Illustrator: David Slade
on 14th May 2017
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
After some cryptic advice and a few life-and-death games of checkers, Shadow and Wednesday begin their journey to Wisconsin.
With a long-distance trip comes the need for cash, however, and the con man already has a scheme prepared: a bank robbery. And Shadow is going to have to help, whether he likes it or not.
Before we get to anything else, I’d like to note how pleased I am that American Gods has already been confirmed for a second season. Bryan Fuller’s shows have always struggled with ratings no matter how well they are received; if they don’t get outright cancelled after their premier year, they only manage to eke out another at the last minute. Getting renewed after only two episodes definitely bodes well — I think he may finally get to see one of his projects through to his end.
And after this week’s episode, I couldn’t be any happier with that.
It may still be too soon to say, but, at this point, most of the reservations that I had with the pilot have taken the backseat. “Head Full of Snow” is a beautiful hour of television, visually and narratively, and I’m back to having full confidence in Fuller and company going forward.
It’s just so good. I haven’t enjoyed something so wholehearted in a long time.
I feel like this violates some kind of airspace ruling.
By now, you can definitely tell that the writers are slowing things down in order to stretch the book out. This week, they covered the rest of chapter four and only part of chapter five, from Shadow’s remaining time in Chicago to Wednesday’s scamming of a bank for a quick buck.
Now that we’ve had a bit of time to adjust, though, I don’t mind the unhurried pace at all. It’s nice, I think: this lingering on the characters — their motivations, their thoughts, their relationships — and their journey in a way that the novel couldn’t afford to do. It fleshes them out more and really lets the plot breathe. We aren’t in any rush to get to the ‘good stuff,’ because it’s all ‘good stuff,’ whether it be a big twist or a small detail that doesn’t add to the conflict but simply makes the world feel more real.
The new elements that are slowly but surely filling up the running time are so well done because of this. Like I had hoped, they aren’t taking anything away from the source material, but simply adding to what’s already there. It’s as though Gaiman’s book was an outline for the premise, and the adaptation is going back through it to create a bona fide universe to explore.
Let’s dig in:
Below are spoilers for both the episode and the book, so continue at your own risk. Going forward, I’ll try to avoid too many mentions of later events, so as long as you’ve watched, you should be okay. Hopefully. No hard-and-fast promises, though.
Somewhere in America
It seems that we won’t be strictly following the same format every episode, as this week replaced a ‘Coming to America’ prologue with a new modern-day aside instead. As much as I love consistency, I suppose it makes sense. Following the same set formula over long stretches is likely to get repetitive no matter how interesting it is, and I imagine it would impose greater limitations on the writers the longer it was kept.
Anyway, I like how they’re still imposing the titles into the scenes themselves, though as we saw last week, it appears that they won’t be doing it every time one pops up. Perhaps only when it focuses on a new character, and not a returning one like Bilquis (who is absent this go around)?
In a New York apartment, Mrs. Fadil (Jacqueline Antaramian) prepares a Thanksgiving dinner. She precariously totters on a stool to grab ingredients, then works on her recipe while chatting with her cat.
The doorbell rings. Angry that her family is early, she opens the door to find an unfamiliar man instead. He tells her that she has died, and that she must come with him. Thinking he is a burglar, she lets him inside, only to realize that her body is lying on the floor; as it turns out, her balance on that stool wasn’t quite as good as she thought it was. He tells her that her family will soon find her; they will bury her, mourn her, and move on. Her son will marry and have a child, and he will pass on her name (only as a “bullshit middle name,” though).
Oh no, he’s attractive.
Accepting her fate, Mrs. Fadil asks Anubis (Chris Obi) why he has come when her family is Muslim. He tells her that it is in thanks: she once believed in the Egyptian gods as a child and kept their stories alive.
He leads her to the fire escape, which spirals impossibly upwards into a vast desert filled with stars. There, he pulls out her heart and weighs it on a set of scales to judge her for her deeds in life. The two balance out; as a result, she is allowed eternity in the Du’at. It has many worlds, however, and so she must choose: five doors that lead to different realms. Unsure of which to pick (but knowing that she doesn’t want to end up in the same one as her father), Mrs. Fadil asks Anubis to choose one for her. He chooses the middle one, and before she can second-guess the choice, her cat (who has followed them there) pushes her into the void beyond.
