WELCOME TO AMERICA | Thoughts on S1E01 American Gods

Anyone who knows me (or has read my first ever post on this blog) knows that my favourite book (possibly of all time) is AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman.

Now, I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing what I’ve already talked about in that post (namely talking about the adaptation as opposed to the book, the diverse cast of characters and the overall book plot/story) so, if you’d like to see my thoughts of the show before I actually saw the show, click here.

Beware: spoilers ahead and in that blog post as well.

Read it? Caught up, cool, let’s watch STARZ’s adaptation of AMERICAN GODS.


OPENING TITLE…

We open up with the theme (because, of course we do). Now the visuals here are utterly gorgeous, blending the mythological, the technological and this subversive almost hyper realism, having a similarly smooth opening as a show like  WEST WORLD (HBO) but the score for this is a little abrasive to listen to (do not recommend ear phones for this one).

The tone is right, it sets us on edge, throws us into an almost club like thrall with challenging imagery, needles and pills mixed in with godly idols and neon lights. This is just about the only instance where the sound mixing in this first episode isn’t A plus, but it does set the precedent for the imagery of the episode which (as we will get into) the pilot's real strength.

In the way of Gaiman stories (i.e. stories about stories) we open up on a book, a quill and ink. As the words ‘Coming to America’ are scrawled onto the parchment, we meet our first God Mr. Ibis (Thoth). Similarly to the AMERICAN GODS book we begin with a story about old gods being brought to America by the people who believed in them.
 

COMING TO AMERICA…

STARZ has a particular way of working action, CGI and special effects into their projects. Anyone who has seen SPARTACUS knows what I’m talking about; the abject Uncanny-Valley fakery that somehow works in a graphics sense while not being too gruesomely realistic or off putting.

These bursts of action far exceed the book (that did have its moments, but was narrated with that usual Gaiman-esque detachment that it was more like looking at a painting than picturing any action visually happening in front of you), but again, these action scenes are painted so abstractly and even at points are so hilariously overblown that it’s almost self-aware and entirely self-indulgent. Despite everything else in the show edging along that line of surrealism and realism, the action and ‘soft gore’ avoids those bounds completely, intentionally. We're not supposed to think it is real because unlike everything else (or say, something like GAME OF THRONES), it’s not trying to be realistic.

This comic-book like appearance (noticed mainly in the moments of slow-mo action and with their blood) is offset by the downright stellar costuming and setting.

In this prologue Mr. Ibis details the story of a band of Norse explorers making landfall in America and, after suffering horribly, turning to their gods (Odin namely) for the wind needed so their ships can sail home again.

Unlike the book, there is no room for subtlety in Bryan Fuller’s blood bath what with the Nordic men stabbing themselves in the eyes, hosting sacrificial burnings and eventually civil wars framed as human sacrifice, all just so they can get home.

I do love how they’ve kept in these small self-contained stories; each one about the relationship between gods and humans, belief, prayer and action and how that thematically works within the overall story of Shadow Moon, Mr. Wednesday and others. I would love to see more of these almost slice of life parables (perhaps one opening up each or every few episodes?) as they were at times with the slog that was AMERICAN GODS (novel) a great appetizer or relief throughout the story.


SHADOW MOON…

Shadow Moon is one of my favorite fictional characters.  

I wasn’t immediately in love with Ricky Whittles performance, the Shadow I know is larger, softer, less confident and more quiet than the Shadow Ricky showed us in those opening scenes. He plays Shadow as a seemingly younger man; not as beaten and defeated as the Shadow in the books. He speaks with too much self assurance, even with the way he sits, watches, observes. He isn’t the same kind of man Shadow is/should be in those opening notes, not bad, just not Shadow (at least not yet).

Shadow is the kind of man who keeps his eyes down while Ricky didn’t sell me on that right away.

Low Key, (Loki) Shadow’s cell mate I instantly went; "yes, this is Loki, suck that Hiddleston, yes."

We’re introduced to Laura and her relationship to Shadow over a phone call, they are terribly cute, were in the books (Laura’s affectionate nick name for Shadow is Puppy and that kills me) and though they don’t have actual screen time together as of this episode, I feel as if the chemistry is already there, waiting to unfold on screen.

