When Shadow (Ricky Whittle) steps up to a carnival fortune-teller machine while visiting the strange tourist attraction House on the Rock, he receives a fortune that tells him “every ending is a new beginning.”
That’s certainly true for Shadow, and for American Gods as a whole. Shadow’s adventure with Wednesday (Ian McShane) started when his wife died and he got out of prison. The life Shadow knew ended so that his journey with the old gods could begin.
American Gods has gone through some transitions of its own since Season One. Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green were fired, and another showrunner, Jesse Alexander, has been hired and subsequently sidelined since then. With all the moving parts behind the scenes, it will be interesting to see how this season compares with what came before. The first season was so stylized and meandering, with its tone jumping from horror to romance to adventure faster than Shadow can pick a lock. It seems like it will be difficult to follow that tough balancing act.
But the first episode of Season Two doesn’t really show any cracks, at least on the surface. After Wednesday’s clash with the new gods at Easter’s (Kristin Chenoweth) house in the Season One finale, the old gods and the new need to regroup. Media (Gillian Anderson) has disappeared—Anderson won’t be coming back to the show—and Mr. World (Crispin Glover) does what villains do, fleeing to an underground lair to carry out a nefarious plan.
Wednesday, Shadow, Laura (Emily Browning) and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) head to Wisconsin’s House on the Rock, which is essentially an interestingly built house on top of an actual rock that holds a hodgepodge of weird exhibits, including the world’s largest indoor carousel. Wednesday has chosen this house of oddities for a meeting with the old gods to try to sell them on a war to defeat the new gods.
One thing that is different this season is Laura—she looks less dead. Her skin and makeup is a little smoother, a little pinker—a little more alive—and there are hardly any flies following her around. I kind of miss them, and the fact that a complicated character like Laura was allowed to appear messy and not always conventionally beautiful.
The theme of transitions is highlighted during the group’s visit to the House on the Rock. As Wednesday wanders through its hallways and bridges, it looks like he’s going through a maze. The way these scenes are directed and edited, the group’s path through the house is never clear. Any sense of direction is obfuscated as they go across the screen from left to right, then right to left. This emphasizes that getting where they need to go will be difficult, and the path won’t always be a straight line.
The transitions between scenes are murky as well. Technical Boy’s (Bruce Langley) smoke in the opening becomes the clouds over Wednesday’s road trip. Shadow’s face in a raindrop becomes a blurry window to the restaurant where the old gods celebrate after their meeting. Reality is constantly blurred—literally as well as visually when Shadow goes “backstage” with the gods to their meeting, and the gods appear as their true selves.
As beautiful as the meeting is, the standout scenes for me are those that come before: the House on the Rock and the carousel. The lights of the carousel are otherworldly as the gods take their places and begin to spin. At one point, Shadow looks at the carousel and the wide angle of the lens makes it look distorted—one moment where it looks as eerie and confusing as it really is.
The carousel itself is a transition: It’s a way for the gods to enter Wednesday’s mind and to transform into their natural bodies, and a way for Shadow to travel to their world for a short time.
The Shadow that makes his impassioned speech to help Wednesday is very different from the Shadow we first met last season. He is no longer defeated; instead, his face constantly looks full of wonder. He wants to be worthy of faith. (If I were Shadow, though, I’d think hard before buying what Wednesday is selling.)
The celebration in the restaurant after the meeting is a nice callback to the series premiere, in which Shadow and Wednesday drink together to seal their deal. But the celebration is interrupted by a very American tragedy: Mr. World orders someone to open fire on the restaurant, killing Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman). As Wednesday holds her close, he yells, “Is this what it takes?” echoing a horrifically American sentiment that the country hasn’t been able to answer.
American Gods may be moving into a new phase of its storytelling, but it looks like it won’t stop picking at America’s wounds.
Read our coverage of American Gods Season One here.
Rae Nudson is a Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.