Illustrator: David Slade
on 7th May 2017
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Ready to leave his old life behind but overwhelmed by the strange new world that he's entered, Shadow joins Wednesday on his campaign across America.
Before their trek can begin in earnest, however, a stop in Chicago with an old friend is required — one with a grudge and disturbingly large hammer.
The second (and, by extension, third and fourth) episode of a new television series is arguably its most important. The pilot is a sort of teaser, a pitch: “This is our show. This is its world. These are the characters. What do you think?” It’s its own self-contained bubble, making explicit (or implicit) promises of what you can expect going forward.
The episodes immediately following it are the initial fulfillment of those promises. They expand the premier’s foundation and establish how the series is going to work and evolve as a continuing, weekly installation going forward. Was the pilot a fluke or a reliable measure of what to expect every week? Will its strengths and weaknesses be one-offs or routine elements? For people already on board, episodes two through four (roughly) have to prove that their faith has not been misplaced. For people on the fence, they have to sway them to committing. For people already dismissing the idea of getting invested, they have to change their minds.
What I’m saying is that the second episode of a show has a lot to live up to.
Thankfully, “The Secret of Spoons” absolutely nailed the follow-up. I’ve spent the past week mulling over some of my issues with “The Bone Orchard,” and so went into Sunday’s new episode with a bit of trepidation. Obviously, we still have plenty of time for my fears to be realized (and I certainly pray that they don’t), but having such a well-done installment to return to right away has done much to calm my fears.
My expecting the show to gradually drift further from the source novel as it goes seems on track so far, as this installment had some more notable changes than its predecessor. Nothing detrimental to the plot, though. Rather than outright changing things, the writers seem to simply be moving around elements to place them earlier or later in the plot. That will be the key, I think: So long as Gaiman’s core elements are retained and the writers employ a give-and-take compromise — for every deviation, they pull a moment straight from the pages — I don’t have much of an issue with the liberties taken. I’m getting the sense that they’ll be doing what Game of Thrones (sort of) did in its early years before it went completely off the rails, keeping the central narrative thread intact while giving the script freedom to rearrange the order of additional events for the sake of pacing and drama.
And given the fact that the whole plot is essentially one long road trip, the producers should have a very easy time in coming up with new stuff to pad out the length while still keeping the important bits lined up. The book contains a lot of traveling from one locale (as in: big scene) to the next, but understandably glosses over these long journeys to get straight to the important happenings. Consequently, there are plenty of open stretches of unused time already built into the story: ones that are just waiting to be filled. Why not have Shadow and Wednesday make additional stops and have various misadventures in between the climactic confrontations and revelations? It would be the perfect way to include new gods and smaller story arcs without messing with the source, expanding the worldbuilding and the length of the big picture in one swoop.
This, however, is all just guessing on my part. For now, we can only wait and see what happens.
(Side note: Having the same crew from the pilot — David Slade once again directs and creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green write — certainly helped ensure that the overall feel of this episode remained on point with the previous one’s. I worry what to expect once we inevitably get a new group working behind the scenes, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.)
As was the case with last week, “The Secret of Spoons” more or less covers two chapters of Neil Gaiman’s novel: the third and fourth in this case, which start with Shadow reuniting with Wednesday after his run-in with the Technical Boy and ending with the pair meeting Czernobog and his sisters. Let’s jump into the recap to explore it further.
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.
Coming to America
I mentioned last week that I had a couple of requests for recurring concepts. One was that these prologues would go beyond the ones in the book and examine the origins of other gods, be they ones who already play a role in the book or new additions to the cast. The other was that the writers would continue to use the story’s premise to further explore our country’s racial identity and struggles. Well, there was a rather quick return on both of those desires, as the opening scene does not mess around.
The scholarly gentleman from before (presumably — we only see his penmanship this time, and he does not narrate the sequence) writes of a slaving ship, bringing men from Ghana to the New World. One of them, in desperation, begs the trickster god Anansi for help, promising him anything and everything that he can give should he be freed.
A man in a well-tailored suit steps into the hold, and it’s none other than Anansi (Orlando Jones) himself. Surprisingly jovial, given the situation (there’s a weird jazz track going during this bit, which I like and think fitting to the character, but it definitely clashes with the rest of the scene), Anansi’s humor quickly turns to anger when he explains to the men exactly what they can expect in America: year upon unending year of servitude, of mistreatment and pain and injustice. And it will all be inflicted upon them because they are black. Seeing the fury that his speech arouses, Anansi frees one of the men with the suggestion that he destroy everything that the white men possess. They are all doomed, anyway, so why not take their deaths into their own hands? The man releases the others’ chains and sets fire to the hold before storming the deck, and the ship burns at sea. Nobody appears to survive, aside from a colorful spider that crawls to shore.