It is here that AMERICAN GODS takes a turn, diving full frontal, head first into the surrealism of the opening. Shadow lies in bed, his cell wall cracks open (beautifully rendered) and his wife is there, telling him she loves him, then he walks alone in the Bone Orchard (absolutely stunning visually, that night sky gives me shivers) and I find myself thinking “I am so glad this exists” because I love the book I do, but there is a very different sensation, a very different appreciation for seeing a magickal world or visual right in front of you as opposed to having to imagine it up yourself.

AMERICAN GODS lends itself very well to a visual format.

Shadow’s release and learning of Laura’s death is something we rarely get out of TV’s shows now-a-days (actually the whole of AMERICAN GODS feels like something we’re not normally treated to with TV), the show proves itself here by showing us it is not afraid of silence. Silence between characters, between scenes. Shadow goes through the motions of his release utterly quiet (that’s the Shadow I know) and so, for a while, no one on screen speaks, there is just ominous yet poignant piano keys being struck and little else.

This is not the only instance where sound craft and cinematography are given a place to shine in the episode. Not the only instance of diegetic silence well used.

Travelling to his home in Eaglepoint Shadow falls into the orbit of Mr. Wednesday (Odin, played by Ian McShane), a con man who waxes philosophical about everything under the sun and is more than he seems.

Mr. Wednesday is introduced perfectly. The music playing as he swindles the Air hostess (boarding lady?) is masterful and another great example of the depth and breath Michael Green and Bryan Fuller have gone to to make music and sound work for them and work for the story as opposed to simply being filler or even overpowering the visuals. I constantly found myself loving their choices in music and scoring, small details often only lasting a few minutes at best, but effective.

When Shadow is bumped up to first class beside Mr. Wednesday I am pleased. Mr. Wednesday orders him one of my favourite drinks (Jack’n’Coke).

“I’m nervous,” says Shadow a little quietly, a little shakily when Wednesday asks him how he's fairing.

“That’s it Baby! That’s my Shadow right there!” I yell at my computer screen. “He’s in there Ricky, you just gotta let him out!”

There is some really great chemistry between Mr. Wednesday and Shadow which is so important as their interactions and relationship is perhaps the key most important thing to get right in the show.

And the pilot showcases that spectacularly.


SOMEWHERE IN AMERICA…

I would love to watch someone watching Bilquis’ scene for the first time having no context from the book or foreknowledge.

I would love to see their expression, hear their thoughts and their questions.

Her whole character would make for an interesting feminist reading—especially since show runners and producers Michael Green and Bryan Fuller have decided to enhance the roles of the women characters in the show as opposed to the sausage fest that was the book.

The actual visual of that scene (you know what scene, if not turn away—vaginal swallowing—) was pretty laughable, more so than perhaps it was meant to be? But no more than the severed arm in the Coming To American section sailing through the air still holding a sword and spearing a man right in the throat. You win some and you lose some with the STARZ model of special effects, needless to say they garner more respect from their practical effects. (Still an excellent scene though).

Back on the trip to Eaglepoint with Shadow he is accosted again in a bar by Mr. Wednesday and what follows is an absolutely awesome moment of cinematography, mise en scène and scoring (Zap Mama’s Iko-iko) that I haven’t seen an equal of since Death’s entrance in the show SUPERNATURAL. It’s just a quick, cute moment so out of sync with any other show or scene so far with this show and so it sits perfectly at home. Works perfectly.

It’s the little details in AMERICAN GODS which keep standing out to me more and more. 

And then we meet Pornstache, I mean Ranga Pornstache, I mean Mad Sweeney.

Pornstache makes a great leprechaun and we get a the rest of the bar scene that is so deeply attuned to the book I’m truly impressed with the outcome. While still standing its own in a visual medium, the rest of the bar scene shows us the rougher side to our ex-con protagonist as he’s sucked more and more into Mr. Wednesday’s and admittedly the world’s games.

Gratuitous slow mo, gratuitous blood *kisses fingers*.

“Now you fight for the sheer and unholy fucken delight of it.”