What a gorgeous sequence this is. It’s great to see Mr. Jacquel showing up early like his partner Mr. Ibis has (And neither of them are white! You know, like actual Egyptians! Take notes, Hollywood!), and to see more of his role in the afterlife. It’s something that plays an important role in the book, but not until much later, so I think it’s a treat to get more of him as an actual deity so soon. The show has already proven itself adept at expanding the roles of the gods to make them more significantly supernatural, and I’m really enjoying it. You could argue that it detracts from the novel’s themes, seeing as how the big concern of the Old Gods deals with their waning power and need to ‘get by’ alongside humans as a result, but I’m all for more movie magic if it’s kept from straying into anything too extreme.
I’m really impressed by the effects here, too. Starz certainly gave the producers a good budget to work with, and they’re definitely taking advantage of it. Bonus points to the writers also for making this scene so… kind. Rather than playing it up as a terrifying ordeal that casts some innocuous woman into the fiery inferno (something that would certainly be right at home in an MA-rated show like this), the ‘crossing over’ is portrayed much more gently, and I really like that. I firmly believe that adult media in general needs more optimism, and I’m tired of this belief that ‘good television’ has to focus on bad people doing bad things, or good people being ground into the dirt, to be critically acclaimed. Granted, that literal push at the end here was sort of ominous, but I don’t think it was meant to hint at something terrible.
(I’m curious as to what was up with the cat, though. I’m guessing that it’s meant to be our first glimpse at Bast? It has been established that she can work through the creatures, so having an innocuous house pet traipse its way into the afterlife and knock its owner into the Great Beyond wouldn’t make sense otherwise.)
Shadow sleeps on the couch in Czernobog’s apartment, but wakes to find a nearby window open. Climbing the fire escape outside, he meets the third sister who had been sleeping: Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar), who is watching the stars. She looks through her telescopes at the Big Dipper, which she also calls Odin’s Wain. Chained up in the heavens there is the Great Bear, who is not a god, but nonetheless a great and terrible thing that will swallow everything if it should escape.
That is the sisters’ job, she explains: to watch all day and night to ensure that the world does not end. Her time is the night, while the other two keep their vigils during the day and evening. She reads Shadow’s future in his palm and face, telling him that he believes in nothing, and so has nothing. He is on a path, however, from nothing to everything, and she scolds him for so easily giving his life away to Czernobog.
She offers her help, but requires a kiss first, as she has never had one. She takes the initiative with it; unsure if she likes the sensation but satisfied with the exchange, she reaches into the sky and plucks out the moon, which becomes a silver Liberty coin that she gives Shadow. She warns him to not lose it or throw it away as he did with his previous talisman, which had been “the sun itself.”
There seems to have been surprisingly few repercussions for taking that out of orbit.
Shadow wakes up, back on the couch. He goes to a sleeping Czernobog and requests a rematch. Should Shadow win, Czernobog will have to join Wednesday, but will still get his swing with his hammer once the job is done. Should Czernobog win, he will get two swings at Shadow’s head. Noting his age and loss of strength, Shadow goads the old man, believing that his one swing may only leave him brain damaged but alive. Angry, Czernobog agrees to the proposal.
While the two play, Wednesday visits Zorya Vechernyaya. He notes that she was once lavished upon in the old country with excess and indulgence, and laments the Spartan life that she and her sisters now must live. Vechernyaya reminisces on her past glories: at dusk, she would open the gates for her father when he returned and sleep in satin. Now, she only tells fortunes. Wednesday asks for his; she tells him that he will fail in his mission. In response, Wednesdays asks her on a midnight walk.
Czernobog is losing; Shadow notes that he plays the same way he did the first time. Out on the town, Vechernyaya tells Wednesday that “they” will kill him if he pursues his plan. Wednesday reminisces about when they were young and kisses her. “What have you done?” she asks him, as it starts to rain. She tastes him in the rain, she says, along with something else. “War,” Wednesday responds.
