Last week American Gods emerged as one of this season's most promising and exciting new series. This week it sealed its place as genuinely great television with an absolutely outstanding second episode. The series premiere was a tantalizingly mysterious introduction to a world we couldn't yet understand (unless we've read Neil Gaiman's source novel...), but which we certainly wanted to explore more of. Now that narrative has started to unfold; still very slowly and very mysteriously, but in ever more rewarding ways. We meet more of the show's massive ensemble cast, and we start to see the pieces come together to reveal what the show is really about. I don't mean in terms of the literal story arc; that remains shrouded in mystery. I mean in terms of themes, and in terms of just what the show has to say about America, both historically and today.
The beginning of this episode establishes what appears to be a structural convention which every episode will follow: just as each episode of Six Feet Under began with an unrelated vignette which followed a stranger through the moments before their death, it seems that each installment of American Gods will begin with a “Coming to America” sequence, showing how the various gods of different cultures' mythologies were brought here by newcomers to the country. This episode's “Coming to America” scene not only establishes this as a fixture of the show, it also reveals a huge aspect of what the show is (at a deeper thematic level) about: the struggles, cultural hardships, and racial tensions experienced by those who came to America as “others.” In this case it is not a tale of immigrants, but of African slaves brought here in chains; a scene which inspires a scathingly brutal monologue about the 300-year history of systematic racism and oppression in America, courtesy of the African trickster god Anansi. It is in this moment that American Gods truly proves itself as a new television masterpiece: the scene is incredibly powerful, both in its mesmerizing storytelling and in how concisely it connects the dots through American history from the first slave ships to the present day's struggle against racial violence and police brutality. We see here, for the first time, that this show is not just about mythology and mythologized Americana, but is about our world today, using the gods of immigrant cultures as a mirror for the strife and division of the modern American experience. Orlando Jones gives the performance of his career as Anansi (or Mr. Nancy, as he is sometimes known), bringing a fiery intensity and grimmer-than-grim wit to the already potent material. I was only familiar with Jones as a comic actor (I'm sure he'd hate to hear me say it, but I remember him best from Evolution), so I had no idea what to expect from him as one of the book's most fascinating characters; suffice to say, my jaw was on the floor within the first thirty seconds of his time on screen. He absolutely steals the show.
|That look you get when you realize that you're adapting a 16-year-old book,|
and somehow racism in America is more vicious now than it was then...
It is worth noting that this scene highlights a major (and very upsetting) change in the way America struggles with race between when the book was written and now: while the book certainly dealt quite a bit with themes of racism and otherness, it was never THIS intense. The intervening years, the increased scrutiny on police violence against black Americans that those years have brought, and the further increased racial tensions that have followed have all escalated the magnitude of these themes within the story dramatically. In 2001 (pre-9/11) these themes were important; in 2017 these themes are critical, and we need characters like Anansi and Shadow now more than ever. Fortunately, the series is more than up to the challenge, and it has found the perfect voice in Orlando Jones. Then of course Anansi's monologue is mirrored by the struggles of Shadow, as he tries to find his footing in the turbulent existence of a black man recently released from prison. It is here that we see the first narrative pieces click together.
|"I started using a hammer because I got|
tired of just throwing people into wood-
chippers or cutting off their johnsons..."
And all of that is in just the first few minutes. From there things just continue to grow and get more fascinating. While we deliberately still aren't given much of a sense of who any of these people really are – as Wednesday says, “clues weren't part of the deal” – more members of our huge ensemble cast begin to come out of the woodwork in strange and interesting ways. The main addition to the cast is Peter Stormare as the psychotic Czernobog, but there are a few other surprises as well, at least one of which I honestly did not expect this early in the series. Even for those of us who are already fans of the book, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are bringing a unique enough spin to the material to keep us surprised and on our toes. Any one of the new characters introduced in this episode could have stolen it out from under the rest of the ensemble, but instead The Secret of Spoon ends up feeling perfectly balanced. A lot happens in this episode, and much of it is very important, but none of it feels rushed; instead it all builds upon itself to create an exceptionally strong and compelling piece of television. The new actors are all outstanding – especially Peter Stormare, because let's be honest, no one makes a better psychotic European guy than him – but Ricky Whittle stands strong at the center of it all, grounding it with a believable performance of introspective intensity.
For a show with so much going on, and with such a determination to keep it all shrouded in mystery, it is pretty amazing how deftly American Gods keeps everything balanced in this episode. Fuller and Green's sure-handed work as showrunners translates Gaiman's novel to the screen almost perfectly, both as an adaptation and as television in its own right. And with an ever-growing cast of scene-stealing performances, the series is building up an ensemble of great character actors for the ages. Last week showed us that this could be the next great television series; this episode proves it beyond a doubt. This is truly essential viewing.
- Christopher S. Jordan
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