American Gods is a lot of things at once: it’s intense and funny, it’s lively and filled with death, it’s horrific and beautiful. And it works.
“The Bone Orchard,” the first episode of American Gods, explores these dualities as Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) leaves prison and learns that his wife and best friend have both been killed in a car crash. (The good news is that he’s free; the bad news is his wife is dead.) Lucky for him—or maybe unlucky—Shadow meets a man called Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who offers him a job as his errand boy/bodyguard/vigil holder. Under Wednesday’s influence, Shadow’s life quickly becomes like living in a dream as truths he knew before he went to prison turn false around him.
For one thing, the wife he loved was cheating on him with his friend. When Shadow learns this, at Laura’s (Emily Browning) funeral, he doesn’t know if the love he felt in their relationship was real, or if she was going to leave him. Leprechauns exist, for another. But the flesh and blood leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) is tall, and not at all like the legends. And though the coin tricks that helped Shadow pass the time in prison are an illusion, some tricks may be real after all.
Opposition like this—good news, bad news; illusion, reality—appears in American Gods repeatedly. One of the strongest shots in the episode that illustrates this theme is when Shadow and Wednesday are talking in the bathroom of the bar where Shadow stops for dinner on the way to Laura’s funeral. Shadow and Wednesday are each framed in a mirror as they similarly mirror each other. Wednesday offers Shadow a job that he doesn’t want to take, and Shadow asks for information about his friend, Robbie (Dane Cook), that he doesn’t want to hear. Shadow is dressed in crisp black and white, indicating he sees clear lines of right and wrong, real and not real, while Wednesday, whose morals and worldview seem to change faster than Mad Sweeney can down a Southern Comfort and Coke, wears grey. Their reflections indicate they also have duality within themselves—what’s left is right, and right is left.
Shadow and Wednesday spend much of the episode in opposition, literally and metaphorically. When they meet, they are seated across the aisle from each other. At the bar, they sit across the table. It isn’t until after they shake on their agreement to work together, and Shadow drinks his mead, that Wednesday sits next to Shadow for the first time. In this shot, they both face the same way in the same side of the frame, showing they are now bonded together as a team.
A different kind of team starts the episode. In a preface to both the episode and the series, “The Bone Orchard” begins by telling a coming-to-America story of Vikings, more than 100 years before Leif Erikson discovered the same place. When the group finally reaches land, they find only death and misery. But there is no wind for their sail to return home, so they sacrifice first one eye each and then one life to appease their war god so he will help them. When that’s not enough, they start a war amongst themselves, creating two opposing sides where there were none before, so they can get help from a god they weren’t sure was listening.
There’s a lot of foreshadowing in “The Bone Orchard”—for example, the noose that frames Shadow’s face while he is in the prison yard at the beginning of the episode ends up around his neck by the end. So I’m sure this preamble tells more than it seems of what will come in American Gods. (Did you notice that Wednesday only has one good eye, just like the men on that beach in the new world?) In fact, this whole episode feels like a prologue, focusing on Shadow’s background before his story can truly begin.
When Shadow leaves Laura’s grave and his old life to start this new journey, he walks along the yellow lines in the middle of the road. Like Dorothy in Oz, Shadow follows the yellow brick road into a fantasy world that has rules and people he doesn’t understand. American Gods shines in the moments that leave reality behind for something else entirely. When Shadow meets Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), the editing, production design, costumes and sound all combine to create a lush world that’s fun to explore. It feels sharper, weirder and more claustrophobic than Shadow’s normal reality. The children, as Technical Boy calls them, are delightfully creepy, giving off a Clockwork Orange vibe both with their look and the violence they inflict on Shadow.
The scenes that blur fantasy and reality will feel familiar to fans of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Fuller is co-showrunner of American Gods, along with Michael Green, and I know I’ve been anxiously waiting his new foray into a loved adaption. Exaggerated gore and deep, saturated colors are apparent in both Hannibal and American Gods. The otherworldly, tense music during these scenes also sounds similar to Hannibal, and sure enough, Brian Reitzell composed the music for both shows. But where Hannibal had subtext, perhaps because it didn’t benefit from being on a premium channel, American Gods lives in excess. People don’t just die in American Gods, their spine is ripped from their body in a shower of blood. People don’t just have sex, they are eaten by a goddess’ vagina. It would almost be too much if it didn’t include space to breathe and charm to spare, mainly through McShane’s and Schreiber’s performances.
So, do you have good luck or bad luck? Do you want to go to Moscow, Russia, or Moscow, Idaho? Do you choose heads or tails? With American Gods, you can do it all at once.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Real Life, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.