Czernobog admits defeat. He tells Shadow that he will go to Wisconsin. After that, however, he’s going to kill him. Shadow wakes the next morning to find that the stairs outside the window from the night before have disappeared. He still, however, has the Liberty coin. Wednesday appears and tells him to get ready — they’re going to rob a bank.
A nice conclusion to the Chicago scene. Polunochnaya is younger than I pictured her, but the book did describe her as somewhat ageless, “smooth and unlined” in her face. I guess I was just picturing a very well-kept older woman, but the contrast of the three sisters that’s reinforced with the casting — one old (Vechernyaya), one middle-aged (Utrennyaya), one young (Polunochnaya) — is a commendable touch, and reinforces their mythic roots as the Morning, Evening, and Midnight Stars. Her personality has also been tweaked a bit, making her less a wise, quiet enigma and more a Manic Pixie Dream Girl; contrast her request for and immediate acting on a kiss from Shadow with her written counterpart, who explicitly says that she does not need one to help him.
Still, the meat of the scene is there, and I like the way that Kaar plays her. I’m glad they included her explanation of her and her sisters’ roles in myth, and the coin-plucking scene with the moon is very cool; I had wondered how it was going to look when put to film. I still can’t get over how they’re using so much of the book’s dialogue verbatim, and I’m not at all upset by it; the trend gives me faith that, no matter how much ‘new stuff’ they include to pad things out as time goes by, the heart of the story (the novel) will ultimately remain in place. I’m curious about what the line referencing Sweeney’s lost coin as ‘the sun’ may signify now he’s been given a larger role this week; I feel like the trinket is going to play a much more significant role in the plot than I was expecting it to. In hindsight, I’m also pleased that the production delayed the second checkers game in the manner that it did, as doing so lent it a lot more gravity and importance than I was prepared for.
Really, I just love how the show has managed to strike such a perfect balance between old and new: it’s familiar enough that the magic that comes from seeing a book brought to life on screen is maintained, but it’s also new enough to keep the whole thing from being completely predictable for somebody who’s essentially read the script already. Ultimately, there are still surprises in store, and they should (hopefully) be nothing but good ones.
Anyhow, these implications of a past fling between Vechernyaya and Wednesday are interesting. It’s kind of sweet (if manipulative on Wednesday’s part), and the inclusion gives us a bit more backstory on both characters. It’s not an entirely out-there addition, either. It gives the eldest sister an excuse to throw some cryptic foreshadowing around (always good for drama), and the con man a chance to more thoroughly explain his motivations. I’m curious as to what that final moment (with the camera jumping between Wednesday’s knowing look in the rain and Polunochnaya’s star-gazing) is meant to portend, though. Did the latter see something in the heavens? Is the former scheming to use the sisters in some way? I can’t really tell, so I’m not sure if we can expect some kind of follow-through in the future. Perhaps it was simply meant to demonstrate his (assumed) ability to control the weather, which would tie it nicely with Shadow’s trick later on.
In the grungy bathroom of the bar where he and Shadow fought, Mad Sweeney is found by the proprietor passed out drunk on the toilet. She aims a shotgun at him and tells him to leave. Sweeney is dismissive, telling her that the gun won’t fire correctly, but is proven wrong when she destroys the bottle he is holding and lodges a shard of glass in his face.
Walking alongside the highway, a friendly driver slows to offer Sweeney a ride. The man believes that he is an alcoholic, and as a former one himself, feels obliged to help. Sweeney tries to sleep off his hangover, but is rudely awakened when the show suddenly turns into a Final Destination 2 homage: a truck’s tire blows, knocking a metal pole off of its bed, and it spears the Good Samaritan through the head.
The lesson here is: Never help anybody, ever.
As the police clean up, Sweeney frantically checks his pockets, spilling dozens of coins to the ground. Furious, he realizes that he’s missing something.
