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Cards on the table time: as anyone who follows me on Facebook will know, I've been looking forward to Neil Gaiman's epic fantasy novel #AmericanGods coming to #television for a very, very long time. Though I'm a huge fan of the source novel, I'm going to try and keep my reviews of free of musings on or comparisons to it, and instead treat the show as its own, standalone thing.
That said, be warned: there are spoilers below for episode one, season one of American Gods, "The Bone Orchard".
"Blood, Blood, Blood/Blood and Fire"
"The Bone Orchard" starts out with a bit of world building. As you might expect, we start in America, albeit as an unknown and unnamed land, some 650 years before Christopher Columbus' famous voyage. A longboat of Viking warriors, lost at sea amidst a storm, land in its inhospitable shore. Unlike travellers who would follow, the Vikings had no wish to stay. They are pierced by arrows from unseen, hostile natives. They are bitten by insects. And there is no food, nothing worth seizing. But without wind to fill their sails, they are stranded. And so they make an effigy of their god, the All-Father, Odin. Wordlessly they pray for wind. But wind does not come. They make sacrifices - first, their eyes. Then, their shipmates. But still Odin ignores them. Realising that their god is a god of war, they fight amongst themselves - a visually stunning, over-the-top, bloody battle that almost teeters into self parody - and then, when enough blood is spilled, Odin brings the wind. The Vikings leave, never to speak of that land again. But little did they know that they left their god behind.
"Tonight there's gonna be a jailbreak/Somewhere in this town."
We then move to the present day, to meet our protagonist Shadow Moon (#RickyWhittle) a soon-to-be ex-con counting the days until his release from prison. He tells confidante Low-Key Lysesmith (#JonathanTucker) that he can't shake the feeling of an axe hanging over him. He calls his wife Laura (#EmilyBrowning) over the phone and says something doesn't feel "right". She reassures him, but at night he dreams of a bone orchard, with a huge tree almost calling to him - a tree from which hangs a noose.
When Shadow awakes, he learns that he will actually get out of prison early, though not through jailbreak. Shadow is released a few days early upon the news that his wife has died in a car accident. As a particularly cynical prison warden notes, it's like a "good news, bad news" joke:
"Good news, we're letting you out early. Bad news, your wife's dead."
At the airport where Shadow waits for a flight home, we catch our first glimpse of the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (#IanMcShane) posing as a doddery, confused old man in order to get a seat in first class. It works, of course. After Shadow finds himself bumped to first after another passenger takes his allotted seat, he gets drawn in by the smooth-talking conman. First Wednesday offers him a drink, then a job. Shadow declines, and Wednesday's muttered "no you don't" will come to be prophetic.
Shadow falls asleep on the plane, and has another odd dream, this time of the a buffalo with flaming eyes who says "believe". When he wakes, Wednesday is gone, and he rents a car to drive the rest of the way back home.
"Boys and girls in America/Have such a sad time together."
As Shadow drives across the country and has a Garden State-esque "screaming into the void" moment in a state park, we cut to a vignette entitled "Somewhere in America" and meet another of the old, forgotten gods. Bilquis (#YetideBadaki), a jinn (half human, half demon) meets a portly, sweaty, nervous man thanks to an online dating app. Taking him back to her crimson bedroom, Bilquis has sex with the unfortunate lonely heart, devouring him with her vagina after instructing him to "worship me". It is, without a doubt, one of the strangest scenes you will ever see on TV.
"Saturday night's alright for fighting/Get a little action in."
Back on Shadow's lonely road trip, he stops off at a cheesy looking crocodile-themed bar for some food, and encounters the mysterious Wednesday again. As the two bicker over whether or not Shadow will agree to be the old man's "body man", the relevation drops that Shadow's best friend Robbie (#DaneCook) died in the same car crash as Laura. Shadow is blindsided, by that and then by a drunk Irishman named Mad Sweeney (#PabloSchreiber) who claims he's a leprechaun and goads Shadow, first with coin tricks (real coin tricks mind you, not just the sleight of hand Shadow can do, but actually plucking gold coins from thin air) then with mentions of his wife. Mad Sweeney wants a fight, just to feel alive, and soon enough he gets in.
Shadow wakes up, bruised and battered, in the back of a car being driven by Wednesday. He finds a hard-won gold coin, but can't remember if Sweeney taught him the trick.
At Laura's funeral, he meets Audrey (#BettyGilpin), Robbie's widow, who drops the dual bombshells that not only were Laura and Robbie having an affair, they literally died while cheating on their spouses. Gilpin's Audrey is all raw, barely-coherent grief and anger as her ever-more-desperate attempts to seduce shadow into revenge sex (in sight of their spouses' graves, no less) are rebuffed. Shadow flips the gold coin he got from Mad Sweeney on to the dirt atop Laura's grave, where it falls through.
"I've seen the future, brother/It is murder."
After the funeral, Shadow walks down a deserted highway. Spotting a glowing...thing by the side of the road, he moves towards and it latches onto his face. Think of it as a VR headset crossed with an alien facehugger. The headset transports him into a virtual limo by a slimy, cocky, vaping Silicone Valley prince known as Technical Boy (#BruceLangley). Shadow doesn't know it, but the Boy is a powerful new god, and he wants to know what Wednesday is up to.
Shadow says he doesn't know (which is true) but that he wouldn't say even if he did. This loyalty and bravado results in a beating from the "Children", Technical Boy's faceless, glitchy henchmen. "We are going to delete you," he says. The fight continues on into the real world, where all the noose and lynching imagery the episode had laid out in the preceding hour comes home to roost, as Shadow is hung from a tree branch. It all looks bleak for Shadow, but then the rain turns to blood as the Children are slain - brutally, and bloodily - by an unseen someone or something and the rope snaps. Shadow is safe. For now.
American Gods' opener, "The Bone Orchard" is mostly a triumph. It looks spectacular, the cast (that we've seen so far) all look made for their roles. Ian McShane steals the show, but Ricky Whittle fares well in a difficult role as the taciturn, stoic, and mostly confused (early on, anyway) Shadow.
If I have one criticism it would be that the episode would be hard to follow for anyone who hasn't read the book. Shadow doesn't yet know that he's been hired by an ailing god, or that a war is brewing. In fact, Shadow doesn't know much of anything. And with so little explained, a newcomer to American Gods would feel just as baffled. But then, maybe that's the point. Perhaps the audience will come to learn things just as Shadow does. And at this point it's fair to trust co-creators #BryanFuller and #MichaelGreen.