, with his indeterminate origins, Gaiman’s Shadow comprises a sort of symbolic mongrelization, one that allows those around him to project their assumptions upon him, while also functioning as a walking metaphor for the melting pot. (It occurred to me on my most recent re-read that if the showrunners wished to hew to this description of Shadow, they could have done worse than to cast Jason Momoa in the role).
In casting Ricky Whittle, the series makes Shadow unambiguously African-American, a decision that mercifully occurred—to the best of my knowledge—without the kind of racist carping that accompanied the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games (who was explicitly described as black in the novel, a fact that eluded the carpers) or Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And as I said above, based on the first episode, Whittle perfectly captures Shadow’s quietly observant, slightly brooding mien, something occasionally disrupted with a cutting and sarcastic sensibility. In making Shadow racially unambiguous, however, the show commits him to an overdetermined identity within U.S. culture and history.
This is not, I should be clear, a mistake or a bad thing: on the contrary, “The Bone Orchard” leans right into what I suppose we have to call, for lack of a better expression, the “racial politics” of American Gods. I hesitate to use that phrase because it is inadequate to the history of violence wordlessly presented moments after we meet Shadow: a knot of tattooed neo-nazis glaring daggers at him from across the prison yard, one of whom threateningly holds up a small noose. Later, when a guard leads Shadow to the warden’s office, another Aryan makes a hanging gesture as he passes.
There are, I would hazard to say, few symbols quite as fraught for African-Americans as the noose, evoking as it does the bloody history of lynching and violent suppression. Nor does the episode leave the hanging rope in the realm of symbolism, as Shadow is subjected to a brutal beating and lynching by the “new god” Technical Boy’s drones at the very end of the episode. It is important to note that this scene is a creation of the show: in the novel, Shadow gets picked up by Technical Boy on his way back to the motel, and their conversation is repeated in this episode very nearly verbatim. But it ends in the novel with Technical Boy dropping Shadow off a few hundred yards away from the motel. Here, he orders his drones to kill Shadow, and what follows is a terrifying and bloody scene in which the drones brutally beat Shadow in the pouring rain and then hang him from a lonely tree in the midst of flat fields. That the drones are then killed in spectacular fashion by an unseen assailant and Shadow is cut down does not detract from the nauseating imagery of lynching.
Taken in and of itself, this scene retrospectively looks back to the neo-nazi’s noose as foreshadowing, and plays out as a literal realization of white supremacist violence—perpetrated, in the end, not by incarcerated Aryans, but by a petulant and privileged white guy angered by Shadow’s snark (“Then why the fuck am I wasting my time sitting her talking to you?” Technical Boy asks, to which Shadow—in a line not from the novel—responds, “You know, I was curious myself, how long you were going to go on sucking your own dick?”). The violence is more than strictly allegorical, as the new gods against whom Mr. Wednesday and his cohort set themselves are essentially the embodiment and vehicles of hegemonic, cultural power in the contemporary U.S. (technology, media, wealth, celebrity, conspiracy, and so forth). One review I read of the episode said “If a black character is going to get lynched, American Gods better have a good reason for bringing that disturbing act to the screen.” I would argue that the most basic reason is the one I’ve outlined here: that these power structures are even more deeply rooted in white supremacy than the facile and simplistic hatred of the incarcerated Aryans. But I would also further argue that this episode grounds that understanding of power in a more complex, mythic history.
Aesthetically, American Gods shares DNA with Hannibal; thematically however, the series that suggests itself most persistently in this episode is Deadwood—and not just because of the presence of Ian McShane and Mr. Wednesday’s subtle echoes of Al Swearengen. The gritty neo-realism of David Milch’s western might seem completely at odds with Neil Gaiman’s mythopoeic American fantasy—and in many respects it is—but they do share a crucial commonality, which is an understanding of national mythology born in blood. Deadwood is about democracy and civil society emerging from lawlessness and violence (“improvised order” in the words of David Milch), and is an unsentimental critique of the delusion that civilization can be rooted in anything other than brutality. The series is, in part, a dramatization of Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
American Gods is fundamentally about sacrifice. Gods in Gaiman’s legendarium are the product of worship and belief, and do not exist prior to human invention (I have written at some length about the novel previously), but are sustained by belief—but even more powerfully by sacrifice (something vividly illustrated by Bilquis’ rejuvenation after she consumes her would-be lover). What Deadwood tells us about democracy, American Gods tells us about religion: that it emerges from blood. The noose that taunts Shadow in the prison-yard foreshadows the lynching, but it is not the first noose to appear in the episode. The opening sequence depicting Vikings landing on an inhospitable strip of North American shore sets the stage for what is to come: denied egress from the strand by hostile natives and becalmed, the Norsemen carve an effigy of Odin and perform a series of ritual sacrifices: first, in emulation of the one-eyed god, they all put out an eye; when that does not work, they burn one of their own alive; and finally, in order to get the god’s attention, they stage a real and very bloody battle. Finally, Odin grants them wind enough to set sail, but their sacrifice brings an avatar of the god to the strange shore. “Over one hundred years later,” Mr. Ibis narrates, “when Leif the Fortunate, son of Erik the Red, would rediscover that land, he found his god waiting.”
Odin, among his many names, is known as the Gallows God, because he hanged himself in order to gain wisdom. As Neil Gaiman writes in his recent book Norse Mythology,
He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out.
He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of his agony he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree.
Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.
The Vikings hang Odin’s effigy from a noose in the episode’s opening sequence, in honour of the god’s sacrifice, and then proceed through their own ever more brutal sacrifices.
When we cut to the present day where Shadow lifts weights in the prison yard, his manic cell-mate Low-Key is riffing on the word “gallows,” speculating on the relief of receiving a death sentence: “You get a few days to let it sink in, and then you’re riding the cart on your way to do a dance on nothing.” Leaving aside for the moment that this is a rather nineteenth-century understanding of a death sentence, Low-Key’s evocation of the death penalty—while standing in the midst of a prison’s carceral space—draws a thematic line from the Vikings’ sacrificial violence, to the violence enacted on the bodies of citizens by the penal system, to the history of systemic violence perpetrated against African Americans. Human sacrifice, American Gods comes to suggest, was not merely the barbaric practice of premodern peoples, but is in fact the unspoken and necessary cornerstone of “civilization.”
Low-Key continues to say, “This country went to hell when they stopped hangin’ folks; no gallows dirt, no gallows deals!” To which Shadow wearily rejoins, “No gallows humour.” It is an ironic little throwaway line, considering that Shadow’s association with Mr. Wednesday will provide a great deal in the way of gallows humour going forward.