The book’s conclusion to Mad Sweeney’s storyline is rather abrupt: after his initial encounter with Shadow, he doesn’t show up again until quite a bit later, and only has another scene or two before he’s out of the picture permanently. I appreciate this attempt, then, at exploring his arc more consistently. It’s never really clear in Gaiman’s version what happens to Sweeney when he can’t get his coin back, or why, so the new details seem to suggest more explanation is coming. Having his luck turn sour is a fun idea (because he’s a leprechaun, of course — nobody said we had to be subtle), and that sudden burst of violence is impressively shocking, given the relative bloodlessness of the last few weeks.
Somewhere in America
Two in one episode? How exciting. Note the fact that the transition uses words inscribed in a book this time, as ‘Coming to America’ has done so far. The implication is that Ibis is writing about present events as well as past ones, which is an appealing reveal. It isn’t clear in the book if these sections were his doing as well, but it’s an appropriate inclusion that adds to his particular abilities as the god of letters and writing.
In New York City, a salesman named Salim (Omid Abtahi) waits in an office. His appointment time with the boss comes and goes, his receptionist delivering excuses or indifference as the hours pass. The whole day wasted, Salim gets into a cab to return to his hotel.
The driver is Wednesday’s contact from last week’s episode, sunglasses and all. Realizing that they share a common tongue, Salim and the man speak in Arabic. The driver has been in New York for a decade now, but comes from the city of Ubar — the “Lost City of Towers,” which Salim notes was only recently unearthed after perishing thousands of years ago.
The two commiserate together. The driver has been working for thirty hours straight. Salim tried to sell his merchandise (tourist trinkets) to somebody who would not see him. He has been in America for a week and seems to do nothing but lose money.
While stuck in traffic, the driver falls asleep. When Salim wakes him, his glasses slide and reveal eyes burning with fire. Salim is not entirely shocked, noting that his grandmother had once claimed to see an ifrit, though he hadn’t believed her. There aren’t many jinn in New York (I guess the two terms are interchangeable?), the driver admits, and he is tired of Americans believing that they do nothing but grant wishes. Salim comforts him.
I knew that I was going to see you naked.
When he reaches his hotel, Salim leaves the driver with his room number. The ifrit joins him, and the two have sex. In the morning, the jinn is gone, leaving behind his clothes, wallet, and cab. Looking happy, Salim gets behind the wheel.
I know that a lot of people were looking forward to this scene, and I think that it was handled just about flawlessly (not to mention faithfully). Thank the stars for them not whitewashing either actor, and the visuals are of course wonderful: the ticking clock around Salim to show time passing, the use of Arabic script in the translations of the pair’s conversation (what a lovely way to show appreciation for the culture without appropriating it — I just hope that it was accurately transcribed), and the transformation of the two into burning figures in a desert while together. I wonder why they decided to pull this particular tableau from the pages so early (it’s delayed until chapter seven there) rather than use some other asides (like the one involving a Cornish woman bringing pixies to America in chapter four), but that’s just a trivial observation on my part.
Hooray! Even more healthy emotional expression!
What really makes the whole thing for me is the tenderness of it. Salim’s hand on the ifrit’s shoulder, their holding hands in the elevator (a beautiful little addition), the sex itself: every bit of it is gentle and really very sweet. It means a lot to see a relationship between two men portrayed respectfully and with such emotion. On the rare occasion that these kinds of moments are shown on-screen, it’s with two white guys who look like fitness models in an encounter that’s angry, almost violent. (We have to keep that rigid masculinity intact somehow, after all.) I’m really proud of how the writers handled this, making it so clearly about feeling, rather than titillation or exploitation. Not to mention that they let men, you know, feel things in the first place. Diversity and avoidance of stereotypes makes the world go ’round, kids.
Shadow and Wednesday arrive at the bank. Shadow is nervous around all of the security cameras that capture the pair on film, worried that he’s going to end up right back in prison. Wednesday grabs a stack of deposit slips.
