Illustrator: David Slade
on 30th April 2017
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
His wife dying on the eve of his release from prison, Shadow Moon rejoins society with no family or prospects to his name. Soon offered a job by a seemingly all-knowing stranger named Mr. Wednesday, he prepares to set out on what should prove to be a very strange trip across America.
But first, his love's funeral awaits.
Welcome to the first installment in what I hope will be a weekly series for the next few months, in which Cuddlebuggery will get a new batch of television reviews for the new Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. (If you’re interested in reading that book, you can find my review of it and its related stories here.)
This being the pilot, I’ll make this first post a more detailed overview of how the show looks and feels, and keep the more straightforward summaries and such for subsequent weeks, once we have a consistent baseline to go off of. I’ll try to keep these reviews relatively brief (such a trial for me) and accessible for anyone who’s interested in watching (and you should be!), but prepare for a lot of references and comparisons to the original book.
Note: These reviews will include spoilers for both the novel and their respective episodes.
Anyway, to summarize all of the below babble, should you be short of time or interest: it’s good. It’s really good. If you’re a fan of Gaiman’s work, you’re going to like it, because it’s a damned fine adaptation. If you’re a fan of creator Bryan Fuller, you’re going to like it, because it has all of the hallmarks of his previous series. And if you’re just a fan of creative, beautiful-looking television, you’re going to like it, because it’s different and weird and gorgeous to watch.
With that out of the way, let’s break this down a bit more. In coming weeks, I’ll mix my thoughts in with the recap of the plot. But for now, I’ll look at everything separately to give you more details. It is the start, after all, so we have to establish a precedent. If you’ve already watched or don’t want to look into the plot just yet, jump past this to the meatier stuff.
Coming to America
A man (Demore Barnes) opens a large tome and begins to write a story:
A Viking party makes its way to the shores of America 100 years before Leif Erikson is to discover it. They are eager for respite from the grueling sea journey, but are instantly set upon by the native peoples of the new land. Desperate to leave but unable to cast off without wind, they pray to their god to deliver them. He is silent.
Believing that he does not know where they are, being so far from their homeland, the group resorts to escalating acts of violent sacrifice to draw his eye. First, they stab out one of their own. Then, they massacre one another in combat. They are rewarded their wind, and so they leave, but their god’s foothold in the continent remains.
Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is nearing the end of his prison sentence, incarcerated for his involvement in a heist. He spends his days working out, reading, and preparing to return to his wife Laura (Emily Browning), who he hopes to begin a new life with. He is unsettled by the stormy weather, however, believing that it portends something ominous.
Shadow talks to Laura on the phone, and she reveals that she and their old friend Robbie are preparing a welcome-home party for him. That night, he dreams of her, then of an orchard filled with bones and towering trees with skeletal arms that accost him. The next day, he learns that Laura has died in a car accident.
Released a few days early to make her funeral, Shadow boards a plane with a con-man calling himself Mr. Wednesday, who appears to know much more about Shadow and his circumstances than he should. He offers him a job as his personal assistant and bodyguard, promising him anything he wants in return. Shadow turns him down. During the flight, he sleeps and dreams of the orchard again, in which a buffalo with (literal) fire in its eyes commands him to ‘believe.’
Somewhere in America
Elsewhere, in Hollywood, a woman named Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) waits for her date at a bar. They hit it off, and she brings him back to her lavish room. While the man is timid in the face of her advances, she convinces him to make love to her, asking him to worship her as he does so. In ecstasy, the man does not realize that he is being pulled into her body, eventually being consumed entirely. She rests, satisfied.
Shadow, covering the remaining miles to his old town in a car, stops at a bar. Mr. Wednesday is there and offers him the job once more, revealing that Robbie — who had promised Shadow a position at his gym — died alongside Laura in the crash. Put off by Wednesday’s forward manner, Shadow tries to refuse, but is eventually talked into it, realizing that he has nothing waiting for him now.
He’s also accosted by an acquaintance of Wednesday’s named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), who claims that he is a leprechaun. He asks shadow if he ‘knows’ what Wednesday is and what his job truly entails. Shadow does not, and the man’s brash attitude annoys him. After irking him further with coin tricks (something that Shadow himself specializes in), Sweeney promises Shadow a genuine gold coin and the secret to the act if he can defeat him in a fight. Shadow declines, but eventually instigates a brawl once Sweeney starts to mock Laura’s death.
