Starz’s American Gods ends its first season by arriving at the beginning of the real story in a promising, sometimes confounding season finale.
Thanks to HBO’s The Leftovers, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and now Starz’s American Gods, there has been plenty to discuss this year when it comes to the feasibility of expanding the fixed story of a novel for television with the express purpose of doing what television does best: avoiding conclusion and letting a story run for as long as possible. There are plenty of other examples to choose from to be sure, but 2017 has seen some excellent television come from the expansion of – or the promise to expand upon – stories first brought to life in book form.
Given the kinds of stories being told – from misogynistic dystopian nightmares to nuanced meditations on grief and the inscrutable nature of the universe – there’s really no clear formula for what kind of book is going to make the best series, especially when it exhausts the source material from which it was derived. The Leftovers worked largely because leaving the confines of the novel allowed the series to be reinvented in season 2, resulting in a big enough creative swing that Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta followed through by knocking another eight hours out of the park and ending on one of the best TV finales of all time. The Leftovers also worked because it didn’t have a central plot per se, but rather a series of very personal interconnected tales that more or less revolved around the same question: How do you carry on and live with an enormous mystery?
The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods aren’t quite there, though in the case of the latter, not for a lack of trying from Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. Run partially on the power of flashbacks and evocative visual imagery, both series have demonstrated they’re not driven entirely by plot, meaning additional episodes can go wherever, as quickly or slowly as the narrative needs of each show dictates. But whereas Handmaid’s more or less used the entirety of the book for its first 10 episodes, American Gods is, like Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon, taking the long way around in bringing Gaiman’s story to TV. Rather than exhaust the entirety of the novel in one season, the show’s creators have opted to slow things down, and expand upon them, keeping the novel on hand to help guide future episodes.
When you think about it, ‘Come to Jesus’ is as good a place as any to end things for this first season, and something of a gamble had the series not been picked up for season 2. It’s not anticlimactic necessarily, but it doesn’t exactly feel like a conclusion either. Perhaps that’s because so much of this season has felt, on an episodic basis anyway, that there was always more to say – or at least so much left unsaid – that the finale would end in similar fashion. The arrival of everyone at Easter’s house, the gaggle of Jesuses in her company, the presence of the New Gods, and Mr. Wednesday’s rather theatrical reveal of his true identity… all the ingredients for a solid narrative climax were there. And yet American Gods turned it into something else, a still-satisfying team-building moment that heavily underlined the promise of more. War is coming; you’ll just have to wait until season 2 to see any of it or to really understand its larger implications.
It’s satisfying seeing Mr. Wednesday declare himself Odin and strike down a group of Technical Boy’s faceless minions. There’s satisfaction, too, in Laura reaching her destination now that she’s found purpose in her connection to Shadow and pursuit of resurrection. And the show turns Easter’s denial of service – revoking spring and the annual rebirth of nature – into an impressive display of power that suggests the days of these gods getting by on small-time cons or leeching off the belief other deities enjoy are gone. There are some real stakes presented in ‘Come to Jesus’ that, inasmuch as the show is capable, given the dreamlike nature of its presentation, grounds the plot in some semblance of reality, making the belief Shadow couldn’t quite muster over the past seven episodes feel a little more earned, even if it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of his being a boring protagonist.
Yet it feels as though, as an ending, it’s entirely too reliant on the news that American Gods season 2 will hit our televisions in 2018. The power of the finale is derived largely from news of the production’s continuation rather than anything actually accomplished within the framework of the season’s final hour. There is a tremendous amount going on, but almost all of it boils down to laying the groundwork for what’s to come. In that way, American Gods the series owes more to the novel – not just Gaiman’s novel but novels themselves — than just its story and characters; it’s also presenting an entire season of television as a chapter to a much larger story. This isn’t anything new, really. All five seasons of The Wire are frequently spoken of in this manner. But unlike The Wire, American Gods is reserving any sense of conclusion for the “book” itself, rather than its chapters.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like about ‘Come to Jesus’. The hour is as entertaining as any of the others that have come before, and the arrival of Jeremy Davies as one of many Jesuses makes for more than one amusing aside in the finale. If there is one major aspect that the series has improved upon, it’s in knowing the value of Laura Moon, and in making her as much of a protagonist as her husband. Emily Browning enjoys a terrific chemistry with Pablo Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney, and with any luck Fuller and Green will do what they can to keep that twosome together, even as sides are being drawn and Mr. Wednesday seeks to escalate tensions between the rival gods.
That being said, Wednesday’s reveal, though visually impressive, felt a little rushed and in need of some contextual importance with regard to why Shadow might be inclined to care beyond any sort of preexisting knowledge of the Norse deity. In that regard, American Gods reveals the degree to which it not only hasn’t fully separated itself from the source material or the experience of reading vs. watching, by the way it can sometimes feel like the show is using the existence of Gaiman’s novel as a reason to do away with including certain moments of potentially necessary exposition. It creates an interesting reliance on and awareness of the source material as a way to keep the audience up to speed on everything that transpires within the hour.
In all, ‘Come to Jesus’ ends American Gods first season by arriving at the beginning of the real story in a promising, sometimes puzzling finale that promises greater rewards to come. After what has been a gorgeous, thrilling, if somewhat uneven first season, that’s easy to believe in.
American Gods will continue with season 2 in 2018 on Starz.
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