Big Neil Gaiman fan here. I especially liked Ocean At The End of the Lane and Neverwhere. I bloody loved Neverwhere. I never read American Gods though, so apart from a big bowlful of magical realism, I didn’t know what to expect.
I still don’t know what to expect.
The thing that I suppose has put off anyone trying to adapt American Gods before, is that it isn’t a start to finish story but a massive ever-evolving circle.
Nothing is explained, and at the start you have to just sit back and enjoy the road trip.
It is the stunning cinematography that kept me watching at first; one tiny but exquisitely crafted scene saw a road map of Illinois swivel and transform seamlessly into the lock on a motel room door.
No-one strikes a match in American Gods without the scene slowing down and zooming in so you can see every particle of the match, hear every crackle of the tiny flame.
The plot is a road movie crossed with a fantasy quest: An extraordinarily dense ex-con called Shadow Moon is taken up by a mysterious con-artist called Mr Wednesday.
Wednesday is travelling through middle America visiting oddballs and persuading them to meet him in Wisconsin for a war.
They – or, to be precise, Shadow – are pursued by some Bad Guys who take over TVs and talk in riddles.
It takes Shadow a long, long time – the whole series in fact – to suss out that Wednesday is recruiting a gang of old gods to fight the new gods and that his boss is one of the original old-style war gods, Odin himself (the clue was in the name – Odin/Woden’s day = Wednesday).
Put like that, it sounds a bit like a Marvel super heroes movie, but it’s not even on the same planet.
In Gaiman’s world, gods aren’t buff do-gooders with a paper-thin backstory. Instead, they rely on worship – on people praying to them, sacrificing to them, building altars to them.
Once they are forgotten by their disciples, they die. In modern day America, the gods are now technology, media and globalisation, and they are vast and powerful, taking over many of the old beliefs and forging them again – like turning Easter into a chintz-fest of white rabbits and pastel-coloured macaroons.
The old gods are muttering in damp apartments or desperately flicking through Tindr in search of worshippers. They were brought to America by settlers, and some of the best scenes in the series depict how this happened.
A boat of early Viking raiders summon Odin, and leave him there when they decide the New World is a bit too rubbish. An Irish woman sentenced to transportation brings with her belief in the little folk; a Muslim woman who heard tales of the Egyptian dieties from her mother holds them in her heart when she moves to America; Ghanian teller of tales Anansi, the spider god, arrived with slaves in the sweating hold of a Dutch cargo ship.
The clincher as to whether I loved this series or just sort of admired it came at the start of episode three. The Egyptian woman – now living in Queens – falls off a rickety stool, dies, and is visited by Anubis, who weighs her heart and invites her to choose which door she will pass through into the underworld. This small scene was breathtakingly beautiful. The camera falls dizzyingly down through the apartment block, then journeys back up the fire escape to a sun-crossed land of ancient deserts. The woman’s face is careworn but beautiful, the colours are like a hand-tinted sepia film reel. I had to watch it three times.
If there is one thing American Gods has, it is depth. We don’t need to see the goddess Bilquis absorbing people into her vagina (yes, she actually does that. Loads of times). We don’t need to hear Anansi, Ghanian god of storytelling, tell it like it is to a sweltering hold of African slaves. But they give the series a boundless horizon, a sense that anything could happen.
And we will have to wait until the next season to find out exactly what is going to happen. Series one ends with nothing resolved and everything still to play for. I can’t wait that long – I’ve started reading the book.
Things I think about as I colour-co-ordinate my pegs
- If Shadow’s dead wife Laura Moon is brought back to life what will happen to her half-rotted body? And what about the fact she has no organs? How does this resurrection stuff work anyway?
- She tried to kill herself with fly-spray and is now surrounded by flies attracted to her rotten maggoty flesh. I see that. But don’t get it.
- And why is Laura so superhumanly strong now she’s dead? OK, enough about Laura now.
- Shadow Moon is really a bit of a docile thickie, so why are the nasty new gods so keen to recruit him? Why does everyone already know who he is?
- Is a leprechaun a god? I thought they were just like Little People from the land of faerie, hanging about around rainbows and stuff.
- That bank job Wednesday pulls, acting like a security guard. Would that work? (Asking for a friend).