American Gods did not quite have the easy ride you perhaps may have imagined for a big budget, blockbuster novel adaptation from a world renowned author such as Neil Gaiman.
The first season was critically acclaimed, and enjoyed by audiences enough to warrant a second, but behind the scenes appeared beset with creative difficulties which led to original show runners Bryan Fuller & Michael Green parting ways after the end of Season 1, handing the reigns over ultimately to genre stalwart writer/producer Jesse Alexander for a second season which has the tricky task of replicating what made the debut season such a bizarre, beguiling, erotic and frankly strange eight episodes of television.
‘House on the Rock’ suggests that what American Gods may have lost in auteur flair during this transition it could make up in stylistic continuity and enjoyable adherence to the source material. Fuller’s stamp was all over Season 1, particularly after how arresting his vision was in developing three seasons of Hannibal; he ported over not just the odd actor (hello Gillian Anderson, sadly not in S2) but a vivid creative vision mixing sex, horror and magic. Let’s not beat around the bush, American Gods S1 had a significant mountain of manhood on show, in both senses of the term. Between that and Yetide Badaki’s man eating Bilquis (literally, in the *most* disturbing way), Fuller’s take on Gaiman’s show was dazzling erotica mixed with undulating myth.
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It cemented the show as, quite honestly, a stranger brew than Gaiman’s book itself. Season 1 held true to many of the best aspects of Gaiman’s sizeable fantasy tome; the seemingly non-sequitur short story chapters about certain historical Gods and cultures clashing with Americana leaps out as the most successful, particularly the chapter concerning the African slaves. Nevertheless, for anyone not conversant in Gaiman’s book, it was often confounding in quite what it meant or where it was going. Fuller amped up the bizarre visuals, added layers of subtext, and was happy to put artistic style over narrative propulsion. It also made *much* more of a big deal over the reveal of Mr Wednesday’s (Ian McShane) true identity than Gaiman did.
Straight away, Season 2 appears to be striking more of a balance between the kind of arresting palate provided under Fuller’s direction and a narrative which makes sense and establishes the key aspect again of the conflict between the old Gods of human history with the new, ‘American’ Gods of a land without the same level of history and worship, certainly not in the pantheistic sense conveyed in ‘House on the Rock’. It’s signature moment, and the key point in the novel which the episode is built around, concerns the old Gods having a summit and it becomes clearer than ever before the central conflict in American Gods when you see Odin, the ancient Nubian Queen Bilquis, Russian War god Czernobog (Peter Stormare) & Mr Nancy (Orlando Jones) sharing the same air in their full, regal ancient guise. The episode re-establishes the quirky status quo while re-focusing the mission statement of a show which has thus far worked hard to eschew rules.
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As he was in the first season, our protagonist Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is straight and bland and works well as such a canvas for the audience to project themselves upon, acting as something of a conduit for us to understand the bizarre world he steps into, here including a trip ‘backstage’ (a neat idea in Gaiman’s novel). His relationship with ‘dead wife’ Laura (Emily Browning) still lacks chemistry enough to make you care if they’ll find their way back to each other, figuratively that is, but Shadow serves the key beats of what could turn out to be a signature episode of American Gods well. There are numerous well known moments of Gaiman’s novel which are very well rendered here, such as the American fantasia of the titular ‘house’ itself (redolent of the kind of worshipful, theatrical church the States built itself upon) and the carousel trip to another world.
The ending, too, is intense and superbly staged, with a cost the novel does not prepare you for. The stakes are being raised by villain Mr World (a rasping, panther-like Crispin Glover), who positions himself as American Gods veritable Cigarette-Smoking Man here in his open manipulation of the highest levels of American military industrial power, and you suspect American Gods—if it does balance the stylistic aspects here with more of a narrative which brings the audience in as opposed to confusing or alienating—may grow from strength to strength across its second year.
Will there be less penis in the long run? We’ll let that question hang, shall we?
American Gods airs on Amazon Prime every Monday in the UK.