When I heard that Neil Gaiman‘s novel about old gods, brought to the US by myriad settlers from every corner of the world, waging war against a new breed of false idols, representations of the worst aspects of modern culture, was being turned into a TV show, I got pretty excited. When I heard it was to be brought to the small screen by Bryan Fuller, the man behind Hannibal, I almost wept for joy. If ever there was a person with the vision to realize Gaiman’s fever dream of a road trip, it’s Fuller, and who better to turn those gruesome, bloody images into a darkly beautiful ballet? But then I started to worry. American Gods is one of my favourite books, and Hannibal was an almost perfect show as far as I’m concerned. Could anything as highly anticipated as this adaptation ever live up to the hype?
I needn’t have worried. “The Bone Orchard” was wonderful. Opening with one of the ‘Coming to America’ vignettes Gaiman peppers throughout his novel, we start out steeped in history and blood, as the Vikings bring their god of war to the shores of the new world, and I imagine even seasoned Hannibal viewers (pun intended) would have blanched at the violence on display while simultaneously being enthralled by its grotesque beauty.
In the present day, we meet our reluctant hero, Shadow Moon, a convict with a few days left of his sentence to serve. In the source material, Shadow is strangely unknowable, his own ethnicity and background deliberately hazy, his emotions kept well in check, often fairly passive as far as protagonists go. He’s a man with nothing left to lose, a blank space, a pawn in an epic game. Here, relatively newcomer Ricky Whittle does a fantastic job of conveying all those pent up feelings while still eliciting our sympathy. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen Whittle’s work before, but the idea of an ex-Hollyoaks actor carrying this show made me nervous. Once again, my fears were unfounded, and in a case of life imitating art, my unquestioning faith in Fuller as a perverse TV god was cemented!
Shadow’s portentous dreams and general sense of unease prove prophetic when Shadow is released early on hearing that his wife has been killed in a car accident. On his flight back to Eagle Point for Laura Moon’s funeral, Shadow is mysteriously bumped into first class, and seated next to con-artist, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane in yet another perfectly cast role), and offered a job as his bodyguard. Initially refusing, Shadow experiences further deterioration of his luck, until he happens upon Wednesday again in a fabulously bizarre bar, where Shadow is informed that his best friend and employer also died in the smash that claimed Laura, so he has no gainful employment waiting for him. He also meets a rather tall leprechaun called Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) who agrees to show Shadow how he produces gold coins from thin air if he agrees to a fight.
Accepting Wednesday’s job on the basis of a coin flip, and with a few caveats of his own, Shadow heads to Laura’s funeral in Wednesday’s Cadillac. At the service, he is told by Robbie’s grieving wife, Audrey, that Laura was killed giving Robbie a high speed blowjob and that the mortician has done a great job at reconstructing her face. Here, as with the scene where Queen of Sheba, Bilquis (a perfectly nuanced performance from Yedtide Badaki), literally consumes an adoring suitor with her vagina, we are reminded that Fuller is the master of lacing sex with death, violence with beauty, eroticism with repugnance, and demonstrating how these things are always just flip sides of the same coin. And speaking of coins (an oft-used symbol here), you just know Shadow is going to regret throwing one of Sweeney’s magical gold pieces into his late wife’s grave…
Shadow’s very bad day gets even worse when he kidnapped by what appears to be a virtual reality headset and roughed up by some faceless minions of a kid calling himself Technical Boy (Bruce Langley). In an inspired move, Gaiman’s 2001 vision of this new god – a spotty, slothful, uber-geek hacker-type – has been given a very 2017 spin. Langley’s portrayal of a youthful, cocky, fashion-conscious ‘influencer’ is much more representative of the social media driven world we find ourselves in today. Indeed, at a time of divergence, when the US and parts of Europe are seemingly moving away from globalisation, integration, and the free movement of people, when leaders are talking about going back to the ‘old ways’ and the threat of catastrophic violence hangs over us all, American Gods feels eerily on the nose. That goes double for the scene where Shadow is literally strung up by Technical Boy’s henchmen.
“The Bone Orchard” doesn’t drag it heels or lay on the exposition for those viewers unfamiliar with Gaiman’s book. As with Hannibal in the beginning, it relies on compelling characters, outstanding visuals and fantastic dialogue to draw us in, and asks for our faith that this hallucinatory trip will all make some kind of sense ultimately. Doubtless some will find the narrative ambiguity and non-conformity frustrating, but for fans of Fuller’s previous work, and recent shows such as Preacher and Legion, American Gods promises to be an absolute tour de force, fully deserving of our worship.
Final Grade: A
+ Fuller is one of the only show runners who can pull off abject horror and laugh out loud in a single line of dialogue, and this was amply demonstrated by Audrey’s insistence she was trying to regain her dignity by having sex with Shadow on his dead wife’s grave!
+ Some of the VFX in this episode had my jaw on the floor. This show is really pushing the boundaries of what can be done and I am salivating at the thought of what’s to come. It’s so beautiful that I want to get in it and roll around forever.
+ The casting is spot on so far, with stand out performances from virtually every single person on screen.
– I am having real problems coming up with any negatives other than the road trip in a classic car aesthetic reminded me of early seasons of my beloved Supernatural and that made me think about how far that show’s drifted from its roots and it made me sad! Haha!
– If you held a gun to my head, I guess I’d concede that some of the soundtrack choices could have been considered jarring…but still awesome.
– I watched the Belquis scene and was expecting it to be more bloody and for there to be ‘downstairs’ teeth involved, but I think I am getting that scene mixed up with a different part of the story, so we’ll pretend this didn’t happen…
Extra Thought: I’m really fascinated to see how faithful the rest of the series will be to the novel, and how much will be covered in eight episodes. Will the events of Gaiman’s story be dealt with this season, and then expanded upon, or will things be teased out for a few years?
What did you think? Was this first episode an amuse-bouche, or a dog’s dinner? Sound off in the comments, or tell us on Twitter.