I have been a fan of Neil Gaiman since I discovered his book Neverwhere when I was in college. His gritty urban fantasy gripped me immediately, and I was instantly transformed into a lifelong fan. I track him on Twitter, wonder where exactly in or near our state he lives, attend as many of his local talks as I can get to, and devour his new works. In fact, when I was pregnant with my son, my husband and I kept his name a secret from everyone until after he was born—everyone except Neil Gaiman, who autographed a copy of The Graveyard Book addressed to him. (He told me Gabriel was a beautiful name and that although he normally drew a gravestone when he autographed this work, he would do a heart instead as he felt “a bit superstitious” drawing a gravestone on something meant for the unborn.)
I’m telling you all this because it’s important to know that when I say I was excited for the premiere of the TV adaptation of American Gods on STARZ this past weekend, you will understand that “excited” is a drastic understatement of my actual anticipation level. To get ready, I did the following:
- stalked my Facebook friends, trying to figure out which of them loved the book as much as I did so I could invite them over for a viewing party
- researched mead and made sure to have some on hand
- with my husband, timed our entire basement remodel around being able to host a large group of people comfortably on April 30
And what, you may ask, was my impression of the show after all of the buildup, all of the anticipation and work and coordination that we did to be ready?
Simply put, I found the series premiere to be just incredible. Everything I wanted it to be, and so much more. Many shows struggle through their first few episodes, even their first season. American Gods experiences none of this growing-pain awkwardness, with the characters springing fully formed into the show—clearly the actors and production team have a clear idea of who the characters are and where they are going. This is unsurprising, given the attention the show is getting and the reputation Starz has for quality original programming. And while I’m deeply satisfied with the show as a whole, I would like to highlight a few stand-out aspects that I feel are deserving of worship.
1. The Music
I wanted to address the music first because I believe it was the single most powerful piece of the premiere episode. The score of a television show or a movie is typically subtle and often goes unnoticed. However, the music here was so powerful that in nearly every scene I had to take a minute and just experience it before I could get back to the show. Because American Gods deals with such intense themes, and the first episode in particular deals with the theme of loss on many levels, the music helps the viewer step inside Shadow’s experiences. For many of us, music is a visceral part of our emotional experiences. It’s transportive—a song can take us back to a point in our life experience on a deep emotional level. For the deeply emotional and connecting music heard in the premiere, we owe our gratitude to Brian Reitzell, who has also composed music for the television series Hannibal, video games Watch Dogs and Dead Rising 3, and films such as 2011’s Red Riding Hood and 2006’s Stranger than Fiction.
Through Reitzell’s music, we are taken deeper into Shadow’s mind than scripted exposition can take us on its own. The audience hears the deep throbbing tones of loss when Shadow gets the worst news imaginable, we experience the mysterious melody as he approaches Yggdrasil in his dreams and encounters the bull with flames for eyes, we find ourselves twitching and hyped up as the music pounds when he fights Mad Sweeney in the bar. Through every scene, the music winds and wends its way, giving depth to every character and setting that the audience encounters. Reitzell’s compositions are our companions as much as Shadow and Mr. Wednesday are, and I’m excited to experience more of them as the series progresses.
2. The Bilquis Scene
Everyone who knows the book knows the Bilquis scene. When readers watch a beloved book get transformed into a screen adaptation, there’s a lot of score keeping. What was changed, why, was it necessary, was there another way? Readers are notorious for this. I myself have a rule that I won’t read a book within six months of seeing a screen adaptation of it for the first time because I get too caught up in the comparisons.
Played in the TV series by actress Yetide Badaki, Bilquis is one of the first gods in America who we actually see living her life, doing what she needs to in order to survive in a country that doesn’t worship her the way she needs it. There were definitely changes from the way the scene unfolds in the book. The setting in which she connects with her date is completely different—and I loved this. It was more contemporary because the dating scene has changed since the book was written, so the tweaks were perfect. I also loved the character of her “john,” and I use that term loosely because of aforementioned changes, who had a vulnerability that made me connect to him in a way that I never have with his on-page counterpart. Lastly, I loved the vulnerability of the goddess herself, and the keen sense that she’s doing what she needs to do. This scene was absolutely magical and one of my favorite things about the premiere episode.
3. Audrey’s Breakdown
Audrey’s breakdown is another valuable addition to the story line that I don’t recall from the book. In the novel, Audrey’s character is a footnote—she’s used to deliver valuable exposition, then relegated “offstage” until she’s used again toward the end of the book to nudge Shadow in another direction. For the first episode of the television series, however, the screenwriters took the opportunity to flesh out her character’s emotional world and give actress Betty Gilpin a little more meat to work with. In her encounter with Shadow in the cemetery, we see her lose herself in her anger and grief in a way that makes perfect sense considering the situation that they find themselves in.
Though I doubt we’ll see Audrey again until she steps back into the narrative per the events of the book, what we have seen of her is already so much more satisfying than what we see of her in the book, on both an expositional and an emotional level. Though I still wouldn’t call the character likeable (either on the page or on the screen), her lack of appeal now has an explanation that was shared with the television audience in a way that it never was for the readership. As an audience member, being able to actually see the justification for her anger play out on the screen gave resolution to the “reasons why” that have always bothered me about her character.
4. Mad Sweeney
Mad Sweeney is another character that I never gave much thought to when reading (and rereading) the book. He was another expositional tool, the reason behind a pretty key story line for Shadow; he was fun and introduced Shadow to Wednesday’s world, and then he was gone. But like so many others in this episode, Pablo Schreiber brings his character to life with an endearing quality that I didn’t anticipate.
Mad Sweeney is one of the first to demonstrate that with gods in America, it’s best to expect the unexpected. The intimacy in which he approaches Shadow before Mr. Wednesday joins them smacks of a warning that will of course go unheeded, an attempt to let Shadow know that he might be in over his head. The casualness with which he discusses cultural stereotypes and coin tricks created the sensation in me that above all else, I want to go drinking with Mad Sweeney. And then the epic fight scene, so memorable from the book, is just perfect. Like Audrey, like many of the characters we have encountered so far and are bound to encounter in future episodes, Mad Sweeney is gone from the narrative too soon.
That last point is probably the aspect that is going to be most difficult about watching American Gods—between Gaiman, the show runners, and the cast, the characters that are being created are too appealing. They are designed to come in and out of Shadow’s experience, and we never see many of them for more than a few pages (or minutes), but I promise that they will absolutely ensnare you, and you will mourn them when they disappear from the screen.
There is so much I just don’t have time to touch on. You’ll notice I didn’t talk about Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, or Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday—they are the main characters, after all, and shouldn’t they feature heavily in a review of the premiere? My take is that in the coming months, thousands upon thousands of words will be written about these two incredible actors who are playing beloved characters, and I believe they are well cast and will stand up to any criticism.
I’m most anticipating the little things, like the highlights I listed above. I believe that when American Gods is all done (which hopefully won’t be for several years at least), it will be the little magical pieces that get us as we rewatch the series. Things that perhaps don’t get noticed at all on the first run, but become stuck in our memories and become a part of our perception.
Much in the way that our gods do, wouldn’t you say?
New episodes of American Gods air Sundays at 8:00 p.m. Central on Starz. You can also stream it using the paid Starz app on Amazon or using the network’s standalone streaming service.