So. Not only do the opening minutes indeed give us more on a secondary character (Mr. Nancy, in this case), but they also do not not even remotely bother beating about the bush when tackling its subject matter. It’s a very big change to Nancy’s character: he’s nowhere near the seemingly harmless, slightly lecherous old man as was described in the book. He’s young, he’s fiery, and he can apparently see into the future. Precognition isn’t something really attributed to any of the gods in the novel, so it’s a shock to hear him straight-up talking about modern-day police brutality while walking around in the 1600s.
Angry Spider Nancy is a Nancy that I can get behind.
In all honesty, though, who cares? This is one change that I can really get behind. Historical context is so important in our media, so this tweak feels not only smart, but absolutely vital. It would be almost irresponsible for a show about religion and immigration to tiptoe around these cultural headlines (especially with several black actors involved with the main cast), and I’m so happy to see this becoming a recurring theme already. Keep it up, guys.
Shadow goes to an emergency clinic to get stitches. His doctor asks if he’s been shot, because he may need to call the cops. Shadow is adamant that they do not get involved. It seems a rather hasty (and potentially unrealistic) way to move past the serious beating that he just received, but his refusal to get the authorities is both in-character (he did just get out of prison, after all, and was attacked by a gang of faceless robo-men) and seems to be another, subtler nod to current events and matters of racial injustice, so I’ll let it slide.
At a motel, Shadow confronts Wednesday (currently having a fling with a young woman), asking the con artist about the sudden, violent end to the lynching mob. Wednesday claims ignorance, and promises that ‘they’ ‘don’t have a fucking clue’ when he hears the young man’s threat. Feeling unhinged by the surreality of the situation, Shadow demands to know what’s going on, but Wednesday tells him that knowing details wasn’t part of their agreement. He does, however, admit that the confrontation angers him, and doubles Shadow’s pay as compensation.
This scene illustrates nicely what the show has really excelled at so far: seamlessly weaving details straight from the source material with new concepts. In this case, bits of the conversation are word-for-word recreated from the text, but the additional dialogue made necessary by the new context of the lynching is nicely slid in around them.
Shadow washes off, removing his wedding ring as he does so. During the night, Laura appears in his room. When he tells her that everyone has said that she’s dead, she shrugs it off, telling him that he was just having a bad dream. Having just that, he wakes up, and allows himself to cry.
Now, in a complete contrast to that previous conversation, this one is very different from the book and very much abbreviated. Turning his (actual) first reunion with Laura from an extended talk about her affair and being undead to a small dream sequence is an interesting change. They’ve also removed one of his significant, sans-buffalo visions — the one in which he explores an ancient museum filled with the symbols and objects of the Old Gods.
Gosh, I love her as an actress. Give her more to do, writers.
I’m all right with this, though, as I’m assuming that they’re saving these bits for later episodes. In general, “The Secret of Spoons” feels more drawn out in its adapting of its source chapters, spending more time on their scenes than the book did, so suddenly cutting out a significant moment or two feels very out of place. Shouldn’t things be even more faithful to the novel as a result? Because they’re stretching things for the sake of longevity, though, the idea of withholding some pieces for later down the line seems sensible. I won’t complain just yet, though don’t think I won’t if we get to the finale without some payoff.
(And props for including the moment in which Shadow finally cries for his wife. I think Whittle did a good job with it, and I always support men being allowed to, you know, feel things.)
Hooray! Healthy emotional expression!
Shadow returns to his house, finding it filled with decorations for his planned welcome-home party. Envisioning Laura as he prepares to leave for good, he begins to pack everything up, but pointedly avoids opening the box from the coroner’s office. Once he does, he finds Laura’s wedding ring and phone. On the latter, he looks through a text conversation between her and Robbie, which includes a picture of his penis.
After furiously cleaning (to the point of bleeding) and shipping away the last of his furniture, Shadow is found by Wednesday, who awaits with his car. He admits that he doesn’t have any real connection to the town now that Laura is gone, and Wednesday tells him that, given her infidelity, he’s only required to mourn his wife’s death for so long.
Is Laura just going to be a phantom that (sometimes literally) follows Shadow around? I like the idea, but she’s going to have to appear in the (slowly rotting) flesh eventually.
