In retrospect I should probably not have been surprised at how intensely visual American Gods has turned out to be. I mean, dreamlike strangeness was always going to be a given, considering Bryan Fuller’s body of work, but somehow I expected this series to be more of a collection of character studies.
That was a foolish thought. Neil Gaiman, author of the original text, has a certain gift for writing in such a manner that a movie plays in your head without it ever knowing, and is of course being used to conveying to artists how his worlds should look.
At first I found the aesthetic here a bit too much. Most dreaming in visual media typically has an aspect that is supposed to make you question whether the character is aware they are in a dream. Something otherworldly happens, and then your protagonist jerks awake, and hey, none of it was real. It’s a cheap trick, but none the worse for having been used before.
American Gods doesn’t ease you into the question of what is real for a twist reveal. Every aspect of the dream and dream-like sequences come screaming at you like a freight train without any indication dreams begin or end. Every episode has been like being drunk and with a high fever at the same time, with lucid moments feeling as untrustworthy as any miracle.
This is, of course, a core conceit of the show’s premise. The idea is further explained near the end of this week's episode, as Mr. Wednesday gives the audience some much-needed exposition about the nature of belief and what it means to the reality of the world. It’s a quiet, but very tense, exchange between he and Shadow that I feel finally settles the show into its groove. Strange things happen. A weird-looking sky on a rooftop observatory that may or may not be there could really be a window into a celestial demon’s lair, or, it could just be a weird-looking sky, or it could be both, and/or it could be neither.
What helps these visuals from completely overwhelming the audience is trimming down the characters from Gaiman’s huge original cast. Anubis makes an appearance much earlier in the episode’s opening than he does in the novel; considering his overall importance to the later portions, this keeps us from having to go through introduction-fatigue. The same can definitely be said for the expansion of the role of Mad Sweeney the leprechaun, who graduated to full-on henchman in the writing, and who I suspect will be making a historical appearance in Essie Tregowan’s short vignette instead of the nameless fae that ends that tale.
We still get the one-offs, sure. The story of the trinket salesman and the taxi-driving djinn of New York shows up in this episode, and you’d have to be mad to forget it. Everything — the djinn’s fiery eyes, the subsequent incredible sex scene (possibly the most explicit male-male scene ever put on TV), the salesman’s simple wish to drive a cab himself — offers those tiny moments from the book that filled America with its forgotten gods, deities who keep enough to themselves that they don't intrude on the narrative too much.
I know I say this every week, but American Gods is damned near perfect. You need to be watching it. It’s only getting better and better.
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