Note: These recaps are being written from the point of view of someone who has not read the book(s). They are spoiler-free of any upcoming events, and do not go into the differences between novel and show. Mostly because…I have not read the book(s). Please refrain from commenting on the novel here so others who are like me shall remain similarly unspoiled. Also because TV and literature are different media, blah blah blah. Thank you! Now let’s dive into the mayhem!
We open on a man who is writing a tale, a tale of old, of exploration, of how man came to believe in gods. We see Vikings blind themselves in one eye trying to get the Gods to produce the wind that will allow them to sail away from the island where they’re stranded. When that fails, they start sacrificing their fellow strandees, one by one. There is a lot of blood flowing and splattering, limbs flying through the air, and more blood. This is a bloody tale, told bloodily. What does it have to do with anything? I don’t know yet, but I love it.
In the present, we meet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), who is in prison; he sees a noose and says he smells snow. He calls his wife and tells her he has a bad feeling, but she lightens his mood, telling him their friend is coming by to help plan a surprise party for his welcome home. Shadow is getting out soon.
A storm brews that night. In a dream/vision, Shadow sees his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), who says she loves him. Shadow is in a strange place where trees reach out to scratch him, and the noose is once again present. It’s an ominous recurring symbol.
The next morning, the warden informs Shadow he’s being released two days early because his wife was killed in a car accident. Shadow is stricken. Once out, he finds that he cannot change his flight to return home early unless he pays the attendant fees. If he had the original death certificate for his wife, the gate attendant says, she could help—except she doesn’t sound helpful. Shadow has another vision, this time of a prison inmate telling him not to piss her off, prompting him to reflect on a lesson he learned in prison. He calmly purchases the more expensive ticket and calls a friend, Robbie, who doesn’t answer.
Back at the ticket counter, a seemingly addled man (Ian McShane) is trying to board the plane to see his wife; the attendant is suddenly compassionate (or flustered) and upgrades him to first class. Shadow winds up upgraded as well and finds himself across from the strange man, who is no longer a quivering mess; in fact, he’s quite profane. The man reveals his name is Mr. Wednesday and offers Shadow a job. Shadow isn’t interested.
In another vision (another recurring motif), Shadow is back before that weird tree, and also sees a buffalo with flaming eyes. While Shadow is out, the plane makes an emergency landing, so he decides to drive the rest of the way to Eagle Point, his home with Laura. Shadow stops and looks out at a vast, beautiful vista, then cries out to the heavens in tremendous grief. Superimposed over the view, we see the same writing from the man we met at the beginning of the episode. He’s writing out, “Somewhere in America.”
Somewhere in America, we get an interlude; an older man meets a woman at a bar for an internet date. Before long, she takes him to her room, which is filled with red—the hall, candles, roses, bedding, and carpet are red, as is her dress. “You’re the sexiest goddamn thing I ever got to touch for free,” he says. During sex, she asks him to worship her, which he enthusiastically and disturbingly does. The more he worships the woman, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the larger she grows until she swallows him whole. With her vagina. It seems to make her younger.
We next catch up with Shadow at an establishment with an interior bar shaped like an open-mouthed alligator. The imagery in this show is oddly beautiful, and very rich. Mr. Wednesday shows up to once again offer Shadow a job, and informs him that his friend Robbie is dead, giving Shadow a newspaper article on the accident to read. Shadow, an expert in coin tricks (he thinks), flips a coin to answer Mr. Wednesday about the job; he rigs the toss so he can win because he finds Mr. Wednesday creepy. A tall man (Pablo Schreiber) claiming to be a leprechaun asks Shadow if he is now working “for our man.” Mr. Wednesday introduces the leprechaun as Mad Sweeney; he brings Shadow three shots of mead to seal their bargain. Shadow agrees to the job, but he needs to go to his wife’s funeral first. Mad starts plucking gold coins from the air and wants to fight, goading Shadow until he finally starts throwing punches; it’s a brutal fight because Shadow gets nuts as Mads eggs him on. For his trouble, he wins one of Mad’s gold coins.
The next day, Mr. Wednesday drives Shadow home for Laura’s funeral, where he finds Robbie’s widow, Audrey (Betty Gilpin), is hostile. She angrily tells Shadow that Laura “died with my husband’s cock in her mouth.” Shadow is crestfallen, lingering by the grave all day and speaking to Laura, asking her what she did, was it one time, did she want to leave him—all things he’ll never know. A wasted Audrey shows up right as he’s throwing Mad’s gold coin on Laura’s grave. Audrey hugs Shadow, offers him oral sex, and tries to screw him on top of Laura’s grave, but he rebuffs her. As she breaks down, the gold coin sinks into the fresh grave soil.
Later walking home, all the lights in the street go out behind Shadow. He sees a pulsing box which unfolds and latches onto his face, bringing him into a virtual limo with some faceless knights and the Technical Boy (Bruce Langley). The Boy wants to know what Wednesday’s game plan is; when Shadow rightly says he doesn’t know, the Boy orders his minions to kill him, then decides he will “delete” him instead. It’s raining as Shadow is beaten and lynched. We see a lot of blood flying and then Shadow is cut down. The blood is kind of beautiful and shiny. When Shadow finally rises, he sees all the men have been slaughtered, the ground soaked with their blood.
As an opening episode, “The Bone Orchard” is a doozy. Directed by David Slade from a teleplay by Bryan Fuller (a personal favorite) & Michael Green (and based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, another personal favorite), it would honestly be hard for “American Gods” to not be at least good, but the beginning is spectacular, even though Shadow Moon, with his impossibly romantic name, and everyone around him are ciphers. Do I want to follow him down his path with the con man Mr. Wednesday, a very tall and crazy leprechaun named Mad, a young techno-wizard, and a woman who eats people whole through her birth canal? If it all looks this gorgeous, bloody, and elliptical, then the answer is: Hell, yes! Bring it on! Bring it all on! As I noted earlier, the imagery is rich, with some of it (the noose especially) paying off right away. Shadow is a cipher, yes, but he has visions, which would explain why these strange creatures would be drawn to him for whatever their reasons may be. I cannot wait to find out what happens to him next.
All photos courtesy of Starz