I really like this sequence, which expands a few sentences in the novel into a full-fledged scene. The imagery invoked by the deflated party favors, Laura’s ghostly memories, and fancy time-lapsing effects does a beautiful job at more fully exploring Shadow’s loss of his old life and his emotional state in moving past it — again, something only briefly dealt with in the text. I could have done without the surprise dick pic (How did the producers go about requesting that? What lucky actor got the honor?), but it’s an… understandable way of immediately reinforcing the hurt brought about by Laura’s affair. What haunts me about this is the fact that Dane Cook of all people has been cast as Robbie, which means that these genitals are his, at least by association. There are many things that I would like to avoid when it comes to Dane Cook (namely, everything), but his business down below is pretty high up on the list as a piece of him that I never, ever want to think about, much less see.
Surprise! Here’s somebody’s junk. And it’s going to symbolically replace your wedding photo, just so that we have an excuse to show it again. Look at it. Take it all in.
The pair hit the road, though Wednesday requests that they stay off of highways. (Does this mean that we’ll get to meet the god of interstate travel at some point?) Wednesday tells Shadow that they will be recruiting several individuals — ‘preeminent in their respective fields’ — before rendezvousing at one of the ‘most important places in the entire country.’ First, however, they’ll be going to Chicago to pick up Wednesday’s ‘hammer.’
Then we get a random bit of artsy imagery invoking lightning and oncoming storms as Wednesday decides to blow on a dandelion, because why not? Any excuse for a pretty shot. (Though, in all seriousness, I don’t mind it. I’m such a sucker for slow-mo.)
Briefly stopping in another small town so that Wednesday can meet with another mysterious client, Shadow is asked to do some shopping to pick up some things for their impending visit. He heads to a supermarket (another New God that we could potentially meet!) to grab, among other things, romance novels, road maps, and a bottle of vodka.
While in the electronics section, Shadow is stopped by Lucille Balle (Gillian Anderson) — though she insists on ‘Lucy Ricardo’ — pausing her episode of I Love Lucy to address him by name. She is, she explains, the one to whom people ‘sacrifice’ to when they spend their time and attention in front of a screen, and she wants to offer Shadow a job. Angry at how the young man from earlier (who she calls the Technical Boy) treated him, she hopes that he will join her and her companions, who are not only ‘the future,’ but the unavoidable now. When he refuses, Lucy warns against resistance — he can either join the inevitable, or let it kill him.
Goddamn. One of the things (okay, perhaps the biggest thing) that I was most looking forward to in this adaptation was Media’s portrayal, and that excitement shot through the roof when they cast Gillian Anderson in the role. I was wondering when she was going to show up, and I am just ecstatic with how well they executed her introduction. It’s a bit early for her grand entrance (she doesn’t make an appearance until the seventh chapter in the novel), but it’s handled so well that the change doesn’t much matter. And if this portends her popping up more frequently, sign me the heck up.
And thank you, Fuller, for ensuring that Gillian Anderson gets to flawlessly deliver that ‘You ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?’ line. It’s probably the most iconic thing that Gaiman has ever written, aside from That One Scene™ from last week.
Moving the scene from a grimy motel television to a bank of superstore flatscreens is a smart way of upgrading her character’s appearance. As with the Technical Boy’s new look, the tweaks do a beautiful job at ensuring that the New Gods truly feel modern, cutting-edge, and a genuine force to be reckoned with. The elevation is shaping them to be an actual threat, rather than a vague idea that is forever lurking in the wings.
Mostly, though, I just want to gush about Anderson, who absolutely nails the Balle impression. I straight up thought that she was Lucille at first: the look, the voice, the everything is just spot-on. And she does so while capturing Media’s unsettling mix of peppy cheer and underlying menace. I’m so eager to see what other cultural icons she gets to play in the future (though I know that we’ll be getting a Bowie-as-Ziggy at some point). An expanded version of one of the most interesting characters in Gaiman’s cast, combined with an excuse to get Anderson to do impressions? Even if the rest of the show was awful, that alone would make it worth the price of admission.
Has she won an Emmy for this yet? Give her an Emmy. Give her all of the Emmys.
After the encounter, Shadow returns to Wednesday, who is just parting with a man whose eyes glow a fiery red as he leaves. He’s credited as ‘the jinn,’ which makes me wonder if he’s meant to be the taxi driver from a later ‘Coming to America’ segment — one that I suspect we will be getting to see in episode three. (And, if a certain hint on social media is to be believed, it’s going to be… graphic.) Though, if that is the case, he should be an ifrit. Are ifrit and jinn the same thing? Similar? I don’t know.
I will probably see you naked next week, sir.