Wednesday asks Shadow to imagine snow falling as they drive around town to pick up supplies. Side note: There’s a cute bit of characterization here as Shadow admits to liking marshmallows in his hot chocolate — it’s a throwaway line, but these scraps can go a long way in shaping a fictional person and giving them depth beyond what’s strictly required for the plot. Shadow drifts off in the car while staring meaningfully into his fluffy beverage, which leads to a bizarre little dream straight out of a kitschy holiday special.
♪ “Walkin’ in a winter wonderlaaaaand…” ♪
While at a copy shop to print out fake business cards, Wednesday notes a woman making signs stating that ‘Jesus Christ suffered for your sins.’ He wonders why God should have to deal with man’s mistakes when there is plenty of pain and suffering to go around, though believes that “that White Jesus” could do with a bit more strife, given how easy he has it these days. When Shadow asks about it, the boss notes that there are several Jesuses running around — “There’s a lotta need for Jesus, so there’s a lotta Jesus.”
What a convenient conversation starter. Thank you, random customer.
It’s an intriguing little tidbit. The idea of there being multiple versions of the same deity is a new twist for the premise that hasn’t really been considered before, but one that makes a lot of sense. I’m especially curious as to how they’re going to portray the Big Man Himself once He shows up, as there’s no possible chance of having a show about gods in America without having the head of the Christian faith make an appearance. I believe that a white actor has been cast in the role already, which would normally annoy me (we all know that he wasn’t Caucasian, right?), but given the concept of gods taking the form that believers envision, I’d consider it an acceptable choice. I just hope that Wednesday makes fun of him for it, should they meet; I’m already quite proud of his dig at ‘White Jesus’ and how well-off he is (sign me up for a critique of mainstream Christianity involving the actual personification of it — I’m Christian myself, but good Lord is there a lot about the community that needs to be called out). The novel actually had a removed scene (included in later releases of the book as an extra) in which Shadow meets him; I wonder if the writers plan to use that, or try for something completely different.
(I could have done without the racist remarks about how ‘Brown Mexican Jesus’ came to the country, through. It’s fitting to Wednesdays character, but I’d consider uncalled for.)
As Wednesday completes his order, Shadow continues to imagine snow, which leads to some trippy imagery of blossoming ice crystals and office equipment freezing over. It may be overkill, but gosh, do I love it. Shadow snaps out of his reverie to find that, despite the forecast, a blizzard has started outside.
This scene brought to you by OfficeMax.
As they have dinner, Shadow struggles to explain the weather. He argues with Wednesday about the difference between fantasy and reality, who claims that he suffers from a lack of imagination. Sweeney barges in and demands that Shadow give him the coin that he won back, as he doesn’t think that he’ll make it to Wisconsin with the current state of his luck. Shadow tells him that he left it at Laura’s grave, so the leprechaun marches off.
As much as I like this new subplot of Sweeney’s misfortune being tied to this coin, his character is starting to annoy me. The overabundance of swearing and constant quips about Laura’s death rub me the wrong way. Which is probably the point, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I just don’t know if having him play a larger role is going to be a good thing if he starts to drive me up the wall every time he shows up.
Wednesday (looking dashing in a set of fluffy earmuffs) kicks off his scheme to make a quick buck: posing as a security agent, he leaves an out-of-order sign at the overnight deposit slot and ATM. When people come by for a drop off, he has them leave their money and information with him. A cop shows up to investigate, but Shadow — forced to play along — poses as a coworker to confirm his explanation. This whole moment is a treat, from the unexpectedly chipper soundtrack to the banter (“Who the fuck is this?” “You the fuck is this.”) to Shadow’s playacting. I always like lighthearted moments like these in dramas; using them to break up long stretches of darker, more serious happenings gives the audience a nice breather, and gives the show a chance to show off some variety.
Wednesday divvies up the spoils. As they leave town, Wednesday notes that America is the only country in the world without a sense of identity, a ‘soul.’ He calls Shadow out on pretending that he can’t believe in “impossible things.” Shadow tries to claim that he would be delusional to believe in the supernatural. Their conversation is stopped when a wolf appears in the middle of the road, and Wednesday chuckles as it leaves. Bewildered, Shadow wonders if everything that’s happened to him has been a dream or delusion of some sort, worried that he’s losing his mind. Wednesday admits that the one thing that worries him is the possibility of being forgotten. (Foreshadowing!)
