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After a short 8 episode season, our first journey with American Gods has come to an end. The epic fantasy-cum-road-trip novel was adapted for television by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), Michael Green (Logan) and the legendary author himself, Neil Gaiman, and treated viewers to sumptuous visuals, over-the-top violence and stellar performances from an excellent cast.
Yet while there was plenty to love about the first season — it was faithful to the source material where it needed to be and took some interesting detours — I couldn't help but feeling like something was a little off. That something? The show's protagonist, Shadow Moon.
Precursor: Now, I'm not knocking Ricky Whittle's performance — the British actor is more than capable of holding his own against the stage and screen royalty that make up the #AmericanGods cast. The problem is with how Shadow's character translates to the small screen.
The 'Main Character' Problem
In many ways, Shadow is the perfect protagonist for American Gods: He's an everyman (albeit a tall, muscle-bound everyman), and the audience's entry point into Gaiman's world of Gods, myths and monsters. In the novel, Shadow is quiet and taciturn, a generally decent guy who's willing — at a push — to resort to violence if it's necessary.
On TV his character is similar — although the medium necessitates Shadow to be more loquacious — yet as we move from paper to screen we're denied access to Shadow's thoughts, and that leaves a void. We're left with a lead character who spends the season mostly frowning in confusion, and lacking a discernible motivation. Having left prison early only to find he has lost his wife, his best friend, and the job he thought was waiting for him, Shadow is rudderless; he pals around with Mr. Wednesday (#IanMcShane) — a self-confessed grifter — because (at least, as far as TV-only viewers are aware) he has nothing else to do.
Quite often Shadow is in the background while Wednesday plots, schemes and schmoozes his fellow Gods. What does Shadow want? What drives him? It's hard to know and therefore almost impossible to connect with him. However, American Gods does have a potential main character you can connect with:
The 'Dead Wife' Gives Life to 'American Gods'
While the inscrutable Shadow Moon struggles to connect with the audience, his wife does not. Laura Moon (#EmilyBrowning) gives American Gods life despite being dead. In the novel, the character is mostly in the background doing her own thing, on hand only when narrative convenience requires her help. On screen, she has become a key character.
Browning's performance makes Laura likable even though we know she's not a good person, unlike Shadow. In Episode 3's flashback we meet her alive but barely living: she's getting her kicks through asphyxiation via bug spray, sex with a virtual stranger and plotting dangerous casino heists. She drifted through her life, glassy-eyed and feeling nothing — until she died.
Paradoxically, in death Laura Moon found her lust for life. With eyes only for Shadow, her (after)life has purpose. She takes the world of Gods in her stride, with an arched eyebrow and sardonic smirk, and while Shadow remains confused and flustered, Laura is calm and cool as a cucumber.
Laura's quest to re-enter Shadow's life and somehow regain her own mortality is more interesting than Shadow following Wednesday from place to place and not knowing why.
In the novel, Shadow Moon is the audience's surrogate and served the role well, but in the adaptation Laura Moon is the one we want to follow. After all, did you miss Shadow in his absence during "A Prayer For Mad Sweeney"? Going forward, it could be a smart move to shift focus from one Moon to another, and let us follow the dead wife's path to redemption. Don't you think?