Shadow wonders if he is losing his mind, but Wednesday advises him to take what’s occurred at face value: if he’s seen it, it must be real. It’s another copy-and-paste of the conversation that the pair have after Media’s appearance in the text, and I think that it may actually work better when done sooner. Moving Media’s introduction forward works really well here because it helps reinforce into the episode’s emphasis on Shadow’s uncertainty. (See, I have another reason for hand-waving changes beyond my undying devotion to Gillian.) Showing him more visibly struggling with his sense of reality at this point makes for a more realistic protagonist, I think, and helps rectify the book’s issue of his character’s aggressive, almost mindless, passiveness.
Shadow and Wednesday return to the road. The latter promptly throws Shadow’s phone (along with the new one that he bought for Wednesday) out the window, declaring a staunch policy against any such devices.
Somewhere in America
After a brief conversation about Wednesday’s taste in women (young, pale, thin, and blonde — you know, the American ideal), we’re abruptly thrown into some really trippy (and phallic) imagery, though there is a blink-and-you-miss-it reuse of stormy clouds to mark the transition into our new favorite segment, sans the on-screen script:
Naked men in space! Vagina-shaped nebulas! What is happening!? Is this a Lynch film!?
Surprise! We’ve just witnessed what being inside Bilquis is apparently like. After we emerge from under her sheets (thank you for that journey, Starz), a montage of her various exploits are shown (the fact that they’re all credited as ‘Bilquis Conquests’ brings me joy) as she consumes men and women alike (hooray, bisexuality!). Did the ‘eaten by vagina’ scene from the pilot weird you out? Well, you get even more of that this week. Enjoy.
The Queen of Sheba eventually visits a museum, where she gazes at a statue (presumably dedicated to her) and a jeweled ceremonial outfit. A woman — a vision of herself, I think — appears to wear the treasure before disappearing. Bilquis looks on in what seems to be anger.
I’m glad to get more of her right from the get-go (pretty much everything with Bilquis is going to be new from here on out, as she literally has only one other scene in the novel), even if that means a lot of bizarre nudity and sex. The sequence in and of itself seems sort of pointless, though it does appear to be hinting at an ongoing plotline for her. Is she going to try to regain her former power? Side with the New Gods? Join the Old? I’m not sure, but I’m sensing some intriguing possibilities. Though if they’re going to only give her such short scenes each week, it’s going to take a long time to see it pan out. It’s not a bad approach, though — a sort of show-within-a-show to look forward to. I hope that we get similar bits with some other characters.
Shadow and Wednesday arrive in Chicago, where they meet Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), hoping to impose upon her hospitality. She lives with her two sisters, though only Zorya Utrennyaya (Martha Kelly) is there to meet them, as the third is asleep. Hoping to speak with their brother Czernobog (Peter Stormare), Wednesday mollifies the women with gifts (vodka for Vechernyaya, romance novels for Utrennyaya, and a pair of binoculars for the missing sibling) while they wait for him to return from the slaughterhouse.
They look sort of terrifying here, but I promise that they’re actually pretty funny.
The sisters tell fortunes to make money, though Vechernyaya is the most prolific of the three, as she is the only one willing to tell clients pretty lies. In Shadow’s cup of coffee grounds, they see a bird, but, true to her reputation, a grim Vechernyaya claims that it portends a long life and happy marriage. When Shadow asks if his future is really that bad, she notes that his mother died of cancer, and that he will not. No other details are forthcoming.
Czernobog arrives and immediately demands that Wednesday and Shadow leave, threatening to kill them if they don’t. He claims that Wednesday brought madness into his life once before (potential backstory to explore?), and is now again trying to lead him to his death. Wednesday assures him that this isn’t the case, that ‘everybody will be there,’ and that ‘they’ need his power and the respect it commands. When Czernobog refuses, Wednesday attempts to leave, but he is begrudgingly asked to stay for dinner, which the sisters have so kindly prepared.
During dinner, Czernobog gives an uncomfortable speech after noting Shadow’s skin, pointing out that in his home country, everybody is white, so the people need to rely on shades to divide and distinguish themselves. He mentions that his brother’s fair hair led to him being associated with good, while his own, darker looks gave way to an assumption of evil. His brother is gone, but they are both grey now, so their differences no longer matter.
Afterwards, he explains that he has been forgotten in the old country and is no more than a ‘bad memory’ in America, and so had to get a job at a meat processing plant killing the cows with a sledgehammer. He then invites Shadow to play checkers.
He’s a sore loser.
During the game, Czernobog pulls down his old hammer and shows it off, and Shadow has a vision of it dripping with blood. The man then proposes a bet. If he wins the game, he gets to kill Shadow like one of his cows: on his knees at dawn, with a blow between the eyes. If he loses, he will accompany Wednesday. Unsure of what to believe in anymore, Shadow agrees. Unsurprisingly, the younger player loses, and Czernobog laments the fact that he will have to kill ‘his only black friend.’
