Sunday, June 18, 2017

REVIEW: 'American Gods' - Wednesday Asks Shadow to Finally Believe in Him in 'Come to Jesus'

Starz's American Gods - Episode 1.08 "Come to Jesus"

On the eve of war, Mr. Wednesday must recruit one more Old God: Ostara, ne Easter, Goddess of the Dawn, but winning her over will require making a good impression, and that is where Mr. Nancy comes in.

In last week's review, I wondered what the first season of American Gods was building to. This has been a fine debut season for the show. It has served as a terrific and insightful allegory for the immigrant experience. It understands the vast differences of humanity. It has pushed the boundaries of sex and violence on television. It has produced some truly fantastic and memorable moments. But it's also a lot of disparate parts that seemed unlikely to all come together somehow in the season finale. This is a sweeping and grand narrative. The story has an intimate approach to its characters. So much insight and humanity comes from just spending a few minutes with each one. That gives them an aura of importance. But the question persisted of whether this was all building to something climatic by the end of the season. It seemed more likely that these eight episodes were never more than an introduction to this world and the characters. As such, the truly great and emotionally resonant stuff will occur in the second season. And yes, that is what "Come to Jesus" seems to suggest. It does not end with the gathering in Wisconsin that brings all of the Old Gods together to prepare for war with the New Gods. Instead, it's yet another episode where Mr. Wednesday and Shadow try to recruit another god to their cause despite the resistance that the New Gods put up. It was a formula for the show that continued into the finale. As such, it's not too terribly exciting. But things still felt climatic and redefining of the entire narrative by the end of the hour as well.

The core arc of this season was apparently Shadow figuring out how to believe in something. That has honestly been the weakest quality of this first season. The show has worked much better when it's just upfront about everything that's happening. When the characters are aware of the reality of their lives while the fantastical elements can just be as crazy as they can be. When it strived for ambiguity with Shadow, it didn't completely work. Was he special for some greater purpose in this war? Or was he just this mediocre guy who finds himself in this extraordinary situation? The vivid and mystical dreams he's having would seem to suggest some greater importance in this world of gods. But they don't have an easy answer given to them in this finale. Instead, it appears that all of this was done on purpose. Shadow has been passive and refuses to accept what he's actually seen. He's experienced a lot across this season. Things that would defy any rational explanation. The fact that it's taken him this long to accept the things the audience was asked to accept right away is very frustrating. It's great that the moment does arrive. But it's also too little too late as well.

Of course, Wednesday encouraged all of this ambiguity as well. The audience saw that he had a much bigger game going on with Shadow. He's played a role in his life for a long time now. Something that Shadow doesn't even realize - though fortunately Laura does by the time this finale is over. When the two of them are together, Wednesday doesn't speak to Shadow in clear and concise statements. He always turns things into a question to flip the script of what Shadow believes he knows. It's made it even more confusing for Shadow. The point of it all doesn't seem to be all that clear either. Apparently, Wednesday needed Shadow to doubt all of the world and how he perceives it in order for his unconditional belief at the end of the season to have more power. That's the basic gist of this story. Shadow has accepted the details of this world but he doesn't believe until that final moment. It's an epic moment where it would be impossible to deny that gods exist and are warping the world and messing with humanity in the process just to be prayed to. Shadow is on the sidelines for all of it. Making him a more active character next season will need to be a top priority. Right now, he's along for the ride with Wednesday. He can still have his doubts about the man he's working for. But there has to be a better way to dramatize that as the war between the gods is officially happening.

The Old God introduced this week is Ostara, the god of the harvest who has rebranded and now shares Easter with Jesus. She is played by Kristin Chenoweth in the latest reunion with Bryan Fuller on this show. It's once again terrific casting. Every single character on this show was well cast. I have my problems with Shadow but I also recognize that Ricky Whittle is doing the best with what he's been given. Ostara shows up and is immediately delightful here. She has some terrific dynamics with a number of characters. Her flirtation with Shadow is short-lived but that was amusing. Wednesday puts in the necessary passionate speech about getting things to go back to the way they were before when people actually prayed to her for the part of the world she actually controls. She's the friend who Mad Sweeney has been talking about who can help Laura. She doesn't put up with his bullshit but is more than friendly and sympathetic to Laura. And finally, she has a tense dynamic with Media after years of being successful together while harboring secret resentment for what her life has become. It's a very busy episode to throw at the end of the season. But it works because of the performance that Chenoweth gives. She immediately feels like a strong part of this world who should be seen more in the next season.

