Two episodes in, American Gods has proven one thing is certainly true: though he has what is essentially a thankless job, Ricky Whittle is doing what he can to make Shadow Moon as interesting as possible. Positioned as the eyes of the audience, Shadow isn't in charge of anything; he doesn't get to dictate the terms of the series or make decisions that will impact the show in any meaningful way. Shadow is meant to react to situations, typically with incredulity as he and Mr. Wednesday trek across America in search of the old con man's cronies for the war that's on the horizon. It's a tough job.
Whittle bounces between confused, angry, and bemused throughout the series' second hour, essentially setting up big performances from the likes of Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, and, in a terrific appearance in a big box store set of HD TV displays, Gillian Anderson as the show's interpretation of the new god Media. It's all of a piece this early in the series, as Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are slowly easing the audience into the story through Shadow's bewildering experiences and discoveries, but as 'The Secret of Spoons' builds, it demonstrates just what an important part Whittle plays while also revealing just how difficult it already is to make his character more than a blank slate meant to facilitate the slew of larger-than-life performances around him.
There are a handful of such performances throughout what is another stylish hour of television that at times feels like it's two shows mashed together into one. Unlike last week's premiere, which made solid use of dream logic to get to and from scenes and to progress the plot, 'The Secret of Spoons' is a much more straightforward hour, digressing nonetheless into faraway, wordless scenes with less success than the hour that came before. The episode probably could have been just fine without the lengthy silent sequence of Shadow packing up and cleaning the house he shared with his wife until his fingers bled. The shot of Robbie's penis – both on Laura's phone and in the imaginary framed photograph on the dresser – humorously underlines the conflicting emotions Shadow has for Laura at the moment, but it's difficult not to think the entire sequence could have all been summed up with little more than a shot of Robbie's lunar lander, the moving truck, and Mr. Wednesday's tough but sage advice. Ultimately, like the premiere, American Gods still has a few things to work out with regard to pacing, and finding the right balance between visual imagery and plot, but as the second hour moves forward there are hints that it's getting there.
Right now, American Gods is still in the introductory phase, which is fine so long as it continues to make time for the kind of opening sequences viewers have been treated to these first two weeks. Transitioning from Viking bloodletting to Orlando Jones as the sharply dressed Mr. Nancy (or Anansi), addressing a group of late-17th century captives destined for slavery in America, breaking down the black experience for the next several hundred years and inciting a short-lived but incendiary rebellion that precludes the god's arrival on American soil. These openings are the ideal time for such powerful introductory moments, and Jones delivers a terrific performance that is emphasized by the way it immediately follows the very disturbing sight of Shadow's lynching at the hands of Technical Boy's faceless minions at the end of the premiere.
The emotion and set up of Anansi's arrival is dramatically contrasted by Shadow's encounter with Media. Anderson is terrific even though (or maybe especially because) she's not technically sharing the screen with Whittle but appearing on a series of screens as Lucille Ball – though she takes the time to point out she's actually Lucy Ricardo in this instance, which adds a hairsplitting element to the new god's personality and her ubiquitous screen presence. As charming as Media's introduction is, it's just that: and introduction, which facilitates little more than Shadow's brief questioning of his sanity, and brings the hour back around to McShane's Mr. Wednesday who tells his traveling companion "The world is either crazy or you are," and "There are bigger sacrifices one might be asked to make than going a little mad."
Wednesday's nuggets of wisdom are the verbal equivalent of the coin he plucks out of thin air: it all feels more than a little enticingly fraudulent which is part of the charm of the character. That charm plays a big part later on when Shadow and Wednesday arrive in Chicago bearing gifts for the Zorya sisters – two of whom are played wonderfully by Chloris Leachman and Baskets' secret weapon Martha Kelly – and Peter Stormare's ever-smoking, checkers-loving Slavic god of darkness.
Again, American Gods goes heavy on symbolism and style, often to the detriment of the progression of its plot. The entire third act – the dinner cooked by the Zorya sisters and checkers match between Czernobog and Shadow – takes longer than it should, and although it leads to a sort of cliffhanger with Shadow once again taking a bet with someone he probably shouldn't have and the gods proving themselves to be hustlers above all else, it feels as though 'The Secret of Spoons' could have wrapped the Shadow/Czernobog story up here, instead of waiting until next week to illustrate how it is that the man who's earned Mr. Wednesday's largesse will wriggle his way out of owing a god the chance to bash his skull in with a bleeding hammer.
While the pacing seems to be off (it's a little reminiscent of the first half of Hannibal season 3), the style on display is some of the best on television as director David Slade delivers a visually sumptuous hour that, even though it's not nearly as ambitious as the series premiere, is still a thrill to watch.
(These aren't normally a part of our reviews, but it felt remiss not to mention Bilquis' scenes in episode 2, so we may make these a part of the weekly American Gods coverage. We'll see how it goes.)
Bilquis doesn't get any dialogue this week, and her scenes again have nothing to do with the larger story that's going on. Yet seeing her devour a series of erotically charged devotees before either dreaming of or actually going to a museum to gaze upon an idol made in her likeness and to imagine herself draped in jewelry she once wore still feels hazily connected to everything that's going on. It's a fascinating sequence even if it doesn't necessarily tie into the overarching plot directly – or just yet. Like Jones' introduction, this interlude to Bilquis' boudoir grants early access to a character who plays a greater part. The economy of using screen time to make these nearly forgotten gods a part of the story is probably smart in the long run, too, as it will keep the relatively short season from having to issue an info dump just as these characters begin to matter to the immediate story at hand. Either way, two episodes in and it already wouldn't feel like an episode of American Gods without a weird aside like the one featuring Bilquis.
American Gods continues next Sunday with 'Head Full of Snow' @9pm on Starz.