‘American Gods’ Season Two (Spoiler Free) Review: ‘Becoming True Believers’
American Gods is finally coming back for season two! Praise be and Hallelujah! It’s been two years since we left Mr Wednesday, played by the incomparable Ian McShane, and Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle, at Easter’s house and the Old and New Gods are preparing for full on war.
There were concerns over whether or not the show would be able to maintain the hypno-neon-dream aesthetic after Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s departure over creative disputes with Starz and Fremantle about a year after the first season ended but Chris Byrne, who stepped up from second to first unit director and directed the first and final episodes, has kept the beautiful americana acid-trip intact. The show is still visually stunning, with sweeping shots of the pastoral midwest mixed with heady psychedelic god imagery. We also get to see the long anticipated (and real actual place) House on the Rock! It does not disappoint.
The first two episodes also seem to have reigned in, or course corrected, some issues that plagued the first season. First, we get a lot more of Orlando Jones as the smooth-talking story weaver, Mr Nancy. His delivery and overall panache are pitch-perfect. There were only a few scenes with him (like his unforgettable “anger gets shit done” speech on the slavers ship) last season, but based on the first two episodes it seems like he will be more directly tied to the plot and to helping Mr Wednesday and Shadow in season two. The scenes between Jones and McShane’s unflappable Mr Wednesday are rife with banter and pure magic. McShane and Jones have terrific chemistry as they toss barbs and one-liners back and forth, which leads us to the second improvement from last season. These moments of banter provide some much needed levity and joy to what can otherwise feel like a bleak and dour world. The world of American Gods is grim and the first season often felt suffocated by the despair of the crumbling Old Gods. These moments of snark and quippy one-liners (delivered impeccably by Jones) help to provide balance and break the tension, giving the audience a chance to come up for air.
We also, finally, get more of a glimpse into Shadow’s backstory and childhood. One of the struggles of the first season is that Whittle’s Shadow was such a stoic, bland “straight man” character that he had little purpose or internal motivation for the choices he was making. While this is partly because Shadow’s function, from a storytelling perspective, is to be the audience’s cipher – our stand-in for entering into this crazy world of gods and magic and leprechauns, it made him a hard character to want to follow. However, with some much needed backstory, and an important monologue at the end of the first episode, not only do we finally understand who Shadow is a bit more, but we see our listless hero finally find his purpose – he’s become a true believer. It’s extremely satisfying to see Whittles getting to make bold choices informed by his character’s past trauma. Most of the first season it felt like Shadow was permanently numb with shock, but he is finally coming into his own with this leap of faith.
Speaking of stagnating characters (literally a decomposing corpse), Emily Browning’s Laura Moon has found a new purpose as well. The choice in season one to depart from the books and make her not only a cheating spouse, but a cold sociopath meant that in death there was no change for her character. Cold in life and then literally cold in death meant she was flat and shockingly unlovable, even if she did become a badass that could rip people limb from limb. Her sometimes antagonistic, sometimes romantic, (*cough cough* her Coming to America sequence in season one *cough cough*) chemistry with Pablo Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney is great fun to watch, and even if she is still dead, she has some warmth and fire to her now that she has a mission to complete. It will also be interesting to see how her connection to a “spirit-world” might come into play in the coming conflicts.
Additional insight into the workings and motivations of the New Gods crops up in the early episodes of season two. There is great scenery chewing from Crispin Glover’s Mr World and the introduction of an additional New God – Dean Winters as Mr Town. Unfortunately, Gillian Anderson left the show with Fuller and Green, so Media is currently in hiding and reinventing herself. We will miss her David Bowie and Judy Garland homages, but are excited to see what Kahyun Kim (of Disney’s Austin & Ally) will bring to the role as “New Media” and how the show will interpret the presence of social media in this world. She brings some much needed young blood to these New Gods, who in our rapidly changing world can begin to feel dated. New Media and Technical Boy are now the newest of the new.
The war between the Old Gods and New Gods is ramping up and neither side is wasting time in rallying the troops or planning their attack. The first season could at times be meandering, indulging in world building and general mystique, but now that the world is established the pacing has picked up, the story is moving full steam ahead.
A major theme carry over from the first season, as noted earlier, was Mr Nancy’s line “anger gets shit done” as told to the slaves trapped on the ship to inspire them to rise up in mutiny, Mr Wednesday is now using a similar anger to rouse the Old Gods to stand up and fight. Anger is the motivating factor for Shadow throughout his life (as we learn in his flashbacks) and for many other characters as well, though not always to make the choices that Mr Wednesday would like. (Mr Wednesday, maybe you shouldn’t have run over Easter’s bunnies, just saying.) As often happens, along with anger comes violence. The show has never shied away from a gory action sequence, and if these two episodes are any indication, they won’t be anytime soon. At times heightened to an almost comedic effect, it also feels deeply tied to the mash of American aesthetic that the show has created. After all, what’s more American than the celebration of over the top violence?
We also might have seen the end of the “Coming to America” sequences of season one. As avid readers of the book, these chapters were a highlight. Serving to add a personal touch along with complexity and richness to Gaiman’s sometimes overwhelming world. However, as executed in the show, they were hit and miss. Mr Nancy’s slave ship sequence was epic (sorry to keep bringing it up but it was just so good), and the Leprechaun’s story provided an important parallel to his dynamic with Laura Moon, but others would drag the shows pacing to a grinding halt. Hopefully these sequences are not gone forever but are employed strategically within an episode in a way that keeps the forward momentum they’ve built growing and not slowing. After all, they did give us Salim and the Jinn who we LOVE.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how the fallout of Fuller and Green’s departure will play out over a full season, especially for episodes that Byrne isn’t directing. One of the things that originally drew us into the show, (aside from being huge fans of the books) was the involvement of Bryan Fuller. As huge fans of Pushing Daisies and Hannibal, it is exciting to see how his style meshed with Gaiman’s epic saga. Based solely on the first two episodes, it seems that he and Green’s overall vision for the show remains intact, if perhaps a bit more reigned in.
Hopefully this season will take time to focus on their female (or female presenting) characters. One of the best changes from the book that they made last season was expanding the role of Bilquis. Yetide Badaki is a revelation as the Goddess of Love and Desire, and seeing the potential of her character to take a larger role in the action is frankly, orgasmic. The cast is incredibly diverse, but the major plotline is focused on the journey of two male and/or male presenting characters, Shadow and Mr Wednesday, but that doesn’t negate the desire to see more of the goddesses (old and new) taking on larger and more permanent roles this season.
Overall, this was a very strong start for a second season who’s development was plagued with problems. Audiences who might have been concerned over the trouble leaking out to the press possibly leading to season two being a big mess, let us assuage your fears. Much like our own characters, this season seems to have found a clarity of purpose. Finding a purpose (spiritual or otherwise) provides focus, motivation, and can light an unquenchable fire from within. So strap in because American Gods season two has found it and there is no going back as our gods march to war.
American Gods season two premieres March 10th, 2019 on Starz.