Sunday, May 7, 2017

REVIEW: 'American Gods' - Mr. Nancy Talks About Race While Media Appears to Shadow in 'The Secret of Spoons'

Starz's American Gods - Episode 1.02 "The Secret of Spoons"

As Mr. Wednesday begins recruitment for the coming battle, Shadow Moon travels with him to Chicago, and agrees to a very high stakes game of checkers with the old Slavic god, Czernobog.

The series premiere of American Gods did a strong job in setting up the tone and visual style of this world. It didn't always make sense but it was very beautiful (and horrifying) to watch. However, it was a bit formulaic as well in that most of its running time was about bringing Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday together. Of course, that's the central pairing of the show. Their dynamic needed to be on display from the very first episode. Their introductions weren't as special as some of the other moments in that hour. But now, those introductions are out of the way. The show is still largely in set up mode. It's still bringing new characters into the mix. That will likely be true of the entire season as Mr. Wednesday outlines that he's recruiting people for the upcoming war. Shadow has to decide how far he is willing to accept all the crazy things that are happening in his life at the moment. That gives this episode a strong through-line that is easy to understand despite all of the craziness happening on the fringes of the narrative.

"The Secret of Spoons" gets off to a very strong start. Once again, it opens with a "Coming to America" sequence that introduces a new god to the story. In this case, it is Mr. Nancy, played by Orlando Jones. It's a phenomenal debut on the show. It's Mr. Nancy appearing before a ship full of slaves to tell them the story of black people in America. He's a character out of place in time. That highlights his mystical abilities. The year is 1697 but he knows about the future. He is dressed in this lavish and well-tailored garment. He doesn't belong in this time. And yet, this is the year where people believed in him. This is ultimately his story of landing in America. A slave prays to him for strength and guidance. Instead, he emerges to say that black people in America are fucked for the next 300 years. They are already dead simply by being on this ship right now. So instead of praying for hope in their lives, they better die magnificent deaths now and take down as many of their captors as possible. Mr. Nancy wires the slaves up and gets them to act. It's a passionate moment. But it's also manipulative. He's inspiring them to take action while fully knowing it won't make any difference in the grand scheme of things. This is ultimately his story of survival. He makes it to the shore and that's it. But more importantly, it's just a terrific performance from Jones. He's been good in other projects but I didn't know he had this in him.

The action then quickly cuts back to Shadow and Wednesday in Eagle Point. Shadow survived the attack from Technical Boy. And yet, he has no idea how. Instead of asking all of the questions and demanding answers from Wednesday, Shadow spends the next part of the episode still mourning Laura's death. That is a crucial motivating factor for him at this point in the season. But did the audience really need to see him packing up the house and discovering that her affair was more than a one time thing? It reveals that the show isn't afraid to show fully erect dicks on screen. That's surprising and startling but has purpose too. And yet, it's also a massive relieve once Wednesday strolls up and tells Shadow he can only be upset about this for so long. On one hand, that's a very cruel statement to make to someone who has just buried his wife. And yet, it's probably what most of the audience was thinking as well. Shadow grieving his wife takes valuable time away from the delightful strangeness happening elsewhere. So, the quicker the show gets to that the more fun and entertaining it will be.

Of course, it could also be very frustrating that Wednesday keeps Shadow in the dark regarding what is truly going on. Shadow was lynched and that barely gets a response from Wednesday. He claims that he's angry and will retaliate accordingly. But it's not all that comforting or reassuring in the moment. Both Shadow and the audience have to trust that Wednesday has a plan that will be worth it in the end. However, if Shadow knew everything that was going on, then that would take away some power from the random bits of mystery and craziness that are changing his life. He's slowly entering this world where two factions are targeting each other. He doesn't understand their conflict but he could potentially die because if it. That's the warning that the new god of Media delivers to Shadow. That introduction is again one of the best things that's happened so far in this show. It's just completely unexpected to see Gillian Anderson show up dressed as Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy in a TV screen in a superstore. It's random and that gives it power and a sense of surprise. She's working with Technical Boy but doesn't want to kill Shadow. She takes him seriously as a threat but knows the power that comes from time, attention and words. That's going to make her a powerful adversary in this war.

All of this is building to Wednesday arriving on the doorstep of a couple old Slavic gods. This family includes Cloris Leachman, Peter Stormare and Martha Kelly. That's a lot of strong acting talents. When they play opposite Ian McShane, it's phenomenal to watch. Who knew that McShane and Leachman flirting would be just what this show needed? And yet, it's very delightful and a pleasure to watch. This family has a history with Wednesday. A history that leaves them very wary of his mission. He claims to need them. They appear as a poor family barely scrapping by as fortune tellers and a worker at a slaughterhouse. But it's also clear that they are very important to Wednesday. Yes, the flirtatious connection is there right away between him and Zorya. He knows how to charm these people. It's just more difficult to win over Czernobog because he wants nothing to do with Wednesday and his newfound crusade. His strength is necessary but he may no longer be the man or symbol he used to be in his youth.

All of this is ultimately decided by a game of checkers between Shadow and Czernobog. It's an odd game to stage this final conflict around. And yet, it has genuine stakes to it as well. It is a matter of life-or-death. A deal is struck. If Shadow wins, then Czernobog will do what Wednesday wants. If Czernobog wins, then he can kill Shadow with his hammer. It's an effective and tense sequence because it places Shadow at the center of his story.  He's not the one on the sidelines just having to be confused about the magical things happening. Here, his fate is decided by whether or not he can win a game of checkers. It's him choosing to be a part of this crazy world. Wednesday told him he had to pick a side. He had to determine if he was crazy or the world was. It's crazy to bet one's own life over a game of checkers. And yet, that's exactly what Shadow does because he's experienced just how strange this new world is. Plus. he has nothing left to lose. Of course, he doesn't beat Czernobog. That's an ominous tease for the future. I doubt that Shadow actually dies in the next episode. He's the lead character after all. But by putting him in this position, it makes things very intense and uncertain moving forward. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Secret of Spoons" was written by Bryan Fuller & Michael Green and directed by David Spade.
  • The hour opens and ends on a conversation about race. It's powerful and poignant when Mr. Nancy is talking about the struggle of black people in America. It's different and much more biased when Czernobog is discussing the colorism that defines the country where his family is from. It was a big deal when he was younger. And now, it's all pointless.
  • Gillian Anderson showing up dressed as famous people from throughout the media is going to be a lot of fun this season. She's great as Lucy Ricardo here and talking about how worship of media has changed over the years. But I'm interested in which other figures she'll portray this season. 
  • Some brief time is spent on Bilquis as well. It's a montage showing that she frequently swallows people whole through her vagina. It plays as a cosmic experience for those involved. It also reveals that she enjoys love in all forms and not just a heteronormative dynamic. Why she does this is still a mystery though.
  • Zorya has an interesting moment talking about how life has changed for this family. In their home country, they were worshipped and had servants deliver them the finest goods. Here, they are broken down and barely surviving. They still refuse to drop their morals though - even though they recognize the cooking isn't as good as it once was. 
  • Wednesday meets with another mystical creature as well while Shadow is at the store dealing with Media. This man has something different about his eyes. That's a key detail to be looking out for in the future. 
  • What is the importance of the third Vechernyaya sister sleeping through all of this? The family wants to make sure she isn't disturbed at all. What will happen once she does wake up? Could it change anything for Wednesday or Shadow?