Plus, there's that big climatic moment at the end. The New Gods show up and tell Wednesday that he will die if he goes to war with them. Things are perfectly balanced right now with the New Gods in charge and helping the Old Gods stay relevant in the ever-changing world. They've made deals that have helped the Old Gods rebrand. The audience has met a couple of them this season. Some were happy with their new luxuries while some have been growing more and more dissatisfied and open to Wednesday's pitch for war. Wednesday wants this war because he wants the opportunities for people to believe in the gods for their original purposes again. It may ultimately be foolish. That's the way the New Gods see things. But Wednesday is still powerful. This is his biggest display of power so far. He creates a lightning storm that comes crashing down on the New Gods' minions. And then, he gets Ostara to show the beauty in the world when she's in charge of it right before she takes it all away to make people pray to her once more. It's an effective showcase that is intense and empowering to watch. It forces Shadow to believe and reaffirms to the audience just how entertaining this show is capable of being.

Of course, the season also ends on a major twist. For the entire season, it was a mystery as to when Bilquis would become important. She was seen in the first two episodes of the season. They were memorable scenes as well because they depicted her form of worship. She swallowed people whole through her vagina during sex. It was graphic but so specific and powerful to watch. And then, the action stopped cutting away to her because it was busy doing a number of other things. The story returns to her in the finale. It starts with her being the focus of the "Coming to America" sequence. It's nice that Mr. Nancy is the one to deliver the story instead of Mr. Ibis. Nancy is much more of a showman. He's telling this story to Wednesday and Shadow so that they get the message of needing to have a queen on their side in the war. But the story has a different importance to the audience. It reveals just how powerful Bilquis has always been throughout time. It's sexual and alluring in a way that's enticing and not just exploitative. One of the early scenes is an orgy in ancient times. But it tells a story that is important to this character. Kings always try to conquer her and she always wins in the end. That's what makes it so crushing when she's forced to flea and struggles to survive in America. Even in the 1970s, she has power in her home country. Even on the plane ride to America, she has power. It's only after she arrives that the world kicks her down. She is so broken that when Technical Boy arrives with an offer, it's hard to refuse. It's fascinating to see them together because Technical Boy has never been the voice of reason. He's always been too self-absorbed and immature. But here, he's the one who forges this bond. So in the present day, he has cultivated this unexpected relationship that could prove dangerous to Wednesday's cause. Bilquis is headed to Wisconsin. But she may be doing so as a soldier for the New Gods. That's a strong and intriguing way to close things out for the season while hinting at more exciting things to come in the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Come to Jesus" was written by Bekah Brunstetter, Michael Green & Bryan Fuller and directed by Floria Sigismondi.
  • Laura is still dead because she was killed by a god. That's a kind of death that Ostara can't fix right away. It's great that Laura is still dead because she has been so amusing and fun that way. But her body is decaying more and more. It's starting to get ugly and really uncomfortable. And yet, she still has the power to potentially disrupt everything Wednesday has worked so hard for.
  • Laura holding Mad Sweeney up against a wall by his balls is just a fantastic visual. Again, that character pairing is just so amazing. They are so destructive to each other. And yet, they are still on this journey with the other. They are honest with each other in a way that they aren't with others.
  • Not much time has passed since Wednesday and Shadow's run-in with Vulcan. As such, Shadow is still very shaken up by his boss killing a man right in front of him. Plus, he's a little uncomfortable by Wednesday telling a completely different story about the encounter in order to lure Ostara to his side in this war.
  • In addition to Chenoweth (from Pushing Daisies), Fuller also reunites with Jeremy Davies who had a memorable but brief role on Hannibal. Here, he pops up as one of the numerous versions of Jesus. That's an amusing concept. But it makes it difficult for any one of them to stand out. As such, his conversation with Shadow isn't as meaningful as it may seem.
  • How early into the next season will the big meeting in Wisconsin take place? A number of characters are already heading to that location in anticipation of it. Plus, the New Gods will strike in bolder ways now that war has officially started. And yet, it may also be realistic to expect Wednesday and Shadow to make a couple more stops along the way.
  • That's it for this season of American Gods. Again, it was a fascinating season to watch because of the many different parts of the narrative. Some worked amazingly well while others will hopefully improve in the second season. I hope the wait for more episodes doesn't take too long because of the insane amount of special effects involved. But I will still be anticipating their arrival as soon as possible.