We're two episodes into American Gods season 2, and it's already clear that the series has improved upon Neil Gaiman's novel that inspired by expanding its focus beyond protagonist Shadow Moon. While this would seem to be a logical development for a show featuring a diverse cast with talents like Ian McShane, Orlando Jones, Crispin Glover and Emily Browning, the benefits of the ensemble approach go beyond giving the actors more time to shine.
Despite having won a number of awards upon its release in 2001, American Gods suffers from its focus on the character of ex-con Shadow Moon. Nearly all of the novel is centered upon Shadow's experiences as he is drawn into the magical world of the Old Gods who came to America and the brewing war with the New Gods who draw power from the forces that Americans have come to let dominate their lives in modern times, such as Technology or Media. The problem is that Shadow, by necessity, is written as an everyman figure, who is told of all the important events that took place in his absence by other characters.
Telling rather than showing is a cardinal sin for any storyteller and doubly so in television. To that end, when Neil Gaiman began working with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on American Gods season 1, they agreed to spend more time on developing the world with character-focused episodes rather than leaving it for the viewer to learn everything through Shadow's eyes. In particular, they agreed to a greater focus on the story of Laura Moon - Shadow's newly deceased wife, who finds a new purpose after her accidental resurrection upon acquiring a leprechaun's magic gold coin. Whereas the novel American Gods is firmly focused on Shadow, with Laura only showing up to save her husband's life, the story of American Gods season 1 is just as much Laura Moon's as it is her husband's.
This focus on the ensemble is even more apparent in American Gods season 2. Most of episode 2 is focused on the efforts of Laura and the leprechaun Mad Sweeney to rescue the abducted Shadow from the forces of the New Gods, despite their mutual hatred of one another. In Mad Sweeney's case, he hates Laura because his magic coin is fueling her unlife, and he's been incredibly unlucky ever since she acquired it. Laura loathes McSweeney because of his judgmental attitude regarding her being unfaithful to Shadow when she was alive, and his only putting up with her so as to have a shot at stealing his coin back. Ironically, despite being so closely tied together (with the two planned to continue serving as an odd couple team for the rest of season 2), the two characters never met in the original novel.
Another subplot unique to the show that is set up in episode 2 involves the pairing of a Jinn with former salesman turned cab driver Salim. In the original novel, the two were part of a short story that had no connection to the main narrative and served no purpose beyond further establishing the setting of American Gods. While this romantic scene was perfectly recreated in season 1, Salim's story continued after his fateful one night stand with the Jinn allowed him to start a new life. The season 2 premiere reunited the two lovers and episode 2 saw them setting off on a journey together to acquire something Mr. Wednesday needs for the coming war.
While the five-page sequence from the novel in which Shadow is tortured by the servants of the New Gods and thinks back on his mother's death is also recreated in episode 2, even this scene is not wholly focused on Shadow. The flashback offers the first view of Shadow's mother, developing her far more than she ever was in the book. The lion's share of the episode is still focused on the ensemble cast and we get to see the fight in which Laura saves the love of her life instead of just hearing about it once it is over. In doing this, American Gods has refined the story that it's based on, and actually improved upon it.