NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for American Gods Season 1, Episode 1
There’s a good chance that word of Starz’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods caught the attention of more TV fans than usual… which means viewers who watched the premiere episode have plenty of questions. Questions about the characters, questions about the shocking sex scene, and questions about that ending, too. We’ve done our best to offer interested fans a glimpse behind the curtain at every single character and American God, but we’re almost positive that the first episode will leave some obvious questions in need of answering.
We’re gathering the questions here in hopes that viewers will be a bit less thrown or turned off from some of the moments easier to grasp in the novel – or in some cases, just confirm information that the show never makes clear (as is usually the risk when adapting a novel to TV series). If you’ve got more questions, be sure to let us know in the comments, but for now, read on for the answers most likely to be in high demand.
The Vikings Come To America
The premiere opens with a scene not directly tied to the events of the show’s main cast. It’s in keeping with the novel upon which the show is based, in which the core story of Shadow Moon is supplemented with smaller scenes, describing the arrival of different gods to the shores of America. In this case, the story tells of the first European god “Coming to America.” The date given is 813 C.E., with a cast of what are clearly viking warriors seeking out a land of riches. It’s a bit of true history mixed with fiction and legend, since Icelandic explorers are credited with discovering North America centuries before Christopher Columbus. According to the official historical record, it didn’t happen until around the year 1000. But in American Gods, there’s good reason the true discovery was never made known.
The ship of vikings arrives in search of women, food, and wealth, finding only harsh landscape (as with the real history, their landfall looks to be Northeastern Canada) and hostile natives, unseen, but deadly with bows and arrows. These vikings worship Odin, the Norse Allfather and father of Thor, and so erect an idol to worship him. Odin’s bearded face is worth keeping in mind for later in the episode, but the vikings struggle in one fashion after another to please their god. Showing every brutal form of worship that paganism is usually known for, embracing battle earns them Odin’s favor, and they leave never to speak of the place they had committed such desperate acts.
The narrator offers the real history now, stating that it would be more than a hundred years later when Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, discovered the New World (settling it at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland). But this story isn’t about how Leif came to America – it’s how Odin came, left on the beach, half-buried in the sand.
Mr. Wednesday is Odin, Thor’s Father
Since he actually opens the series coming to America, it’s fitting that the first god encountered by Shadow Moon is Odin himself (played by Ian McShane). Those who read the book knew the reveal was coming, since he’s a main player in the book, but “Mr. Wednesday” offers plenty of hints anyway. For starters, he stops short of telling Shadow his name, instead asking what day it is – then proclaiming that Wednesday is “his day.” That’s not a metaphor, but literal: Woden was the original Anglo-Saxon god later known as Odin, meaning “Wodensday” was named to honor the god, but later simplified to “Wednesday.”
He also makes mention of a few bird images (“be a bird,” and offering “the worm from my beak”) when Odin is often tied to imagery of his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn. And when noticing Shadow is recently out of prison, claims he has a bit of an eye for details like that – “just the one.” Viewers shouldn’t look too deeply into his gifts just yet, since Odin’s powers are only seen in a broad sense so far.
What The Flaming Buffalo Means
The most vivid imagery in the first episode comes largely in Shadow’s dreams, centered on an underground cave and the massive, bare tree concealed within its center. That tree aside, the massive buffalo with flaming eyes that appears to speak to him with unmoving lips is the most unforgettable feature. We would actually encourage viewers to not look to deeply into an explanation concerning that animal, since it’s recurring figure in the story, and one whose true purpose is only revealed near the end of the story. We’ll simply say this.
The buffalo is a character from the Neil Gaiman novel, although in this case, it’s an actual buffalo (in the book, the character is known as the Buffalo Man, as half man, half buffalo). If you’re following the different roles and presences of deities and cultural icons or legends so far, then it shouldn’t be hard to recognize the significance of buffalo to Native Americans. For now, stick with that context and stay tuned for more details.
Her Name is Bilquis, And That Really Happened
Yes, we’ve finally arrived at “that scene” in the premiere episode, unforgettable once it’s finished, and completely impossible to parse or understand for just about every viewer. As we know from the books, the woman making one of the most memorable character introductions in recent memory is Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba. Unfortunately, that historical figure’s legend is spread through so many religious texts, nations, and cultural myths, it’s hard to know exactly which ones writer Neil Gaiman was pulling from. What we do know is this: Bilquis is a goddess of love, and to worship her means to be… consumed by her, completely.
The exact nature of Bilquis varies a bit from source to source (including the Hebrew Bible and the Quran), but if you assume she’s a half-genie (djinn), half-demonic, or not too far from the succubus branch of the demonic tree, you’re in the ballpark. As explicit as the scene may be, it’s completely faithful to the book. Instead of a prostitute consuming her client, here it’s a woman active in online dating, taking her prey to worship her as people once did freely, before she had faded from her place of power. She asks her date to worship her, carrying out candle lighting, and speaking complicated verses that are clearly being channeled through him, as they have been for countless centuries.
The fact that the scene stands on its own in the premiere may amplify the confusion, or make it seem like gratuitous sexual content for its own sake. But if viewers take the scene’s meaning – the fading gods are beautiful, deadly, and willing to do what they must to hold onto their power, or feed off of worshippers – then it sets the stage well enough for the other gods set to appear in the story. Gods that may seem friendly or beautiful… but are no less deadly.
Mad Sweeney is Actually a Leprechaun
When Shadow meets the tall, red-haired, bearded Irishman while making his agreement with Mr. Wednesday, the figure wastes no time in spilling the secret: he is a leprechaun… and the assumption that leprechauns are their cartoon counterparts shows a very narrow worldview at work. Wednesday returns to reveal him as Mad Sweeney, a figure that will carry plenty of literary weight for fans of Irish folk tales, even if it brings the “leprechaun” element somewhat into question.
The story of Buile Suibhne or “Mad Sweeney” has developed over centuries and through too many authors’ hands to count, but the Irish king is a shockingly good match to Pablo Schrieber’s rendition. To make long stories short, Sweeney is a king who loses his temper when crossed by a saint – curses follow, armed combat, and generally one speech and adventure after another as Sweeney descends further and further into manic hysteria. But boy, is he entertaining. It’s worth noting that while some may accuse Schreiber of having an imperfect Irish accent, the novel actually implies that Sweeney’s accent is hardly noticeable, having spent so many years in American since coming over from his native Ireland. And those magic tricks he does? Get used to them. Also, the temper.
That Kid is Technical Boy, The Internet God
If viewers thought this story was going to be a romp back through the historical deities of ancient cultures or religions, the arrival of a strange, TRON-esque device that wraps itself around Shadow’s head comes as a total shock. That doesn’t really fade, as Shadow is subjected to an intensely surreal, fever dream of angular architecture and strange, brain-melting technology. It’s fitting that the first experience our hero has with Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) should be so strange, since the vaping, fast-talking, cocky young man is actually the American god of technology. The first of many “American Gods” Shadow is going to meet.
The meeting is brief, with Technical Boy trying to uncover just what Wednesday is planning, before ordering his goons to kill Shadow – and before said goons are dispatched in a truly shocking fashion (confirming they have internal organs, not pixels inside their bodies). He’s also the biggest change from the book to screen, since the Internet made into a single body has come a long way from the book’s publishing in 2001. Technical By used to be an introverted, chunky, black coat-wearing young man – now a full on vaping punk.
American Gods airs Sundays @9pm on Starz.