Another commendable “Coming to America” opening as Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones) makes his appearance, in 1697, in the belly of a Dutch slave ship bound for the New World as Anansi, a trickster god, in the form of a spider crawling in the hull. The spider morphs into Anansi, who doesn’t pull any punches letting the doomed men know that they and their descendants will be screwed for three hundred years.
“Let me paint a picture of what’s waiting for you on the shore,” he enlightens them in blunt fashion. “You arrive in America, land of opportunity, milk and honey … and guess what? You all get to be slaves. Split up, sold off and worked to death.” His incendiary speech begins to take hold, inspiring the men to get angry because angry gets things done.
He then imparts them with some bittersweet comeuppance: “The only good news is the tobacco your grandkids are going to farm for free is going to give a shitload of these white motherfuckers cancer.” The disturbed look on the faces as he’s conveying to them their plight is heartbreaking and sobering because it rings so true. Dressed in colorful attire, sashaying back and forth like a carnival barker showman but with the fiery eloquence of a civil rights preacher, Jones is a must remember come Emmy award time. The ship is burned at sea by the slaves, no survivors, except Anansi, who lands ashore safely on a piece of the wreckage.
The show stumbled a bit after the opening, but it rebounded with a robust cliffhanger of Shadow Moon losing a wager and possibly his life. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We pick up where the last episode left off, with Shadow narrowly escaping being lynched. He’s ready to throw in the towel, flashing his incense toward what at first appears to be an indifferent Mr. Wednesday (aka Odin).
Wednesday lets Shadow know that, though he doesn’t show it, he is quite pissed by Technical Boy’s actions. In Gaiman’s novel, the passage where Shadow confronts Wednesday outside their motel rooms occurs after Shadow had an encounter with his revenant wife, Laura. But nothing is lost in translation. The scene in the episode establishes Wednesday is not only charming enough to bring a young, attractive blonde to bed, but he also has a finger on the pulse of what’s happening and is beginning to rein in the proceedings.
And, after Mr. Nancy’s opening salvo about the plight of black men in the US, the disturbing act of Shadow being lynched carries much more weight than it would have otherwise.
As Shadow packs up the house to leave Eagle Point for good, he finds Laura’s phone in the returned box of personal possessions following the car accident. Like any normal human being, he checks her text messages and finds what no spouse wants to see—namely, a dick pic sent to her by his “best” friend Robbie. Despite the obvious pain and betrayal he feels, he still very much loves his wife.
And, as odd as it may sound, Emily Browning as Laura Moon does dead very well. In the book, Shadow can smell a rot in the room whenever his ghostly wife is lurking about. Ms. Browning is still lovely, but there’s a curiousness to her movements, speech (especially when she calls Shadow by his nickname of “puppy”) that makes me believe she’s not of this world. Excellent casting.
By this point in the pages, Laura has already engaged Shadow much more than we are seeing on screen, yet I’ve read there are plans to expand Laura’s role for the series, and I’m looking forward to see where that goes. From Gaiman’s American Gods (2001):
“You’ve gotten yourself mixed up in some bad things, Shadow. You’re going to screw it up, if someone isn’t there to watch out for you. I’m watching out for you. And thank you for my present.”
She reached into the pocket of her blouse, and pulled out the gold coin he had thrown into the grave earlier that day. There was still black dirt on it. “I may have it put on a chain. It was very sweet of you.”
The sections between Shadow and Laura are some of Neil Gaiman’s best writing in Gods, and I’m sure these will be incorporated in some manner soon—remember, Laura got the abovementioned coin in the first episode. Many wide-reaching emotions between these characters, from the obvious sadness and loss to foreshadowing and humor. When she tells him there are aspects of their marriage they need to address, he replies, “Babes … You’re dead,” to which she says, “That’s one of those aspects, obviously.”
“The Secret of Spoons” makes some other deviations from the book besides the Laura segments. Take Shadow’s meeting of Media, for example. The novel has Shadow in his motel room recovering from being beat up by settling down and watching some TV. He scans the channels until he comes to the classic sitcom I Love Lucy. But it’s unlike any rerun he’s ever watched before when the famous redhead begins talking to him.
“This is crazy,” said Shadow.
“Like the rest of your life is sane? Give me a fucking break.”
“Whatever. Lucille Ball talking to me from the TV is weirder by several orders of magnitude than anything that’s happened to me so far,” said Shadow.
“It’s not Lucille Ball. It’s Lucy Ricardo. And you know something—I’m not even her. It’s just an easy way to look, given the context. That’s all.” She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.
The show takes a nice alternate route. Instead, Shadow is filling Wednesday’s shopping list for their road trip, walking down the electronics aisle, when Media—played by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files)—surrounds him on all the widescreen television sets, one by one, that are on display. As one of the more flamboyant parts, she will transform during the series into other well-known celebrities, including David Bowie and allegedly Judy Garland.
Here, she counteroffers him employment by saying that she, Media, is the future, and Wednesday is the past. It’s the same pitch we heard in the debut by Technical Boy, only she shows Shadow sympathy for Technical Boy’s actions, and in a wry moment, she asks if he ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits. Ms. Anderson’s acting is solid, but whereas among the pages I could imagine the real Lucy talking to Shadow, the show has limitations, putting forth some clever mimicry. “It didn’t quite work,” my viewing companion told me. But short of bringing Lucille Ball back to life CGI-style, Gillian Anderson is the next best thing. (Yes, I understand this is Media not Lucy, but still…)
The scene with Bilquis may have done better had it been incorporated into another episode containing more substance or perhaps some dialogue. But this week, we just watch as more lovers/worshippers are swallowed up by her vagina, and the goddess visits a museum exhibit dedicated to her. It felt like padding, providing the necessary quota of nudity. Laugh-out-loud scene of the week: our first Bilquis sacrificial follower reappears floating through the heavens with a hard-on.
Shadow and Wednesday’s first stop is in Chicago, where Mr. Wednesday introduces Shadow to four Slavic gods: Czernobog, Zorya Polunochnaya (Midnight Star), and her sister Zorya Utrennyaya (Morning Star). A third sister, Zorya Vechernyaya (Evening Star), is in her bedroom sleeping but can be heard waking up when Czernobog puts up a stink about going along with Wednesday’s plans.
At dinner made by the sisters, Czernobog talks about working at a slaughterhouse and the art of killing cows with his hammer. His graphic description makes the ladies and Shadow uneasy, and character actor Peter Stormare chews up every last bit of the scenery. Mr. Stormare does slimy and pretentious extremely well, having played a similar part on an episode of Longmire.
And, American Gods may have just made checkers cool again with Shadow versus Czernobog in a high-stakes battle on the board game. “Checkers is honest,” he says, “Every man is equal.” The stakes? Czernobog will go with Mr. Wednesday on his mission if Shadow wins, but if Shadow loses, Czernobog gets to wallop Shadow with his cow-killing hammer. Well, Shadow loses, and viewers are left wondering if this is the end for Wednesday’s muscle.
A few added notes: Nice to see Cloris Leachman in what seems to be a tailor-made part, and I like how the writers incorporated Odin’s hammer (or is it Czernobog’s). A perfect little tie-in would have been Mr. Nancy leaving the diner after a meeting with Wednesday rather than the Jinn who hasn’t been introduced at this point. (Interesting side research on Anansi, also called Kweku Ananse in Western Africa … Kweku means Wednesday, the day the spider-god’s soul first appeared.)
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.