“Hey, guys. I’m your obligatory mysterious animal-friend who appears out of nowhere. How titillating and symbolic of me.”
I really appreciated this conversation and how it adds to how the pair’s development. It’s a sensible followup to last week’s recurring focus on Shadow’s confusion, and further sets him apart from his book counterpart by emphasizing his difficulty in believing. His making it snow is another bit mostly hand-waved in the novel, with Shadow accepting it at face value. While his sheer passivity made him an interesting protagonist to follow, it also made it harder to connect with him. I appreciate how the scripts here are taking additional steps to make him seem more believable. I’m not sure it makes him any more endearing (I really did like him in the novel), but it makes for better television, I’m sure.
In the final moments, Sweeney gets to Laura’s grave and digs up her coffin, finding it empty and a hole burned through the lid. Meanwhile, Shadow enters a motel room to find his wife waiting for him, very much not dead.
Glad to see my belief in the writers paying off. I thought it odd how “The Secret of Spoons” changed Shadow’s reunion with Laura to a brief dream sequence, but figured that they were simply pushing it back, and that seems to be the case. Like with Media’s earlier introduction, I think it’s a good shuffling of the chronology: in this case, it gave the show a couple of episodes to better examine Shadow’s coming to terms with the fantastical before dropping something so shocking right into his lap. Having it occur as it did in the book would have been too early, I think, and would have thrown off the direction of this version of the character, who is so clearly unsure of what’s happening around him. This delay was more sensible for his development, and having it tie into Sweeney’s search for the coin made for a dramatically satisfying sequence as the final minutes jumped between the grave and the motel right before the reveal.
Some final thoughts:
- Given how he’s shown up once before already, I wonder what we can expect from the jinn now that he’s out and about. Will he be showing up again as a recurring character? Also, what was the implication of Salim repeating the line about not granting wishes when he climbed into the cab at the end? It could have just been for the sake of narrative cohesiveness, but the fact that their having sex seemed to involve the jinn (sort of) lighting the guy on fire makes me wonder if there was more to it than that. Is he a little more than human now? It’s a bit that confused me in the book as well.
- How great was that little hint of the New Gods during the bank visit? I didn’t notice it the first time watching, but there’s a silhouette of a man in a top hat reflected in the corner of the surveillance camera’s recording — either the Babadook is making a cameo appearance (what an icon), or we just got our first glimpse of Mr. World. (He seems to be hanging out in a forest, though, which doesn’t strike me as his preferred hang-out spot.) And having Media’s eye appear for a split second at the end was a fun nod at her apparent omnipresence. (Though I’m not sure I would consider security footage ‘media,’ strictly speaking. Does her dominion simply extend to anything with a screen? Are we seeing a recording being watched by somebody else, and not the footage itself as it’s being recorded? If so, how far does her control extend between the different contexts? These are the questions that don’t matter, but keep me up at night.)
- I wonder how the writers intend to conclude Sweeney’s storyline. The book finds him in trouble because the coin he gave Shadow was one he mistakenly ‘plucked’ from some entity or group that he shouldn’t have stolen from while showing off at the bar. The show is tying said coin into his luck (or lack of it), which seems to suggest that it’s been in his possession for some time. Is it meant to be his? Will these ‘others’ show up at all, if that is the case? Will we find out who the people after him are if they do end up coming into play?
- Who could the wolf in the road be? I’m assuming it’s some god or another, but I’m not sure which one it could be.
Ultimately, this was a terrific episode. After three weeks, I think that it’s mostly safe to say that we have a handle on the show’s modus operandi, and I have no complaints. Great, great work so far, and I’m nothing but excited for the remainder of the season.
Though it slows the rate of adaptation down yet further, “Head Full of Snow” boasts a perfect blend of from-the-text developments and new ideas while taking its time to make the most of its world in beautiful and fascinating ways.