It’s doubtful that anyone thought American Gods was going to be a slow burn television program. With just eight episodes in its first season, the series has only so much time to set up its primary conflict and to establish the characters on either side, while also, you know, doing something about that conflict. So far, the show has made efforts to combat its time constraints with a number of smart opening sequences and mid-episode asides that serve to introduce various players being recruited to Mr. Wednesday’s pending war, players like Bilquis, Mr. Nancy, the Jinn and so on. While the digressions have helped make the audience aware just how expansive the cast of characters really is, and give those watching an idea of what every god is all about, there’s been a downside to this approach – it’s largely kept the show’s ever-growing cast of characters apart, severely curbing the impact they can have on the narrative’s so far limited thrust.
On one hand, that approach to storytelling has afforded American Gods some terrifically specific character moments, like Mr. Nancy’s monologue in episode 2, or last week’s truly digressive hour about the recent life and death and resurrection of one Laura Moon. On the other hand, however, the question (for those who’ve never read the book) still remains: What the hell is going on and why is Mr. Wednesday recruiting the Slavic god of death and robbing banks in the middle of snowstorms supposedly conjured by his bodyguard? It’s a good question; one that was alluded to briefly in the premiere, when Technical Boy confronted Shadow Moon in the back of his limo before having his faceless minions stage a disturbing lynching. All that is to say, American Gods has spent four weeks building up to… something, and in the fifth episode, ‘Lemon Scented You’, the series expands the narrative considerably, while still keeping the exact scope of its conflict just opaque enough to generate necessary intrigue.
In its attempt to expand and explain the plot, the hour is largely about repercussions. Laura’s come back to life and is drawn to her husband only to find out he’s not her “Puppy” anymore. Shadow’s seen a lot of crazy stuff since he got out of prison and yet his dead wife’s resurrection only serves as a reminder that she cheated on him with Dane Cook. The idea that Shadow can find himself in the middle of a burgeoning war between the old and the new gods and still be fixated on Laura’s infidelity during his incarceration helps underline the character’s humanness as the characters he interacts with have increasingly proven themselves to be, let’s say, something more. Laura’s need for her husband’s forgiveness and his affection – which the episode teases, may be the key to her current necrotic predicament – serves largely the same function. These are two very human people whose problems are immeasurably smaller than the situation they’ve been unwittingly dragged into, but without them or the deeply personal nature of their association American Gods would find itself lacking the emotional thread needed to counterbalance the grandness of Mr. Wednesday’s plan.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Shadow and Laura are the heart and soul of the series. Despite being the audience’s proxy, Shadow is still little more than an archetype and although Ricky Whittle is giving it his all, he’s really only being asked to react to an increasingly outlandish situation. It’s episode five and regardless the amount of time that’s transpired within the show’s actual narrative, American Gods would do well to find dialogue for Whittle that doesn’t amount to his asking whether or not what he’s seeing is real. It also doesn’t do any good for him to act nonchalant about Laura’s return and then be completely nonplussed when Media, Technical Boy, and Mr. World saunter into an interrogation room to try and compel Mr. Wednesday to let them manage his brand as a way of staving off a war they are in no hurry to wage. So far, Shadow is shifting and responding to the needs of the story on a scene-by-scene basis rather than dictating the story by his actions and decisions. As much as ‘Lemon Scented You’ strives to establish the foundation of its central conflict, it inadvertently undermines its central protagonist by keeping him on the margins of the story and preventing him from engaging in any real, decisive course of action, especially as it pertains to the machinations of his benefactor or the increasingly weird circumstances of his personal life.
On the plus side, though, American Gods knows the value of Gillian Anderson’s multi-faceted performance as Media, giving her two choice opportunities in the hour to display her range as an actor. First up is Media’s Ziggy Stardust, who strangely exudes a substantial menace when quoting from David Bowie songs and insisting Technical Boy apologizes in person for his actions against Shadow. Anderson then turns that menace on its ear, floating into the aforementioned interrogation room as Marilyn Monroe in a perpetual state of skirt-blowing delight. It’s another example of her character’s reduction of celebrity, and the reliance on persona and recognizable iconography without context.
Similarly, Crispin Glover’s Mr. World is as mysterious as his character’s abilities, and in an ironic moment, any potential effectiveness of Mr. World’s appearance is due in large part to the fact that Glover is playing him. It’s essentially the series cashing in on Glover’s persona and all that comes along with it to lend the substance to his introduction. And while the episode is successful in presenting an ostensible big bad to the audience, ‘Lemon Scented You’ also gets a lot of mileage out of finally getting its two sides in a room together, even if it’s just to spell out the plot to Shadow and the audience.
American Gods continues to play around with some big ideas and visual moment, but episodes like this help make those ideas into a workable plot and a more tangible story line. Frustrations with Shadow’s characterization aside, ‘Lemon Scented You’ helps the series take a big step forward as it moves toward the season’s end.
American Gods continues next Sunday with ‘A Murder of Gods’ @9pm on Starz.