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Review: American Gods 1×02 “The Secret of the Spoons”

“Daddy likes a slow ride,” Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) tells his newly appointed bodyguard and driver, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) in the latest episode of American Gods, and while fans of Neil Gaiman‘s novel will appreciate this cheeky nugget of foreshadowing, it also indicates a change in pace after the frenetic premiere. Not that the opening ‘Coming to America’ segment wasn’t every bit as dramatic and thrilling as last week’s Viking tale. Orlando Jones dazzled as Mr. Nancy, AKA Anansi, the trickster god who sometimes manifests as a brightly coloured spider. Answering the prayers of the unfortunates chained below deck on a Dutch slavers’ vessel, Anansi appeared, looking dapper AF, to enlighten them about the myriad horrors they could expect on American shores for centuries to come, and reaped his tribute by inciting the captives to burn the ship and everyone aboard.

After last week’s violent denouement, when Shadow was literally strung up by Technical Boy’s flunkies, “The Secret of the Spoons” addressed both historical atrocities and present day racism head on and unflinchingly. From Mr. Nancy’s nihilistic diatribe to Czernobog’s checkers game, and discussion of light versus dark in perceptions of good and evil, Bryan Fuller is not pulling any punches when it comes to highlighting the insidious racism which is still prevalent in the west today. In one quietly savage scene, the doctor stapling Shadow’s wounds asks him if there was a gun involved, because he is only obliged to report gun crime to the police. And Czernobog’s revelation that where he’s from, everyone is white so they differentiate in shades is a pretty damning indictment of the human tendency to segregate and marginalise. As ever, Fuller used both horror and humour to make his point, with Czernobog poised to brain Shadow with his hammer and remarking it’s shame because Shadow is his ‘only black friend’.

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In another piece of scathing social commentary, Shadow meets Media (the wonderful Gillian Anderson), a new god born out of our obsession with screens, speaking through a TV in the guise of Lucille Ball. In a fitting update from the source material, she explains to a startled Shadow that all the attention people pay their tech, often holding a smaller screen in their palm so they don’t get bored with what’s on the bigger one they’re watching, is ‘better than lamb’s blood’.

Shadow, however, is more suited to life with Wednesday. Even after taking a brutal beating and near strangulation, Shadow is persuaded to stay with his employer on the promise of more money. But the scenes in which he returns to the house he shared with Laura, in which she haunts every room, illustrated that he’s not comfortable with a settled life and all mod cons, and probably wasn’t even before he was sent to jail. While Tech Boy and Media level with Shadow immediately and ask him directly to join their side, Shadow is more comfortable in the slow-rolling, ambiguous world of the old gods, in dark bars and decrepit apartments, where the strange can bit written off as trickery and mind games for the most part.

While Wednesday refuses to drive on highways and throws Shadow’s smartphone out of the window, Shadow puts up little resistance, unsurprising considering the things he’s just seen in his late wife’s text messages! Although Mr. Wednesday points out Shadow isn’t charismatic enough to be a magician, and indeed, his literary version is unreadable and largely unemotional, Whittle’s Shadow is far more relatable, sobbing in the bath, and screaming in national parks, and he definitely has an understated charm. Here, his passive nature stems from grief and confusion, so when he agrees to Czernobog’s game, knowing his life will be forfeit, it’s totally believable that he is past the point of caring whether he lives or dies, and is merely taking the most interesting route in the interim. What will be, will be. Is good.

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“The Secret of the Spoons”, also introduced us to the Zorya sisters (two of whom are from Slavic lore, and one made up by Gaiman), although very little was revealed about them, aside from their association with Czernobog. They were illustrative of the decline of the old gods, having once had servants to prepare meals, and now reduced to living in a run-down apartment while Czernobog earns their keep using his hammer skills on the abattoir killing floor.

Bilquis too, was down on her luck, unsatisfied by the steady stream of lovers willingly consumed by her. She was seen visiting a museum dedicated to the glory of her former self. We also glimpsed the flame-eyed Jinn, who will feature in future episodes, in conversation with Wednesday as Shadow went to meet him at the diner. But American Gods isn’t spoon-feeding viewers, introducing characters in small, teasing bites, and allowing these bizarre and interwoven tales to unspool at their own pace.

Final Grade: B+

+ How beautiful is this show? The little sequence where Wednesday blows the dandelion seeds up into the sky to be turned into lightning bolts was stunning. Even the wallpaper in Shadow and Laura’s room had me in raptures.

+ Ricky Whittle continues to be a revelation. He is turning in a perfectly pitched performance.

+ I love how organic the updating of the source material is. Things like Wednesday getting rid of the smartphones might have felt like a contrived plot device (because let’s face it, tech is the enemy of peril in modern stories), but it was carefully mixed with the encounter with Media and felt totally natural.

– It feels kind of blasphemous to say anything negative, but in terms of pacing, things did slow right down once Shadow and Wednesday arrived at Czernobog’s.

– There was one slightly jarring interaction where Czernobog started the dialogue by telling Wednesday to get out of his home, but then insisted he stay for dinner as it would be an insult to the Zorya sisters in the next breath.

Extra Thoughts: Never in the history of TV has an erect penis been used as such a haunting symbol of one man’s grief! And that’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d type!

What did you think? Are you enjoying the scenic route, or itching to get back on the highway? Tell us in the comments, or sound off on Twitter!

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Katie Young

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