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American Gods 1.01 Review – ‘The Bone Orchard’

April 30, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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American Gods 1.01 Review – ‘The Bone Orchard’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen the series premiere of American Gods.]

Starz has really been upping its game in original content over the last few years. With the arrival of shows like the serious-yet-soapy crime drama of Power, the high seas action in Black Sails and the bloody glee of Ash vs. Evil Dead, the premium cable network has found itself in a new caliber of television networks. While it may not be viewed by the mainstream on the level of HBO, AMC or FX, it has been taking its time and carefully building its series slate to the point where all it needs is that one show which can catch fire as one of the mythical water cooler series that can get everyone’s attention and make them start talking in a “can’t miss” capacity.

That’s why American Gods seems to have come about at just the right time. The adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s dark modern fantasy novel, brought to us by the team of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan), is exactly that kind of series. The novel deals with some deep themes ranging from the vast (religion, national identity, immigration and society) to very personal and human (grief, faith and finding your own way in the world) underneath heavy genre trappings. It’s a show that doesn’t shy away from making bold leaps into strangeness when needed — it is about a bloody battle between gods and technology disguised as a road trip, after all — but at the same time manages to avoid losing its narrative grounding either.

All of those elements come into play in the first episode, “The Bone Orchard.” Fuller and Green are easily able to assuage any fears us fans of the novel (in the interests of full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of the book) have about its faithfulness, displaying plenty of trust in Gaiman’s source material to transition into live action well. They bring us plenty of character grounding right away, but also some strong touches of the surreal to let us know that this isn’t going to be just another attempt to cash in on a beloved property among the literary crowd.

“The Bone Orchard” starts off with a prologue that tells you exactly what kind of show you should expect. As narrated by Mr. Ibis, we see the tale of the first Vikings to arrive on American shores. This sets up a lot for the show, not only in terms of the narrative but also the tone and themes of the series. The Norsemen are travelers to a new land, met with immediate hostility in the form of a sudden and violent peppering of arrows plentiful enough to make a human porcupine.

American Gods deals in the thematic currency of immigrants struggling to determine their place in this new world and after that wonderfully overdone statement of violence, this is exactly what the remaining sailors end up inadvertently trying to do. They place their hope in their god, praying to Odin and inflicting any number of agonies on themselves as they try to leave. They jab their eyes out in honor of the Allfather, they burn one of their fellows alive in sacrifice and they even destroy each other in a battle sequence so bloody you’d think this was a Tarantino film in an attempt to bring the wind. It’s a brutal, vicious sequence that is full of the visual flair that Fuller in particular is known for, given sanguineous life by director David Slade.

And yet in the end, it isn’t these Norsemen who are the true immigrants depicted here. It’s instead their god, old One-Eye himself, who stays. It’s a nicely-done misdirection and speaks volumes to the themes of the story: for all the bloody battles that are fought, the true war to be waged is that of cultures and traditions. No matter how much bloodshed the invading warriors had inflicted upon them and inflicted on each other, it is their religion which stayed and left a mark. Keep that thought in mind as you watch along because while there’s likely plenty of war to come, what this show has to say about faith and culture clashes will sink in much deeper than any bruise, sword slice or broken bone.

With the interstitial out of the way for the episode, we hop right into the main story by meeting Shadow Moon, a prison inmate that is about to be released. When we first encounter Shadow, he is being talked to by one of his fellow inmates as he works out in the yard. Low Key Lyesmith is interested in talking about the gallows — a running motif throughout the episode, it’s worth noting — but Shadow is more worried about the heavy weight of the weather that appears to be forming just ahead. He tells his wife Laura over the phone that “something feels weird,” and he can’t put his finger on it. She tells him not to worry, but it doesn’t take long before he realizes that there is plenty to worry about.

Fuller and Green do plenty here to establish Shadow as a character worth being interested in, and not just because he’s clearly the main role from the first moment we see him. Ricky Whittle’s job is to give Shadow an emotional weight right from the bat that will allow us to go with him on this first hour’s journey, in which everything good about his life is systematically torn away. Laura dies in a horrific car accident alongside his best friend, who had a job waiting for him. The one person he knows who he could potentially find an emotional connection with is Audrey, but that’s not possible because of the affair Laura and Robbie had — a revelation which tears further at Shadow’s sense of grounding. He needs to be left emotionally adrift so that it’s plausible he accepts a job from this irritating stranger who he just met. And yet he can’t fall too much into the kicked puppy persona that Audrey accuses him of being; that’s when you risk losing the audiences sympathy and for this show to work, we have to be willing to go along with Shadow for the ride.

Fortunately, that’s not a problem. Whittle is able to portray the emotional turmoil in an understated way that clearly conveys the pain that Shadow is going through, but doesn’t push past the line of acceptable mopeyness. He’s a more active character than he is in the book, where Shadow emotionally shuts down a bit more as a way to get him to accept Wednesday’s offer. That’s a necessary change because we can’t get directly inside Shadow’s head, so he has to have an emotional reaction to Laura’s death; otherwise, we lose the impact of where her death puts him emotionally. It’s classic “show, don’t tell” storytelling and it’s nice to see that the showrunners haven’t forgotten this amidst the blood, sex and surreal dream sequences.

