For many centuries, immigrants to America brought their gods with them. Once upon a time, these immortals were all-powerful, commanding unrivaled veneration. But now, in this modern age where fickle Americans worship media, drugs, technology, celebrity, guns—you name it—the old deities have lost their edge. They now exist in human form, vying for just a speck of their former glory in any way they can scrape it up.
Take Bilquis (aka Sheba), for example, eking out an existence through prostitution. In the novel, when a producer comes to her for her services, Bilquis has one request—beyond the $50 he’s paying—to worship her. At first, he humors her with vapid praise until he’s experiencing the greatest sex he’s ever had, and finally, his indiscriminate member leads him within her body completely. Swallowed up whole.
Yetide Badaki plays Bilquis to perfection. Her bedroom—alter—bathed in red is impeccably rendered. Slight alteration from the book: instead of a man soliciting a hooker, here we have a middle-aged lonely heart using an online dating service to find his connection. I had zero sympathy for the john in the original, whereas to see a guy who says he started using the dating app at the urging of his kids made me feel a bit sorry for the hapless worshipper. The image of him being consumed by her vagina was disturbing and, for the most part, convincing, though I sense the CGI won’t age that well.
When Shadow Moon is let out of prison after serving a stint for aggravated assault and battery, he learns a helluva lot more about this clash of the gods who live in plain sight. The day he's released, his wife, Laura, and his best friend, Robbie, die in a car accident. On the flight back to Eagle Point, Indiana, he meets a mysterious stranger who makes up a name for himself, it would seem, based on the day of the week.
So, here’s Mr. Wednesday, who seems to know everything about Shadow and the fact Laura and Robbie are dead. He repeatedly offers Shadow a job that the ex-convict turns down, but the enigmatic Wednesday is slowly revealed to possess magical powers. For starters, Shadow attempts to give Wednesday the slip by disembarking from the plane and watching the aircraft leave with Wednesday on it, only to find him at a bar along his drive to Eagle Point. Shadow flips a coin that Wednesday knows is heads without looking at it, and so on.
Ian McShane is an ideal choice for Mr. Wednesday. Having spent a majority of his acting career playing complicated, morally challenged characters, he's a natural fit. Gaiman describes Wednesday as “smaller than Shadow, but he seemed to take up a hell of a lot of room.” McShane commands that kind of presence with his hard as nails stare and robust baritone.
His take on Wednesday is counterpointed well with Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon. Whittle assumes the simmering intensity of Shadow—a coiled powerhouse in both muscle and intellect. “The Bone Orchard” adapts Shadow's unease quite well given Wednesday's unusual proposition. Even so, the actor explains the book wasn't treated as a holy codex that couldn't be tampered.
“I started reading the book,” said Whittle, “and that’s when Bryan and Michael stopped me. They said, ‘Look, we’re not re-creating the book.’ In the book, Shadow Moon is stoic, and internal monologue is abundant. You don’t want to watch a man think every week, so we had to create more layers. He’s more vocal, asks more questions.”
However, the debut stayed pretty faithful to the written word. The biggest deviation, perhaps, was the arrival of the Vikings to the shores of a new land with their gods. While the basic gist remains the same, the course is entirely different.
In the show, the Vikings are stranded, not a soul in sight (despite one man downed by an impossible number of arrows upon his first steps across the beach), burdened by pests and hunger, and left praying to their god for wind to return home. When it isn’t answered, they assume their deity can’t see them from so far away. After several brutal acts of reverence where the men have an eye purposely stabbed out and they engage in bloody warfare with each other, only then does the wind blow and they get the hell out of there.
The novel, instead, sees them sacrifice an indigenous man, and later they are attacked and killed in a full force, no mercy retaliation. The show’s own course is no less commanding—we probably have Game of Thrones to thank for that—and the main message is clear: when Leif Eriksson finally “discovered” America, the Norse gods were already present.
At the bar where Wednesday wins Shadow Moon’s reluctant employment in a coin toss, we meet Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), who tells Moon he’s being hustled by Wednesday. He then trumps the tricks that Moon learned in prison by pulling coins from thin air. Sweeney is a leprechaun and atypical in that he hovers around seven feet tall. He’s riled by the stereotypes yet appears to live for tricking, fighting, and boozing.
When Shadow wants to know the magic, Sweeney challenges him to a mother of a barfight, where Sweeney seems to grow stronger with each blow that’s landed. Shadow wakes up in the backseat of a car with Wednesday driving him to his wife’s funeral. He has no memory of how it ended, but he’s given one of Sweeney’s gold coins.
Low Key Lyesmith (played by Jonathan Tucker) had referred to the prison cemetery as a bone orchard, resulting in Shadow’s dream … and the title of the debut episode. Gaiman writes:
That night he had dreamed of an orchard under the moonlight, of skeletal white trees, their branches ending in bony hands, their roots going deep down into the graves. There was fruit that grew upon the trees in the bone orchard, in his dream, and there was something very disturbing about the fruit in the dream, but on waking he could no longer remember what strange fruit grew on the trees, or why he found it so repellent.
Low Key has been Shadow’s confidant in prison, continually offering advice, which paid off when Shadow remembered a particular nugget while getting the runaround with an airline ticketing agent. He is a trickster god to end all that you may know better by his name in the Thor films: Loki. It will be intriguing to see in future episodes how much Jonathan Tucker’s version stays true to the book.
At the funeral, Shadow learns from his best friend’s wife, Audrey, that Laura was giving Robbie a blowjob when the car crashed. Betty Gilpin as Audrey chews up every scene as the bitter, conflicted spouse and offers to give Shadow a bj right in the middle of the cemetery for revenge. He declines.
“The Bone Orchard” closes with Shadow being kidnapped by Technical Boy, who is arguably the biggest character change from the book and for good reason—the internet has evolved so much in the intervening sixteen years since the novel. Originally, Shadow tells Wednesday, ”I got hijacked by a fat kid in a limo.“ That fat kid is now a streamlined geek.
Technical Boy (actor Bruce Langley) has been described by Bryan Fuller, one of the program's showrunners, as ”more punk than god.” On first look, he is vaping a frog with jittery behavior. He has a lot of power, but he’s worried about Wednesday and has Shadow lynched only to have the rope snap. In Gods (2001), Shadow’s more or less just interviewed and let go to report to Wednesday.
You may have felt watching the debut episode a bit like a stranger in a strange land. Both my viewing companions—neither have read the book—confided that they were a bit lost. That's okay, I assured them, because the audience is just like Shadow Moon, who is feeling his way through this new reality. From the novel:
“I feel,” Shadow told her, “like I’m in a world with its own sense of logic. Its own rules. Like when you’re in a dream, and you know there are rules you mustn’t break, but you don’t know what they are or what they mean. I have no idea what we’re talking about, or what happened today, or pretty much anything since I got out of jail. I’m just going along with it, you know?”
“The Bone Orchard” begins a welcome adaption of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, with a few variations and needed updates to keep it fresh for devotees. All I can say now is—bring on the war.
David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.