FINALLY. A story appears.
Look, we’ve been huge boosters of this show and love it like a gay kid loves sequins, but there was always an underlying issue that the story was starting to meander a bit and that maybe all those slow motions shots of locks turning and coffee boiling and matches striking and dandelion seeds whirling were getting in the way of progressing an actual narrative. There comes a point in every highly stylized show where the style needs to take a back seat for a little while. We could go further on this topic but it’s far too negative a way too open a review of an episode we loved as much as this one. Suffice it to say the show has lost none of its style but with this episode, American Gods showed what it can be when it can keep all its plates spinning at the same time. This is our favorite episode of the series so far. Last week’s diversion into the life and motivations of Laura Moon may have tested the patience of some viewers, but there’s no denying there was a payoff this week: the joy that comes when disparate elements of a story are brought together in a way that makes sense and causes sparks to fly. When that happens after a lengthy setup and it’s helped along by great dialogue and a couple of truly jaw-dropping performances, it’s high entertainment. When it happens over and over again in the same episode, it’s magic.
Let’s start with some of those performances. This week, Emily Browning built on the foundation of her great character work in last week’s episode, turning Laura into an unlikely protagonist and later, a heroine of sorts. In the hands of a lesser actress, Laura could easily come across … unlikeable at best. But here, in her first “present-day,” post-death face-to-face scenes with her husband, her fear and near-desperation are palpable; her need for Shadow’s forgiveness is greater than one for simple closure. Her very existence depends on it. That can’t be an easy thing for an actress to play without going overboard, but Browning threads the needle perfectly.
Establishing Laura last week as a perpetually disaffected, chronically depressed person helps underscore just how hard she’s trying now to undo a lifetime of behavior patterns. But if her scenes with shadow were beautifully nuanced, her scenes with Mad Sweeney were a purely visceral joy. Mad Sweeney coming face to face with the give-no-shits, losing-the-battle, increasingly desperate Laura was a wonder to behold. Watching this little tiny woman fling a giant, foul-mouthed, misogynist from one end of the room to the other with a flick of her finger was one of those TV moments you can’t help applauding, even if no one’s around to hear it. It helps that Pablo Schreiber seems to be finding something vulnerable and complicated in a character that could have come across as nothing but a douchebag with a brogue.
As much as we loved Browning and Schreiber, this was Gillian Anderson’s episode to shine. Her turn as Lucy Ricardo several episodes back was hypnotic and menacing, but nowhere near as much as her Bowie and Marilyn this episode. She’s managing something here that goes beyond mere mimicry – although attention should be paid to just how well she’s managing Bowie’s lock-jawed monotone and unsettling air in the same episode she’s perfectly rendering Marilyn’s half-lidded flirtation style and mannered naiveté. But just like her Lucy – who was cynical and smooth-talking, like the seasoned pro we collectively knew the real one to be – she’s straddling that line between perfect mimicry and making larger statements about how we see these figures as representative of larger ideas and no longer as people. Lucy is a negotiator, Bowie is slyly menacing, Marilyn represents temptation. Anderson is underscoring each of her performances with these basic ideas and perceptions. It’s fascinating to watch, but to see her do it twice in the same episode is unsettling. This isn’t the kind of performance that tends to win acting awards, but she’s doing something truly unique here. Tatiana Maslany rightly gets a lot of acclaim for the technical skill of her multi-character work on Orphan Black, but Anderson just took that idea and went up a couple of levels with it, imbuing her performances with deeper cultural meaning and real-person mimicry.
But aside from the performances – not that you should ignore them – the real draw for us was the way the story suddenly leapt forward. First, there was a beautiful and haunting elegy to the long-dead god Nunyunnini, rendered in an animated style that was jarring at first but tended to help convey the ancient-ness of the tale and how things long-forgotten from history can seem more like cave-paintings than actual events. This opening, unlike the tales of Anansi or Odin or Anubis, is not about a god who came to America to live, but a god who came her to die. This is the major theme of the story and the major driver of all the actions of its main players. When Wednesday, with a total fuck-it attitude, told the detective exactly what he’s been doing, why he’s been doing it and what he plans to do next, it was a refreshing laying-out of everything any viewer could possibly need to know, eliminating virtually any possible confusion about what’s going on here. With these two scenes we got the themes of the story and the motivations of the characters stated outright. After all the symbolism and imagery, it was like a blast of bracing air. And it came just in time, because there’s clearly a Big Bad at work here and it’s been long past time he was introduced. To complete our trifecta of amazing performances this week, here comes Crispin Glover, Billie-Jeaning his way into a police interrogation room and abruptly turning this fantastical and entertaining tale into something much darker and more layered than it first appeared.
For the first time, everything was laid out on the table – almost literally. No more coffee grinds or checker games or moons plucked out of the sky. It’s a war of old gods against new gods and the new gods just blinked. For reasons not made clear yet, Shadow is clearly a person of interest in the middle of all of this (which makes his “How the fuck are you floating?” reaction slap-worthy after he spent an evening chatting and making out with his dead wife). But Odin turned down what looked like a pretty sweet offer from the mysterious Mr. World, which makes it curious as to what he thinks he can do against someone demonstrating as much power as these new gods. And just what is Mr. World, anyway? Media and the Technical Boy are a lot easier to track, but Mr. World’s vagueness is actually part of what makes him so terrifying and probably, so powerful.
All we really know is this: what had been up until now a fun, stylish, and visually exciting show turned, with this one episode, into something that feels like it’s on the verge of being epic, if not apocalyptic. And we can’t get enough of it. More, please. Immediately, if possible.