***Spoilers Lie Ahead***
What it is: Based on the best-selling novel by Neil Gaiman, the basic premise is that the old gods (like Zeus) have been nearly forgotten in favor of the new gods (like Technology and Vanity), relegated to vagabonds and drunken weirdos. The story kicks off when protagonist Shadow Moon is released early from prison to attend his wife’s funeral and ends up embroiled in a war of sorts between the two factions.
What Happens in the Episode: The episode opens with a story of Viking explorers that wandered into hostile territory and seek to appease their god in order to get home again. Extreme gore follows, complete with copious amounts of Kool-Aid-looking blood. The scene serves to set the stage with deep mythology and deeper ramifications than are currently felt.
From there, we segue into Shadow Moon, played perfectly by The 100‘s Ricky Whittle, still in prison. We see him working out, talking to his wife on the phone, and learn that he’s getting out soon. But it turns out to be sooner than expected, as his wife was killed in a car crash.
Boarding a plane on his way home, he meets the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (the always-entertaining Ian McShane), who offers him a job and knows far more about Shadow’s life than he has any reason to. Shadow turns him down, and they part ways.
At this part of the show, about midway through the episode, we detour to the character of Bilquis, a mythological goddess of love and the Biblical Queen of Sheba. As part of an online date, she meets a man in a bar and the rendezvous quickly becomes sexual, and the woman bids her suitor to worship her as a goddess and pray to her mid-coitus. Maybe it was a combination of his strange speech, the extensive span of the scene, or the fact that the man was swallowed into her vagina, but I found the scene extremely uncomfortable to watch. Nonetheless, it is one that will be talked about for sometime to come, and it is an important scene to the narrative, as well, showing the lengths that the old gods will go to in order to be worshiped, in order to feel some semblance of their former glory.
We next find Shadow in a bar, where he reconnects with Mr. Wednesday who once again offers him a job of being his assistant and chauffeur. Again, Shadow declines the offer, saying he has a job waiting for him, working for his friend. Wednesday tells him that his friend died in the same accident as his wife, and they leave the job offer to a coin flip, one that Wednesday certainly rigs. Reluctantly, Shadow accepts the offer.
Enter Mad Sweeney, the drunken leprechaun, who offers Shadow one of his gold coins if our hero will fight him. Shadow refuses…until Sweeney starts talking sh*t about Laura Moon, Shadow’s wife. Things escalate quickly into a brutal, bloody barroom battle.
The next scene finds Shadow in the backseat of Wednesday’s car as he’s rocketing down an old highway. Wednesday asks what it is that he wants, and Shadow says to attend his wife’s funeral, which takes place in a beautiful country church.
Shadow learns that his wife and his friend were sleeping together, and rejects the sexual advances of his friend’s wife, leaving his leprechaun coin on Laura’s fresh grave, and wandering off on his own.
Along the road, he finds a glowing device which unfolds and leaps onto his head, forming into some kind of virtual reality mask. He’s transported into the back of a virtual limo and introduced to the villainous Technical Boy, who insults and threatens the hero, wanting nothing more than for Shadow to divulge Wednesday’s plans to him. Shadow refuses, and the ride ends. Forcibly removed from the VR space, Shadow is attacked by Technical Boy’s thugs, strung up by a noose and suspended from a tree. As he dangles, violently dispatches the attackers and severs the rope. The episode ends on a cliffhanger, showing Shadow surrounded by a sea of red viscera and the audience unclear of what exactly just happened.
Why You Should Watch: If you like your stories on the bizarrely weird and ambiguously fantastical, then the story will draw you in. Trust me, it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but I know where this story is going, and you haven’t seen anything yet. If you’re a fan of all those cable shows with excessive amounts of bloody gore and nudity which lasts such an uncomfortably long time it borders on porn, then you’ll also find plenty to love during the viewing experience.
The pilot episode was strangely compelling, though narratively not very strong. When it was over, my wife looked at me and said, “I’m not sure what I just watched. I’m not even sure how I would describe it.” It felt like only a handful of scenes and not much actually happening. That’s the problem, I think, with serialized drama like this. You get one big story stretched out over so many episodes, and not much necessarily happens in each.
But that might be a good thing for this series, which is so heavily infused with myth and complicated characters, that small doses and easing into the crazy may be the best route to take.
However, if it were me, I wouldn’t have ended the episode as it did. Rather than leave the the identity of Shadow’s savior a mystery, I would have revealed who it was… in just a quick, simple, probably blood-soaked visual. Then I would have cut to credits. To me, that would have been a more compelling ending than the carnage it gave us. After all, the savior is not only my favorite character, but their character arc is one I remember most fondly from nearly any novel I’ve ever read.
All that being said, I think I’m rating the pilot higher than it deserves, simply because I’m a big fan of the book (and Gaiman in general), and I know what’s coming. With the story I know in place and the show beginning to adapt it faithfully, not to mention all the sex and violence that audiences flock to, this show will likely be the most talked about show of the summer.
New episodes of American Gods air Sundays on Starz.