♦It starts on US TV this Sunday, 30 April and 1 May on Amazon Prime in the UK but Tripwire Contributing Writer OLLY MACNAMEE got a sneak peek of the first episode of Starz’s American Gods. Warning: A few spoilers ahead…
American Gods Episode 1
Director: David Slade
Writer: Bryan Fuller
Stars: Ricky Whittle, Pablo Schreiber, Ian McShane, Jonathan Tucker
I have to keep telling myself I know the novel and I cannot allow that to inform my review. As, I imagine, many of you do too; its twists and turns and revelations. But these are all to come and so let’s tread carefully, shall we, as I attempt a not too spoilerific review of this first, outstanding episode of Starz’s American Gods?
Judging by its cancellation, I must have been one of the few people to have enjoyed Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, but its with the same sensibility that Fuller, alongside Michael Green tackles Neil Gaiman’s novel, bringing a sway of bloody, visceral moments of horror, a suitably moody orchestral score, and a sense of magic realism to bare on this promising first episode. It sets up the series promisingly well. Bringing along Hannibal director David Slade for the ride ensures a continuation in the style familiar to us Hannibal fans too. And its welcome, bringing to the show a high-quality production value that sings form each scene. The source material is done justice on the small screen as clearly all involved are fans too. It’s good to know Gaiman’s novel is in good, caring hands.
The opening scenes – of early Viking exploration into the Americas, as they would come to be known – offer newbies a taste of Gaiman’s storytelling and underlying ideas that inform much of his writing in both comics and prose; his playful but dangerous mixture of tulpa based theology (the more you believe, the more powerful and real the old gods can become) set against a world of science and growing atheism, in which we worship at a very different altar. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy weren’t too far off the mark when they famously claimed that television was the drug of the nation, way, way back in the early 90s. But, in this opening, seemingly unrelated scene, we also have Fuller’s taste for the bloody, as the early Viking explorers take to invoking their gods in a rather gruesome way, which I’ll leave you to watch for yourself. There’s not too many similarly gory scenes, but when they do come, they don’t hold back. This is not a fairy tale after all. It has more in common with Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber than it does the Brothers’ Grimm, in terms of its tone, although there is plenty of grimness in this season opener. This is a script that does not necessarily adhere to the novel’s structure religiously, but rather embellishes on it with such scenes as the Viking opener, and offers an important glimpse into the past and how, possibly, it has shaped and informed our modern world across the ages. Having had the privilege of seeing the second episode early, it would seem this form of narrative device at the start of the show may well be repeated across the series. If so, then such scenes as these add more meat to the bone and to this particular world of Gaiman’s making and a glimpse into a past touched by the mythical in so many different ways. We are all part of a story, after all. But, who’s writing it for us is another matter.
Fastforward to the modern day, and prison, where we get to meet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). What a name, and one that does not go without comment by some. A product of one hippy parent, apparently.
Shadow Moon, the viewer’s focal character, through which this story will unfold, is freed from prison, but only after receiving the kind of tragic news that turns your world upside down and into confusion. Enter, Mr Wednesday, played by the incomparable Lovejoy’s Ian McShane with an offer he can’t refuse. Well, he can, but there are forces at work here that will not allow Shadow Moon the free choice he would want. And, this is an important theme to notice, I believe. Again, I’ve read the book, so am more than aware of a strong sense of the predestined about all of this; even while Shadow Moon is in prison. Hell, he’s in prison and I can’t think of a better way to make such a point of philosophy than to hide it right under the viewers’ noses. Your life ain’t your own, get used to it! And, while a Judeo-Christian belief system teaches the modern world that we are all in charge of our own destiny – good or bad – many, many pagan mythologies espouse a belief in the gods as capricious and masters of our fates. Our stories are already written and, going back to Viking culture if I may for one moment, we should embrace it, as they would. Run face first to confront it, even, as laid out in virtually every Icelandic saga ever written. And, it is this self-same conceit that casts a long, ominous shadow onto proceedings. Shadow Moon is a bit of an illusionist himself – sleight of hand kind of stuff – but even that skill stands out in the story as a great metaphor for this idea of predestination and unjust gods. This has a sense of that about it. Is Shadow Moon simply a pawn to be used by the mysterious Mr Wednesday, or something else? The use of magic-realism, and his seemingly inhuman strength (or, is it simply a byproduct of his time in Sing-Sing?) would suggest otherwise. And, it’s this use of magic realism, fairly early on, that sets the tone too. This is a world of the real and unreal. You simply have to decide which one it is. But, along the way, you will be confused. Wait till you see episode 2, for this confusion to manifest itself even more. But, that review, is for another time.
Fuller, Green (on script) and Slade do well to set a sombre, brooding tone, with a great use of dull greys across the first half of this episode; from the decor of the prison to the seats on the plane where Shadow Moon finds himself sitting by Mr Wednesday. Happenstance perhaps, or something else at work in the universe, maybe? This is a washed out world, stripped of any colour. I counted at least 49 shades of grey on show, but it is intentional. Even when colours of a different hue creep in, like osmosis, they are equally washed out colours, with the brightest moment of the whole hour-long show being, ironically, at a funeral when, for the first time it would seem, the storm clouds break. But, only momentarily. Clearly there is a storm coming.
The use of bold, bloody red hues in the scene in which we meet a powerful sex worker, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), scream danger to all but her Johns (and Janes), who embraces her in a certain kind of ritualistic worship, that’s for sure, and a different kind of religious sacrifice too. While she is introduces as a separate entity from the main plot, obviously she will have her own part to play in later episodes, but for now she is a figure at her lowest ebb, looking for believers to pray at her altar.
And, while Shadow Moon is a brooding, melancholy man, the pace of this first episode is spot on. By the close of this satisfying first offering the reader is piqued by the growing cast of characters, including a mad-as-a-hatter brawling Irish Man, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), as well as the shocking introduction of a could-be antagonist; very much a product of the modern world is all I will offer you at this moment. And a bloody good cliffhanger too. The sense of magic-realism is all important to establish, but not to spooned the viewers with. There is only a sense (albeit a growing one) of it in this episode, and I am sure it will only grow as the plot develops and the magic envelopes more and more of the real. The audience is left with enough cues and clues to start working out the bigger picture, but there is still a lot obscured. You’ll come because it’s Gaiman, but you’ll stay because of the quality; Lovejoy’s Ian McShane’s purposeful scene stealing turn as Mr Wednesday (although, he also knows when to sit back too), characters such as Mad Sweeney and Bilquis, and a beautiful broody mise-en-scene; all slow strings and an ominous orchestral score, shadowy scenes and a sense of the dangerous just sitting on your shoulder at all times, courtesy of director Slade.
While the modern church may be struggling for repeat customers, American Gods does well to fill its pews with converts to their cause. I for one will be religiously watching this series as each and every episode drops. I can only pray, you do the same.
American Gods starts on Sunday 30 April on Starz in the US and on Amazon Prime in the UK from Monday 1 May.