Shadow wakes up in the back of Wednesday’s car, Sweeney’s coin in his hand. Wednesday tells him that he’ll be driving from now on. Shadow cleans up in a highway restroom before they arrive in Eagle Point, where he manages to make the end of Laura’s funeral. He reunites with Audrey (Betty Gilpin), Robbie’s wife, who reveals that Laura was giving Robbie a blow job in the car when it wrecked.
Shadow stays by Laura’s graveside long into the night, and struggles to understand her actions. He leaves Sweeney’s coin in the newly dug earth. A drunken Audrey arrives and reveals that Laura and Robbie had been sleeping together for a considerable amount of time prior to their deaths. Furious at the two, she attempts to seduce Shadow and ‘make them watch’ in retribution. When he refuses her advances, she breaks down in tears. While they console one another, the coin sinks into the ground.
On his way home, Shadow’s attention is drawn to flashing lights on the side of the road. It’s a glowing container that, when poked, opens into a pair of goggles that latch onto his face.
Shadow is thrown into a virtual reconstruction of a sleek limousine, where he is confronted by an uptight teenager (Bruce Langley) and his band of faceless clones that he calls The Children. The kid, believing himself and his friends to be the future of the world, demands to know what Mr. Wednesday — apparently an outdated has-been — is planning. When Shadow admits that he doesn’t know and calls the boy out on his attitude, he is ejected from the simulation with the promise that he will be destroyed.
Back in the real world, he is attacked by The Children, who string him up by a noose in a nearby tree. The rope breaks, and Shadow, losing consciousness in the rain, watches as the men are ripped apart by an unseen force.
Good stuff. Really good stuff. I haven’t been this impressed with the faithfulness of a book-to-screen adaptation since Gone Girl. ‘The Bone Orchard’ is more or less a straight recreation of the first two chapters, and it’s wonderful as a reader. Little things are added or tweaked here and there — Shadow’s past as a criminal is expanded from one botched job to a recurring profession, for instance, so he’s more knowledgeable of Wednesday’s scheming — and some things don’t make the cut; but the additions are either mostly cosmetic or simply enhance the source material, while the removals are ultimately small, extraneous bits that don’t mean much overall.
Hey, it’s Ibis!
On the flip side is the fact that many moments are pulled straight from the pages. Several conversations, for instance, are recreated verbatim, and the order of events is pretty much identical. I know that we won’t be able to expect this level of faithfulness going forward — they have one book to stretch out for three seasons, after all — but this kind of start makes me confident that future changes will mostly consist of new ideas that are put in to fill out and reinforce the concepts at the core of the book, not subtractions or blatant reworkings that change things.
It’s a somewhat slow start, focusing as it does on introductions and setup (lots of talk, in other words), but there’s plenty of strangeness and dazzling imagery to keep your attention.
Some assorted thoughts:
- I love how the episode incorporates the ‘Coming to America’ and ‘Somewhere in America’ asides from the book, even using the titles on-screen to distinguish them. With any luck, we’ll be getting a lot more insight into the lives of gods both past and present than we did in the novel, which only used the concept a handful of times.
- The former, it would seem, will be taking the form of epilogue-esque openings that give us a taste of other gods’ backstories before jumping into meat of things. This first one appears to possibly be a different take on one that was in the novel. It’s not really clear which god is being focused on, but I have the vague sense that it was
WednesdayOdin, who is originally explored in an aside during the third chapter. If that is the case, they certainly reworked a lot of it — which is fine, since the important bits of his religion (namely, the violence) are there, though it means that the writers missed out on a chance to foreshadow the hanging tree. Anyhow, if this becomes a regular way of starting each week, they’re going to burn through Gaiman’s original batch pretty quickly, and that will give the writers a lot of leeway to add their own tales to the pantheon. The possibilities of that are really exciting, I think, given just how much there is to explore. I’d love to see new origins — stretched across history and giving us tales of how both existing (Easter, Mr. Nancy, et cetera) and original (in that they weren’t mentioned in the book) deities came to live here. Think of how creative they could get with a bit of backstory on the arrival of, say, Jesus. Or a tribe of gnomes. Or Quetzalcoatl. Perhaps we’ll even get some background on the New Gods and the origins of their rise, to boot. When, exactly, did Media and the god of Twitter come to be? And I love that they made sure to clearly show Mr. Ibis being the one writing these stories down. It’s a nice nod to a very small piece of the source material, but also works as a great introduction to his later involvement while also cleverly integrating these vignettes into the rest of the plot more naturally.