If I have one complaint about the meeting in Chicago, it’s that it’s noticeably stretched. It takes up the entirety of the episode’s final third and still doesn’t wrap up by the end, leaving the resolution of the checkers game and the moonlight meeting with Zorya Polonochnaya for next week. It’s the first time that you start to become conscious of the show’s slower pacing, and you feel those final twenty minutes as they inch toward the credits.
Despite that, it’s expertly handled. The Zorya sisters (the two that we’ve seen so far, anyway) are done very well and given a bit more to distinguish each from the others, and the additional details — Zoyra Utrennyaya getting flustered after comparing Shadow to the cowboy on her new romance book; the pair reading Shadow’s tea leaves and slipping in some mention of his mother — are great bits of flavor, be they new or pulled from the source. I especially enjoyed their clever take on Vechernyaya’s fortune-telling, having her attempt to use her vague pleasantries (“You will have a long life and many children.”) on Shadow; in the novel, she instead claims that she should have used the very same line on him after he’s doomed by Czernobog’s promise. Leachman, on that note, is a lot of fun in particular: her “learning is beneath me” line is my new favorite thing. Also, her ability to swig vodka like it’s a going out of style.
Chug! Chug! Chug!
Stormare does great work as Czernobog, too. He’s frightening, yet somewhat pathetic; uncomfortable, but intriguing. Like Anderson’s Media, he has both the looks and personality down pat, and I’m so pleased with the show’s as-of-yet unbroken streak of great casting.
The whole sequence, despite its length, is still a treat, shifting smoothly from comedy during its focus on the sisters’ eccentricities to straight suspense throughout Czernobog’s moments. It may be pushing your patience, but at least you’re never bored, and readers will once again be tickled by the fact that they’re getting the various dialogues straight from the page.
And, again, I’m proud of how the writers are taking pains to slip concepts of race into the show whenever the opportunity arises. The topic of skin color is a brilliant way of slyly mentioning Czernobog’s brother (I wonder if he’ll play a larger role later) while also analyzing the harmful practice of equating white and black with notions of good and evil, and the episode’s final line — “A shame. You’re my only black friend.” — in the context of a murder is chilling. Gaiman made the same comparisons of light and dark originally, but not in the context of Shadow’s ethnicity, and doing so was such a savvy way of reinforcing the social implications previously left unspoken.
I’m a tad disappointed that they changed the checkers bet from Shadow’s idea to something that Czernobog volunteers, but it makes sense. While it robs Shadow’s character of his quiet confidence, it also gives the script the excuse to neatly tie up the episode’s arc for him. After emphasizing his struggle to accept his circumstances, Shadow’s ‘fuck it, I don’t know what’s happening’ attitude when agreeing brings him full circle.
Well, that’s about all that I have. Some stray observations:
- You have to love those loving closeups of the sisters’ dinner being made. Fuller has a thing for food, and it feels like a nod to Hannibal, intentional or not.
- The raven is well on its way to becoming a much more prominent symbol here than it was in the novel. You see it twice this week: as a shadow (ha) flying above Wednesday’s car and in coffee grounds. I wonder how they plan to bring the recurrence to a head. (I personally hope it’s with that bit where one says ‘fuck you’ to Shadow. Classic Gaiman moment.)
- Very little violence this week. I like the implication that they won’t be shoving it into every episode just for the sake of having it, and the more subtle uses of it here — smearing across the floor as Shadow cleans, dripping from a god’s hammer — makes its impact more punchy.
- Is Media going to have a new subplot in which she strives for her own goals? Her speech is more or less how it comes in the novel, but I feel like there was a bit more emphasis on what she wants, rather than on the New Gods’ desires as a whole. (Another note: I didn’t notice until I rewatched her scene that the people and characters on the other televisions stop and watch her and Shadow as she talks. Great little detail.)
- A lot of unnecessary but fun imagery from Slade, as we’ve come to expect — storms in slow motion, stars speeding past, locks being opened to synchronized music. He and Fuller work very well together when creating a particular style (so very Hannibal), and I hope that that look remains once he eventually steps down from the director’s chair.
All told, a just-about-perfect second chapter, and one that does a lot in assuaging any fears that I may have had after the pilot. Next week, we rob a bank.
While it’s a bit slower than its predecessor, “The Secret of Spoons” effortlessly meets the high expectations set by the pilot while pushing the series forward. The final stretch is overlong, but some fantastic new characters, smart story additions, and deft mix of humor and drama more than make up for any damage done.