All of this, of course, brings us to the point where Shadow has his fateful meeting with Mr. Wednesday. Ian McShane’s casting brought a nice amount of attention to this series, and deservedly so; McShane is a perfectly-cast actor for the role. Our first look at Mr. Wednesday is that of a bedraggled, confused old man at the airline counter who is trying for his grandson’s christening and doesn’t seem to understand that he doesn’t have a first-class ticket. That is, of course, just a ruse to get himself into the nice part of the plane; Mr. Wednesday is fully in possession of his mental faculties and knows how to con people to get whatever he wants.

That puts him and Shadow across from each other. McShane is glorious in his opening scenes, weaving his way through dialogue that would be unwieldy in other actor’s mouths. His timing is superb and it gives us a very clear image of the kind of man Mr. Wednesday is — or at least, the kind of man we’re meant to think he is. Shadow thinks he has Wednesday pegged too, knowing a con when he sees one. But it’s clear that he doesn’t have the full picture. There’s something more going on here, and we’d know that even if he didn’t seem to know things he otherwise shouldn’t. Wednesday is too assured, too confident in his situation with Shadow and it establishes the power dynamic between the two before it has to come into play. The relationship between Shadow and Wednesday is one of the main cruxes of the show, and it helps keep “The Bone Orchard” stable when things get particularly surreal.

The surreal, on the other hand, is what will drive most of the conversation about this show. Fuller established his sense of flair like never before with Hannibal, and while there is a more lurid feel to the strange fantasy sequences of “The Bone Orchard” than in that series, it’s no less thrilling. Perhaps the most talked-about moment — check that, almost certainly the most talked-amount moment — is Bilquis’ introduction. When we meet her, she is on a date arranged online. As we quickly learn, this is more than just a hookup for her; she is a figure of power, who needs her date’s worship for her own vitality. It’s the big sex scene in the episode — no doubt something that network executives were happy to see, but it’s much more than that. This is body horror, as the poor guy gets literally sucked into her in the midst of his worship and she grows younger and stronger as a result. I can see this scene being polarizing, because it’s definitely out there in terms of how it plays out on screen. But if you can appreciate the little bit of camp value in the face of making Bilquis a larger than life — perhaps even monstrous character — it’s glorious.

The episode has more than just genital absorption when it wants to get wild, though. Shadow has several visions throughout the episode, taking place in the titular Bone Orchard. The term is an antiquated slang for a cemetery, presented here in literal format complete with a blood-drawing tree and a talking buffalo with flaming eyes. These sequences not only provide visual pop, there’s a lot in there to unpack. Some of it won’t be revealed right away and others are brought into play by the end of the episode.

That brings us to another of those more fantastical moments in the episode, as Shadow staggers away from a drunk Audrey in the real-world “bone orchard” where their unfaithful spouses are buried and finds himself assaulted Facehugger-style by a VR headset. This puts him in touch with Technical Boy, the first of the New Gods we’re to meet. In the source, Technical Boy is the public’s image of everything bad about the internet in 2001: a greasy-faced, fat young guy in a Matrix coat because he thinks it makes him look cool. But it’s 2017, and so now he’s a different public image: a social media freak who vapes and acts like a hyper-aggressive, violent hipster because he thinks it all makes him look cool. It’s a smart update; in both cases, it gives us an immediate idea of what to expect from him. He’s beaten by a bunch of faceless internet thugs and lynched, an image that is as provocative (intentionally so) as anything else in the show. The sequence ends (and the episode ends) with Shadow rescued by an unseen savior who literally splits Technical Boys’ brute squad in half, leaving Shadow gasping for breath and covered in buckets of blood. If that’s not a hell of a way to end an episode, I don’t know what is.

Some Final Thoughts:

• Welcome to our weekly reviews of American Gods! If you’re interested in seeing my spoiler-free review of the series that went up earlier this month, you can check it out here. I hope you’re ready for a fun, wild ride through America.

• Worth noting: while I am a major fan of the novel, I’m going to try not to lean too hard on referencing it in my review. There will be some comparison as a simple matter of necessity; being familiar with the source is where I’m coming from as a person. That said, prefer to see adaptations as their own thing and you shouldn’t need to know the book to appreciate the series.

• Your lesson from Low Key Lyesmith this week, presented without judgment: “Do not piss off those bitches in airports.”

• “You’re the first person I’ve talked to that wasn’t an asshole.” “Give me time…”

• The characters are great, but special credit has to be given to the set designers to. Jack’s Crocodile Bar is a place with plenty of personality to spare, and provides a great place to introduce Mad Sweeney — not to mention stage a fight between Shadow and Wednesday.

• Speaking of the production aspects, you can damned well bet that I’ll be getting the soundtrack for this show when it comes out.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
"The Bone Orchard" gets American Gods off to a fantastic start, thanks to the performances of the cast and the showrunners' ability to adapt the source material. There's plenty here to get people talking and even more to enjoy, paving the way for the best new show of the year so far.