- The latter will hopefully work the same way, giving us a chance to explore Bilquis’s character more while also allowing the writers to more thoroughly mine the ‘melting pot’ concept of the premise. As with the histories, getting to see what both the Old and New Gods (along with the lesser creatures of myth and fable) are doing in today’s society would be a really nice way to add content without changing any of the central plot. Given the whole pitch of the book, there’s certainly a lot of theoretical ground to cover. What is Ganesha doing in Montana? How do pixies make a living in Connecticut? What is the chupacabra up to in Arizona? Give me more of this kind of stuff, writers. You have so much potential to tap, and I’d hate to see it wasted.
- Really violent. Like, wow. I knew that it would be to some degree, but that opening with the Vikings is on the level of Spartacus or 300. It’s sort of disconcerting (especially the I-think-it-was-meant-to-be comical moment when an impaled arm holding a sword manages to run said blade through another man’s neck) and clashes tonally with the remainder of the episode, but it’s also kind of pretty (more on that later) and isn’t quite so off-putting as it could have been. It stands out, but more in the sense that it adds a touch of ‘variety’ (if that’s what we can call it) to the narrative rather than completely detracting from it. (Still, it’s a weird way to kick of your entire show, since nothing else in the episode is quite so over-the-top.) Being on Starz, I don’t like the idea of the show pointlessly ramping up the violence and sex just because it can, but if it’s kept to a few scenes each week, I’ll be satisfied. I do pray, however, that they don’t go the way of so many other shows (looking at you, Game of Thrones) and begin equating violence with the routine use of torture and sexual assault against women and other marginalized groups.
- On a similar note, I’d like to break down the sexual elements that we’ve seen thus far. The biggest sequence with Bilquis (see next bullet point) is mostly adopted straight from the text (and comes with its own set of concerns — I’ll elaborate further down), but the extended cemetery meeting between Shadow and Audrey in particular gives me mixed feelings. Among other things, I worry that it indicates a trend of turning the majority of the story’s women into predators, and of changing characterization for the sake of cheap voyeurism. While it does give us more insight into Audrey’s emotional state, the scene also feels too drawn out — to the point of almost being exploitative, as we spend several long moments watching a woman desperately try to force herself on the main character. I also really don’t appreciate the fact that the author himself had to step in to make sure that the scene wasn’t even more extreme — apparently, they were originally going to have Shadow accept Audrey’s proposal, which is both completely against his character and absolutely pointless. Having a heartfelt discussion between the two wouldn’t be enough? And I’m annoyed by the fact that the writers’ defense for the idea was: ‘Shadow just got out of prison, so he of course wants to get blown.’ Really, now? Because men are just lust-crazed animals who are willing to have sex on their wife’s grave because they haven’t gotten some in a while? I love his work to pieces, but I’m disappointed in Fuller for thinking that it was a good idea in the first place. If this is already happening in the pilot, I worry about what to expect down the line.
- Apprehensions with its social contexts aside, I’m really impressed with how they handled That Scene™. Yes, we get to see the infamous ‘woman’s vagina eating a man’ bit in all of its glory, and… you know what? It’s really well done. Creepy and uncomfortable, absolutely, but handled with aplomb, and I like that the creators didn’t shy away from doing it.
- How about that final bit with Shadow being hanged by The Children once he’s ejected from the Technical Boy’s simulation? A complete departure from the book (in which Shadow is simply let out of the car to walk home, no strings attached), it’s a hard-hitting way to end the episode. With the rain and slow-mo, it’s a striking scene already, but the context is most important here. Having a black character strung up on a noose (which is used as a recurring symbol throughout the episode) by a mob of white-wearing attackers is a pretty powerful piece of imagery, especially within our current political climate. There’s no chance that it wasn’t intentional, and I hope that they use the story’s themes of immigration and America as a cultural melting pot to further address racial issues. (And it is definitely not my place to dig into this particular moment much further, so if you’re interested in a more thorough analysis, please check out this article from Black Girl Nerds.) With how big of a role religion (this series’ cornerstone) plays in understandings and discussions of (in)tolerance, culture, and identity, race is something that the show really can’t afford shy away from, and could open the door to a lot of sociocultural subtext going forward.
