It’s been nearly two years since the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was on TV, and in that time there’ve been some dramatic changes behind the scenes. Those changes are, first and foremost, due to the rumored-to-be tumultuous departure of season 1 co-showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and the hiring of Jesse Alexander as the show’s new head writer. The loss of Fuller and Green, not to mention Gillian Anderson in the role of the new god Media, is such that the lengthy delay between seasons 1 and 2 might actually work in the show’s favor, as, unless you were one of the subscribers who partook in the late 2018 season 1 marathon, chances are the differences between Fuller’s style — particularly his penchant for surrealist visuals and heavy dream logic — and that of Alexanders won’t be quite so jarring. If not, well, then the show will certainly feel a bit different when it picks back up with Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon, and the rest of the motley crew of Old Gods on their way to the House on the Rock in the season 2 premiere.
Part of the appeal of American Gods season 1 wasn’t just the chance to see Gaiman’s novel come to life; it was also the way in which the series so often resorted to using a purely visual storytelling language in order to convey the otherworldly nature of the story it was in the process of telling. That meant extended sequences that defied logic and infused the series with an otherworldly sensibility that not only perfectly suited the idea of Odin (Ian McShane) traveling cross-country with his bodyguard — a newly widowed (but not really) ex-con named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) — but also occasionally elevated it to an experience unlike anything else on television. That way of thinking also led the series to get mired in its own visual excess from time to time, like the multi-episode arc that concerned Shadow playing a game of checkers with Peter Stormare’s hammer-wielding Czernobog, with literal life-and-death stakes.
Alexander’s approach, then, is a little like an attempt to fine tune Fuller and Green’s vision for the series, to make it a little more palatable and grounded, while still remaining committed to the bit. The bit being, of course, that American Gods takes place in a strange, violent, sometimes beautiful, and phantasmagorical world where anything can and does happen. Despite Fuller and Green’s seemingly singular visual storytelling approach to season 1, the series proves malleable enough that, although their absence is immediately noticeable, it’s not long before the series settles into this new(ish) way of doing things and gets to the business at hand.
That business is the pending war between Mr. Wednesday’s Old Gods and the New Gods in league with Crispin Glover’s Mr. World. The season 2 premiere, ‘House on the Rock,’ makes that abundantly clear with a cold open that sees Mr. World and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) licking their wounds in the aftermath of Odin baring his teeth so to speak in the season 1 finale. Despite Glover and Langley’s performances, the scene is stilted and awkward; it’s a rough example of the sort of necessary housecleaning serialized television shows sometimes have to undertake in order to set the table from one season to the next. To Alexander’s credit, he does try to get through the opening as quickly as possible, literally having Mr. World spell out the circumstances of the plot to his vaping underling, and pointing out how important (New) Media is to his plan.
The effect of this opening is that American Gods tends to feel more grounded, and as a result, less dreamlike and more ordinary or run of the mill. There are hints that the show’s illusory nature is still present, as Mr. Wednesday and his fellow Old Gods — which now includes Sakina Jaffrey (Timeless) as Mama-Ji — explore the actual House on the Rock and turn an enormous carousel into a gateway into Wednesday’s mind. Here, the show makes use of what seems to be more conventional visuals, as the Old Gods’ true forms are revealed to Shadow and the audience, giving them an admittedly impressive VFX sheen that makes them seem a little more magical than before, albeit in a way that’s almost purely surface-level.
While season 2 of American Gods seems intent on giving the audience a Godly war that’s showy in a way that’s is perhaps more accessible or less prone to certain flights of visual fancy, the show’s real ace in the hole is the fraught domestic drama between Shadow and his “dead” wife Laura (Emily Browning). While Shadow remains a cipher for the most part, a mostly nothing character who is carried along by the whims of others, Laura is quickly turning into one of the most compelling aspects of the entire series. Her drive — to protect and possibly reconcile with her husband — couples well with the supernatural circumstances that find her a super-powerful rotting corpse with little regard for Wednesday’s war or his supposed authority. As much as Shadow is meant to represent the audience, to be the one saying how strange and unbelievable this all is, Laura’s dogged devotion and irreverent attitude toward all gods (Old and New) makes her the series’ unlikely MVP.
Browning is at her best when opposite Pablo Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney, as the two make for an entertaining odd couple — always at odds with one another, but with a grudging respect for the other — as they’re both marginalized members of Wednesday’s core group. That might spell trouble for Laura and Shadow’s interactions in the long run, but for the time being American Gods has found a successful formula in the pairing. The same is true of Jones’s Mr. Nancy being given a larger role in the first two episodes, seeing him paired with McShane, mostly to comedic effect.
‘House on the Rock’ is largely a housecleaning episode of the series, one that’s tasked with getting the show acclimated to the potentially disastrous behind-the-scenes changes that happened between seasons, while also working to maintain some semblance of forward momentum in the story. The end result is a mixed bag overall, something that’s almost worth the extraordinarily long wait for American Gods season 2.
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American Gods continues next Sunday with ‘The Beguiling Man’ @8pm on Starz.