American Gods is Loyal, Memorable, and Beautiful

Three episodes in, Bryan Fuller’s TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is proving to be loyal, memorable, and beautiful.

For those not familiar with the novel, American Gods is a deep exploration of one of Gaiman’s favorite themes: Gods and other supernatural beings exist because we believe in them, and they die off when we forget them. But while they exist, they are living things, capable of their own motives and schemes, and needing, in hard times, to find ways to survive. It’s a theme that struck a chord with people—like, admittedly, myself—disillusioned with modern beliefs and fascinated by ancient ones, and it made the novel popular enough to warrant a tenth-anniversary “author's preferred text” printing.

It’s very much an immigrant story, the melting pot of American’s immigrant cultures brought to life as all the gods and creatures those cultures brought here with them. It’s Odin, left behind in America by an ill-fated Viking expedition, and Anansi and Anubis and tall, red-haired Mad Sweeney the leprechaun, all struggling to get by in a country that has almost but not quite forgotten them in favor of new gods like Media and Technology.

We see all this through the eyes of a man called Shadow (Ricky Whittle), who is released from prison to find that his wife died the day before in a car accident while having an affair with his best friend. As he travels back home he’s offered a job by a smooth talker who calls himself Wednesday (Ian McShane), and that job pulls him into an escalating war between the new gods and the old.

The reimagining of old gods as modern—if frequently old and crochety—people manages to be both grounded and magical. Even Czernobog has to pay the rent. The fullness with which they’ve integrated into their American lives makes their true identities seem all the more fanciful. And as someone deeply interested in Norse mythology, I’ll take Ian McShane’s traveling con man over the beefy cross between the Christian God and Thor that seems to have become Odin in popular thought.

For a story original published in 2001, the new American Gods have gotten only more relevant. It’s only natural that the obnoxious Technical Boy would now vape. I felt they were one of the more forgettable parts of the original novel—it was pretty clear which gods the author put the most love into—but brought to life here they’re a solid and terrifying threat to Shadow.

Being on a premium channel seems to demand shock value, and in staying loyal to the source material, American Gods provides plenty of violence and, as of episode 3, possibly the most graphic (and beautiful!) gay sex scenes outside of actual pornography. Fuller has gleefully spoken out on social media about preserving “that scene” of Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, devouring her lovers as they worship her. (With her vagina.) Both the sex and the violence are used, respectively, artfully and sparingly, but maybe don’t watch it with your parents.

The series has already been greenlit for a second season, which is good because the first season only covers the first third of the book. If you haven’t started watching it yet, you can find it on the Starz network in the US and streaming on Amazon Prime in the rest of the world.