Goodness, the visuals. If you liked Hannibal and its over-the-top artistry (I sure did, and I still miss it), you’re going to love American Gods. With the same creator (Fuller) and director (David Slade), the ‘artistic horror’ look isn’t surprising, but I’m still blown away by how good the cinematography is.
So many trees. And buffalo. And suspiciously copious amounts of bodily fluids.
I’d be remiss to not single out the opening credits first. They’re always an important part of a series’ identity, and I was definitely hoping for something stylish and creative from one about deities and magic. I’m so happy with what we got. It’s a trippy collage of neon-lit statues and totems that blend together symbols of both the Old Gods and the New, mixing sarcophagi and the cross with pills and space shuttles to eventually form an enormous totem pole. Imagine the mise en scène of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video splashed over the concept of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s CGI titles (both, funnily enough, from works by David Fincher — which isn’t surprising, since his fingerprints are all over director David Slade’s work). It’s a perfect approach, I think, and really sets the tone for the rest of the show’s look and plot. Though, to further those comparisons to that second sequence, I keep thinking of how good these credits would have been had they used a cover of “Immigrant Song” — partially because of the fitting lyrics (seriously, are they not the perfect match?), and partially because the instrumental track that was actually used sounds a lot like it.
Now, do you like slow motion? Close-ups? Slow-motion closes-ups? I hope so, because there are a lot of those here. They aren’t done so often as to distract from the plotting, but frequent enough to give the entire episode a dreamlike, visually sumptuous feeling. The palette is subdued and clinical for the most part (imagine, once again, any David Fincher movie) but bursting with colors at key moments (blood, Bilquis’s room), which makes for eye-popping contrasts when necessary. In general, every shot is memorable for one reason or another, whether it’s for altering time or framing symmetry.
CGI is used sparingly but effectively. It’s inevitable in a fantasy show like this, but it seems to mostly be kept for either very brief shots (if employed extensively) or small props that don’t look out-of-place among the live-action elements. It isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s certainly well-done for a small-screen work going without a ridiculous ‘A’-picture budget.
Hand-in-hand with the digital wizardry is the set and costume design, which is also on-point. The locales and outfits jump from the seedy to the elaborate to give everyone and everything its unique flavor — important in a story meant to encompass an entire country’s cultural hodgepodge.
Some more assorted thoughts:
- I like the semi-meta approach they’re taking here with some of the effects. The aspect ratio, for instance, changes from full-screen to wide depending on the tone of the scene (the aforementioned severed limb holding a sword actually breaches the boundary of the widescreen bars as it flies through the air), and the use of text without an in-world justification for it (see the ‘Elsewhere in America’ segment) is something that I always like to see.
- Again, I’m not typically a fan of ludicrously over-the-top violence and blood, but if they continue to treat it with a knowing wink and nudge, I’m okay with it. There’s something entrancing about watching a geyser of bright crimson erupt from a man’s neck in bullet time, is there not? I’ll also reiterate my point, though, that this only works if it’s kept to something deliberately extreme, almost silly, for the sake of a fun shot or two. If this starts veering into realistic depictions of torture and abuse, there’s going to be a problem.
- Some of the most elaborate bits are Shadow’s dreams, which is definitely a good thing. He’s probably going to be having a lot of them, and their surreality is really interesting to see worked into the narrative. After reading the book, I have high hopes for their recreations, thanks to Hannibal’s frequent usage of similar styles and aesthetics. So far, we’re two for two. (I do sort of wish that they had explained the titular bone orchard as an actual part of Shadow’s prison life, though, as not doing so causes the imagery to lose a bit of meaning.)
- Big shout-out to the ending sequence with the Technical Boy. The sleek whites and metallics of his limo and the various ‘glitchy’ computer effects are not only really neat, but also do an excellent job at ‘upgrading’ the character’s design to ensure that it’s more fitting to our present and not the book’s now outdated one. Sticking him in a virtual car instead of an actual one? Genius.
To wrap things up, let’s take a look at the cast that we’ve gotten so far. Everyone seems very solid at the moment, and I’m excited to see the ranks expand. (I’m giving you two weeks to give us Media, Starz, or I start throwing things.)
If a woman looks at you like this, it means that she’s going to eat you from the groin up.
