Sunday, April 30, 2017

REVIEW: 'American Gods' - Shadow Moon is Released from Prison and Meets Mr. Wednesday in 'The Bone Orchard'

Starz's American Gods - Episode 1.01 "The Bone Orchard"

When Shadow Moon is released from prison early after the death of his wife, he meets Mr. Wednesday and is recruited as his bodyguard. Shadow discovers that this may be more than he bargained for.

In its series premiere, it's clear that American Gods is prioritizing style over substance. That could become very problematic down the road if all of the nonsense doesn't start meaning something for both the characters and the audience. But right now, it's perfectly acceptable because the style is so fantastic and delight to watch in this extended premiere. It's absolutely gorgeous to watch despite the vicious brutality on display as well. This opening hour doesn't set out to explain what Mr. Wednesday is trying to do or what's going on with those weird dreams Shadow is having. It just tries to depict a crazy and chaotic world that is bound to only get even more stylized the further Shadow goes with Wednesday. That's an enticing way to start off the series. Yes, there are problematic moments in this premiere with the main narrative. And yet, it's also clear that the creative team is aware of some of these problems and want to do something in the future to correct them. That paired with the visual style leaves me fully confident in this being one strong first season for the show.

It's fascinating to see how it all gets started as well. The premiere opens on a "Coming to America" sequence. It doesn't immediately drop the audience into Wednesday or Shadow's worlds. It instead takes us back to an ancient world of the vikings to tell the story of them landing in a strange, new world. It immediately sets the bar high in terms of violence. One of the first things the audience sees is a viking warrior getting shot with a hundred arrows. That's a surprising and disorienting act of violence. It shows that this is a dangerous new world. A world that has the potential to kill these warriors. But more importantly, it has the potential to break their spirits. None of them speak English. So, the events of this sequence are narrated by someone else who is writing down their story. It shows the power that come from the belief in a higher power. The vikings pray to their gods. But it also highlights the pain and violence that comes with asking for that. They have to sacrifice people because they believe in gods of war. That's the god who controls the wind. So instead of conquering new worlds, they are fighting each other. They are killing each other as a form of sacrifice. It's absolutely brutal to watch. It's playful as well with the amount of blood and violence that is shown. It's all for the purpose of showing the power of gods. They can help humanity but it comes with a very high cost.

The same can also be said of a sequence that happens in the middle of this episode. The premiere just randomly cuts to somewhere else in America. It's a break of sorts from the adventures of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon. But it's five minutes of a break that are important for those five minutes and never again. It's set in Hollywood where Bilquis, the goddess of love, resides. It's a simple story of her seducing a middle-aged man. But it very deliberately shows her powers as well. It's a very visual and explicit sex scene. The man is cautious and unsure at first. But the act itself brings something out of him. Something that makes him lust for her and the pleasures she can provide. He gets lost in the sex. He becomes more bold and confident as it goes along. But it's a sequence that ends in tragedy as well. It's weird to type out that a character consumes a man through her vagina. And yet, that's exactly what occurs here. It's startling and graphic. She physically grows bigger in order to consume him. That appears to be the cost of loving her. It's a few terrific moments of pure ecstasy. But the final release comes from her consuming her partner through her vagina. It's all just a ceremony for her.

All of this is very fascinating and intricate story work. They are just brief sequences throughout the episode that have a clear beginning, middle and end. But the main narrative involves Shadow Moon on the day he is released from prison. He is freed a couple of days early because of the tragic death of his wife, Laura. That's probably my biggest issue with this premiere. It kills a female character just to define a man's entire narrative existence. Shadow exists either as a man who has just lost his wife or as someone who has just started working with Mr. Wednesday. With everything that concerns Laura, it's a frustrating and cliche plot device that has happened way too many times in all types of stories. A woman dies so a man can be interesting because of his grief. That's a lame and lackluster way to tell a story. However, it would appear that there's more going on with Laura as well. She doesn't seem to just be Shadow's wife who died in a car accident while sucking another man's dick. That defines her completely in this opening hour. Shadow and Laura's best friend, Audrey, are left behind to wonder just how serious this affair was. They are left behind to pick up the pieces of their tragic deaths. Audrey is perhaps a bit too over-the-top once she tries to seduce Shadow. But that presents an opportunity for Shadow's new coin from a leprechaun to sink into Laura's grave. The fact that Emily Browning is a series regular seems to suggest that Laura may rise again in this story. Crazier things will probably happen.

Shadow is at his most interesting when he's interacting with Mr. Wednesday. Now, Mr. Wednesday could come across as an annoying and relentless stalker forcing Shadow into working for him. And yet, he instead feels charming and fun. That's entirely because of Ian McShane's performance. He is just so delightful. Wednesday is constantly conning people into doing what he wants. But that's one of the first things he shares with Shadow. He can fall asleep anywhere and he largely gets what he wants. That's his particular skill set in this world. But it's absolutely true as well. It doesn't take long until Shadow is working for him. Of course, he doesn't know the full details of this new job. He just makes it clear that he won't fight anyone for personal fun and amusement. And yet, that's immediately followed by him breaking that rule to fight a hot-headed leprechaun named Mad Sweeney. That's fun. It's all in the pursuit of knowledge regarding a coin trick too. Shadow walks away with something seemingly valuable in a special coin. That will become important. It's just unclear how long it will take before any of this starts making sense - to either Shadow or the audience.

And finally, the premiere ends with another truly shocking and disorienting sequence. Shadow is attacked once more by a different mystical creature. This time it's someone with a lot more power and control. It's Technical Boy, the new god of technology, who attacks and wants to know what Wednesday is up to. He's a fascinating character right away. He's the perfect personification of the modern-day Internet star. A cocky youngster who is also a piece of shit. He demands things and expects them immediately. He's entitled but has the powers to back up everything. He can kill Shadow with a snap of the fingers. It all happens very quickly. Shadow has been hired to be a bodyguard for Wednesday. If this is a representative of the enemy they are facing off with, then that's going to be much more difficult than it originally seemed. Early on, Shadow said that he could feel an ax hanging over his head. That was coupled with numerous images of a noose. That proclamation actually comes true. Shadow is lynched in that final sequence. And yet, he is saved by some mysterious entity. He has no idea what just happened but it's a very enticing and fascinating way to end things here.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Bone Orchard" was written by Bryan Fuller & Michael Green and directed by David Slade.
  • The casting of Jonathan Tucker as Shadow's cellmate in prison, Low Key Lyesmith, would suggest that that character will continue to be important moving forward even though Shadow is no longer in jail. Or maybe he'll just show up in flashbacks with insightful wisdom that Shadow can use in his current predicaments.
  • A hot-headed and tall leprechaun would seemingly go against all the stereotypes. And yet, that's what makes the character so much fun. He toys with Shadow until he'll fight him. He just wants some action. He doesn't really care all that much about what Wednesday is up to.
  • The goddess of love is a black woman who lives in Hollywood. The importance of that visual seems powerful. The production design of her bedroom is excellent as well. It's so specific and feels romantic. But it's also fitting the dark horrors that await her partners too.
  • What is going on with those random dreams that Shadow is having? The vision of his wife as she dies makes sense. But the others that include him in a forest and seeing an ox with fire for eyes are just completely random and mysterious. It's probably suggesting that something more mystical is happening with Shadow. He just doesn't know it yet.
  • At times, it feels like there is too much blood in the action sequences. The show is not really going for comedy in those moments. And yet, it still feels appropriate because the show is trying to be this big and over-the-top production. Seeing all of that blood makes things important as well.