Ian McShane Grabs the Spotlight in American Gods' "Donar the Great"

TV Reviews American Gods
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Ian McShane Grabs the Spotlight in <i>American Gods</i>' "Donar the Great"

Ian McShane as Wednesday is fun to watch. He’s fun to watch when he’s singing, when he’s obviously lying, when he’s being threatening, even when he’s being sad. He’s so fun to watch that he makes “Donar the Great” almost work.

The focus of this episode turns to Wednesday’s past and his relationship with his son, Donar the Great, a.k.a. Thor (Derek Theler). Wednesday stars in the flashbacks and in the main story in the present, and his ability to take the ridiculous and make it emotional—or take the emotional and make it ridiculous—does much more for the episode than the writing, which is uneven. Donar and his girlfriend, Columbia (Laura Bell Bundy)—one of the stars of Wednesday’s burlesque show and a fellow god—speak dialogue that could be dropped into any 1930s B-movie about an ingénue who gets in over her head with some gangsters and wants to escape to California. A lot of that talk happens to spell out their exact situation for the audience, veering again into exposition instead of realistic conversation. Columbia is also the only character to use jargon like “two-bit” and call people “mister.”

“Donar the Great” strikes a lighter tone than the previous few episodes, with some solid visual gags, like a regular human trying to grab Donar’s hammer and it falling quickly to the ground. That the powerful object that can help the dwarves is a leather jacket worn by Lou Reed available at a store in the mall is funny in itself: The shopping mall is an old, broken relic, just like Wednesday’s spear. (But there may not be a magical fix for malls.)

There are a few things in this episode that really work, and one of those is the staging of the scene in which when Shadow (Ricky Whittle) asks Wednesday about his son. After Wednesday and Shadow complete their con to get Lou Reed’s jacket, they find an empty room in the mall and have a conversation. They sit among abandoned mannequins, facing each other. The faceless mannequins could be the endless, nameless humans and gods that Wednesday has sacrificed. Wednesday and Shadow are each reflected in mirrors behind them, so that Shadow’s mirror self and his real self are talking to the real Wednesday, and vice versa. This image emphasizes that Shadow and Wednesday have certain selves that they are presenting to the world, and other selves that they are keeping hidden. This also acts as a callback to Wednesday speaking to Donar in Donar’s dressing room about the Nazi’s proposition. In that scene, Wednesday is facing Donar, and there are mirrors behind Donar, reflecting them both. Wednesday has said that Shadow reminds him of his son, and this visual repetition reinforces that connection.

The Nazi symbolism in this episode, however, emphasizes an issue that American Gods has had since Season One: It features painful, charged imagery like the lynching of black men and swastika armbands without examining their implications. It’s like a little kid saying a swear word without knowing what it means, just to try it out. (Charles Pulliam-Moore talked about American Gods’ use of images of lynching in a review of last week’s episode for i09.)

American Gods has made it clear that it will not shy away from America’s wounds, and has also made it clear that the shock is part of the point—after all, the past isn’t as far in the past as people would hope. But that kind of imagery can be harmful without grappling with what it means. It’s the visual equivalent of too much exposition. Instead of acting with nuance, the series uses an image to overemphasize a point the audience may have been able to understand on their own.

In the present day, Wednesday is just as likely to make deals and barter away other people’s lives as he was in the past, even though his previous cons ended with his son taking his own life. His words say that he doesn’t regret his actions, but the expression on his face when he tells Shadow what happened to his son is haunted. It’s nice to know that Wednesday has feelings, even if having feelings doesn’t stop him from continuing to manipulate everyone around him.

The episode opens and closes with a song from Wednesday, with completely different moods. The first song is a cheerful opening to his burlesque show, with a dancer in pasties twirling away. It ends with Wednesday on stage by himself under a spotlight, full of sorrow. Wednesday alone is responsible for much of his pain, but even so, he won’t stop conning everyone around him.

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.