Shadow Moon is the character that I was most concerned over, as I had the feeling that they were going to translate his quiet, grounded nature into a more angry, short-tempered one. While Whittle is definitely more emotive and willing to talk, it’s an understandable change given the differences in medium. This is film, after all — we need actors to vocalize and use facial expressions to convey their feelings, since we no longer have a book’s omniscience. Other than that, I like him. I just hope they don’t make him too aggressive as time goes on.
Mr. Wednesday is pretty much perfect. McShane nails the humor and presumptuousness, and it’s going to be a lot of fun seeing him play his various con-man personas, since he definitely has the range for it.
Mad Sweeney is good. Schreiber is a bit younger than I pictured, but the spunk and grit is there, and his brawl with Shadow is handled excellently, so I’m on board.
Bilquis naturally has a very… memorable introduction to overcome now, but if we’re going to follow the book closely, it’s one of the few scenes that she’s going to get. I get the feeling that we’ll be seeing a lot more of her, though, and I’m excited, as Badaki is really good. I’m not familiar with her as an actress, but she’s made me hope for more material with her. Despite her potentially off-putting first appearance, I think she’s got the presence to make the character something beyond a gimmick. I’d like to note, however, that they’ve made an interesting change in apparently making Bilquis a serial dater and seducer rather than a sex worker. I’m not sure what the implications of that tweak may be (as I know very little about the industry and the difficulties that women in such positions face), but I do know that I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the one woman of color that we appear to have as part of the main cast (and one of the few in the recurring, as well) has her character mostly concerned with sex, while the others (Laura, Easter, Media), who are played by white actresses, will presumably not be. I may be jumping the gun here, but I worry that we’re going to be feeding into the over-sexualization and objectification of black women as time goes by.
(And, by all means, call me out on any of these arguments should you find fault with them, as my perspective is a limited one, and I can always do with further insight and education on these sorts of social issues and intersectional concepts.)
Laura hasn’t gotten much to do just yet, since she spends most of the episode dead (a minor detail), but Browning has already given her a vulnerability that makes her immediately endearing. (I say this partially because I’m a longtime fan of her, so I’m biased.) I’m looking forward to her return to the living next week.
The Technical Boy (though he hasn’t been mentioned by name just yet) is probably my favorite so far. I mentioned in my book review last week that I wanted more insight into the New Gods, and with the his first appearance, I think that we can expect just that. As mentioned earlier, I love how he’s been upgraded (ha ha) to better reflect our current understanding of electronics and digital machinery. Langley doesn’t quite physically resemble the part as it was originally described, but his trappings more than make up for it, I think, and do a much better job at enforcing his status as a deity. The book left his character largely untapped, never really doing anything to demonstrate his abilities or show what made him a supposedly powerful god — he was just an annoying kid. With a spooky digital army (nice addition there, Fuller) and use of virtual reality during his meeting with Shadow, he’s looking to be a much bigger force to be reckoned with. Let’s hope that the rest of the New Gods are given a similar treatment.
Heck, the Old, too. The more, the better.
And though she has a very small role, kudos to Gilpin for her portrayal of Audrey. She gives a minor and dislikeable one-dimensional character a lot more depth and sympathy. Her scene with Shadow in the cemetery is an interesting (and potentially problematic, as mentioned earlier) addition to the subplot of Laura’s infidelity. Regardless of how it can be translated, though, she acts the hell out of it.
So, yes. I loved it, though with some caveats. Rarely do we see something work so well as both its own piece of entertainment and an adaptation. I didn’t expect Fuller to let me down, and I’m so pleased that my confidence (mostly) wasn’t misplaced. I am on guard, however, going forward, and I really hope that the handful of quibbles that I do harbor don’t balloon into more serious recurring faults as we go.
Please watch it, folks. I’d hate to see it cancelled preemptively, especially when the creators are only asking for three seasons to tell their story. Give it a chance.
And that’s a wrap. Tune in next week. I’ll be keeping these briefer from here on out, now that we’ve covered the biggest stuff. I hope that you join me over these next months! It’s going to be a fun trip.
A fantastic opening all around, ‘The Bone Orchard’ is a well-written, endlessly stylish, and solidly acted pilot that delivers a remarkably faithful adaptation of its source material. Let’s just hope that its few flaws don’t portend future troubles.