There are two sides to this cinematic coin, proving to me once and for all that AMERICAN GODS is in safe hands; Green and Fuller both having an incredible restraint and generosity given to their staging and pacing. They know when moments need to be quiet, music soft, diegetic sound lessened to the barest of piano plucks.

They also know when to get rowdy, bloody, fast paced action that’s fueled on by a techno bass beat setting your heart to rhythm with a thump thump thump even as the punches fall uneven.

Shadow is knocked out and when he next wakes up he’s in the back of Wednesday's car with one of Mad Sweeny’s ‘magick’ coins.

“Red is not your colour” Wednesday tells Shadow as they drive, referring to his previous (now ditched) ride.

And I agree he looked ridiculous in that little red thing earlier but, I digress.

Aesthetically again, most shots particularly those opening a scene, are arresting and beautiful. There’s so much visually to see in every shot and rarely now-a-days do I find myself so taken with the composition of separate scenes. One or two will pop out in an episode but to be continuously delighted by the direction and cinematography of a single episode (let alone a season’s first episode?) Rarely happens to me outside of Indy films.

With all the fun and onscreen magick I’ve almost forgotten that Laura’s dead.

“That’s the Shadow I know!” I cry, watching my poor smol son suffer loss and bereavement.

By this point I concede that Ricky is doing a good job. *Claps for Ricky*

Laura is also really pretty dead, just, putting that out there…in the cosmos…

Shadow’s heartbreak over Laura is great (I’m a masochist like that), no I mean it is well realised considering we’re supposed to feel something for a couple we actually haven’t seen really interact yet.

Audrey is far more sympathetic than she comes across as in the book. I noticed they left out the Audrey spitting on Laura’s dead body scene which really stuck at me in the book. It is not a massive loss, especially considering later in the graveyard after Shadow gives Laura the coin he won from Mad Sweeney, Audrey breaks down before him then in a way that is both raw and unique to this story and is heartbreaking.

“God, did anyone even hug you? Shit you just got out of prison you haven’t been hugged in how long? Heard that’s a thing with ex-cons.”

And then they hug, a far more powerful scene (and raw scene) than was presented in the book. Fuller and Green already seem to be owning up to their promise of fleshing out the female characters Gaiman crafted (but were cast a little to the side in the novel).

As Shadow walks the streets alone the lights around him go out.

My notes for this technology-face hugger latching onto him consisted of “ahhh!” “Oh sweet oh sweet, Aliens! Ahh!”

This following scene is utterly and entirely remade from the image in the book. The drastic shift of the show to harsh metallic scratching’s and sounds, glossy high-end CGI, blocked in spacing, would feel like a different program if it wasn’t for the shared characters.

And I loved it. That’s the kind of dichotomy I want to see, between the old gods and the new gods, mythology, technology, the past and the future. Shown symbolically and physically on screen. Yes!

I feel this attention to detail and thought only speaks for more beautiful things to come with this show.

Shadow my son (or half-a- son you’re not quite there Ricky yet!) get’s beaten and hung, but alas, saved and the episode ends with a gruesome pseudo-real blood bath for our enjoyment and contemplation.

Just who saved Shadow? (We know) Who was the strange toad smoking kid? (We know) How will the show evolve from here, now that this pilot was basically a play by play of the book yet the minds behind it said the show will essentially be fan fiction, taking on some new and ‘unexpected’ turns?

Overall, this is a strong debut of an existing property, adding (just as a visual medium should) just enough new to remake the old, enhance the story and extend its reach out further. I cannot wait to watch as the rest of the series starts to find its legs, and some of my favourite characters get their moments to shine (Sam Black Crow, Eostre, Mr Nancy, Mr Ibis and Salim). I am desperately interested in the 'fan fiction' take Fuller and Green talked about taking the series. I know the story Gaiman told, and I know what this world is capable of, but if this pilot has shown me anything it is that AMERICAN GODS has found its place on filmography soil.

I am keen to see the war. See this picturesque road trip story filled with supernatural creatures and crisscrossing the United States in a big old American car, unfurl (wow, I have a type don’t I? Gee...)

I’m also going to need an AMERICAN GODS soundtrack CD like right now please. *gimmie gimmie*