Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #11: American Gods

Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday in American Gods

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.

Czernobog

This is Czernobog and this is his hammer

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.

Is your heart heavier than a feather? Well, is it?

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.

Laura Moon

Laura Moon. Dead wife. With flies

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).

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #10: Ripper Street, Seasons 4 & 5

Ripper Street Season 4 (Amazon)

I was SO pleased when Amazon took over Ripper Street after the BBC wandered off. And now I am SO pleased it is over.

Ripper Street had a great cast, a steampunk script and an endless supply of blood and gutsy murders. Season 4 continued this to some extent, luring perpetually troubled Inspector Edmund Reid (consistently good Matthew Macfadyen) and the irritatingly perky Mathilda (Anna Burnett) back to dirty Whitechapel from the seaside backwater where they had been living in boring peace.

As Bennet Drake (best side-kick ever Jerome Flynn) is now the boss of H Division, and Reid a mere special constable, tensions are inevitable. This is compounded by the fact that Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) is about to be hanged and Captain Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) is acting all drunk and not bothered and their son, Connor, is to be brought up by Rose (Charlene McKenna) and Drake. Oh, and Mathilda is making all the eyes at desk sergeant Drummond (Matthew Lewis), who resorts to reading Dracula to try and impress her.

Jedediah Shine, Ripper Street

Don’t dial 999 for him. Jedediah Shine, brilliantly played by Joseph Mawle

So far, so Ripper Street. Storylines involving amateur footballers and blood splatters, an evil workhouse owner and a blood transfusion gone horribly wrong recapture the grisly magic of Ripper Street of old.

However, there were some sneaky storylines underlying it all that should have alerted me to what awaited in Season 5. Firstly, there is Augustus Dove (Killian Scott), an unbelievably young and even more unbelievably reasonable assistant commissioner. Then the cold case involving the murder of a local rabbi and talk of a Whitechapel golem. Finally, there is Long Susan’s execution. She killed 52 people just so she could put a hospital in her front room! We don’t feel sorry for her, and Jackson is better off without her. Instead, he comes up with a daft plan and saves her from the rope. Boo.

Season 5 has a single storyline. Even the title music has changed, and Reid keeps forgetting to shave, just so you know that everything has taken a darker turn. Pantomime villain Jedediah Shine (played terrifyingly well by Joseph Mawle) turns up to take over when Drake is killed, Rose – who seemed to be a completely different person than in previous seasons – turn traitor then trundles off to Blackpool and Augustus Dove decides to bring up Connor, with the help of a cruel governess. Reid, Jackson and Long Susan hide out in a theatre owned by Jackson’s previous amour, the witty Mimi (Lydia Wilson), who had some of the best lines in the series.

It all trundles along, with everyone knowing what is going on but no-one able to bring anything to any kind of conclusion. In the end, I forgot I was watching the final series, wandering over to iPlayer documentaries and YouTube film noirs when I was ironing instead. Then a severe sinus infection knocked me flat into bed for three days and all I could do was stare at the iPad and sniff. It seemed the ideal time to finally cross Ripper Street off my list.

Long Susan and Nathanial Dove

Long Susan and Nathanial Dove – we know what awaits them, and it ain’t a happy ending

It wasn’t all bad. David Threlfall as Abel Croker was an excellent addition to Season 4, and jaunty Sergeant Thatcher (Benjamin O’Mahony) made up for the absence of old favourite, slimy journalist Fred Best, who was killed in Season 3. Nathaniel Dove (Jonas Armstrong), Augustus’s murderous brother, was brilliantly portrayed, as you wondered who was the real animal – the man who couldn’t help himself, or the one who could but killed children to cover up his brother’s madness.

As always, the staging and photography was a treat. The smoke of the Thames Ironworks, peeling plaster of Newgate Gaol and billboard-plastered alley walls were all atmospherically recreated. But the final series just wasn’t Ripper Street, it was a two-episode storyline stretched so much you could hear the whalebone snapping.

A lot of critics disliked the final episode, but I thought it redeemed the series somewhat. By wrapping the storyline to its obviously inevitable ending half way through, it left the second half open for flashbacks (Drake and Best reappear!) and a lingering farewell. Reid carries on, his best friend dead, everyone else he cares about moving on and moving away. He remains at Leman street, haunted by the one crime he could not solve – Jack the Ripper – and spending the last minutes of the old century alone, reading through the night’s crime reports.

Things I think about when I sort through the linen basket:

  • Did Augustus Dove’s lisp get more pronounced as the series went on or did I just become more attuned to it?
  • Who caught the eels for the Sumner family before Nathaniel turned up? Thatcher said they were the ‘best eels in London’…
  • I lost track of Rachel Costello (Anna Koval) that determined new reporter who was on Dove’s trail. Where did she go after Shine menaced her? Why didn’t she scream blue murder to the people in the next office when he had his hands up her petticoats?
  • Why did clever Mimi have to go and marry some old bloke? Why couldn’t she carry on having cosy suppers with poor lonely Inspector Reid? Why?

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #8: The Walking Dead (Seasons 1 – 5)

The Walking Dead started out as perfect ironing fodder. It didn’t matter if I had to go and pull stuff off the washing line cause all I’d miss was another zombie being spiked.

But as the show went on it gradually moved, like a slowly rotting corpse, into something much darker and grittier. So much so that by the time I came to the end of Season 5 it had become my favourite Thing I Watch When I Am Knitting show – and for some episodes I didn’t get much damn knitting done.

When we started leaving old-world style relationships behind (ie: as soon as Lori bit the dust) it really took off. I couldn’t buy into the love triangle between Lori, our hero Rick and his best friend (who left him to rot in a hospital and then seduced his wife) Shane. The world was imploding around them, they were living in a tent in a layby with a load of oddballs and eating grass. Weren’t there more important things going on down?

Thankfully, despite Glenn and Maggie getting together, and Bob and Sasha having a bit of a sweet thing, there has been no cringe-making lurve scenes (I don’t count Andrea and the Governor. I don’t think they did either). It has been about loyalty, family, filthy t-shirts and very tight trousers.

Michonne turned up to the party with a sword, a hood and two pet zombies. Beats a bottle of Frascati anytime

Michonne turned up to the party with a sword, a hood and two pet zombies. Beats a bottle of Frascati anytime

And talking of the Governor, while he was a great pantomime villain (eyepatch and immunity to death as standard), things were much more complex when the bad guys were the Terminans and the Claimers and those nutters at the hospital who took Beth. They all had harrowing backstories or warped codes of ethics and more nuances than you would expect from a blood-spattered zombie-fest.

In this world, the law of consequences is a killer – literally. Forget karma. If you don’t take someone out when you have the chance you are sure as hell going to regret it. Morgan can’t bring himself to shoot his undead wife – and we find later she is the one who kills his son. Dale’s death is totally Carl’s fault, for messing with a walker, and letting the Governor live wasn’t a good move for anyone, ever. This doesn’t half mess with your humanity.

Another reason it is so compelling is that anyone could die at any time. Except Rick, obvs, because he appears on the posters for Season 6. Knowing you can lose a major character means you never relax – I was fully expecting to see Glenn go down in the finale of Season 5. And you can’t bond with new characters because you never know if they are destined to be a regular or not. Why does Moses have to die when  Tara and Rosita make it?

Kickass Carol. Don't look at the flowers on that jumper

Kickass Carol. Don’t look at the flowers on that jumper

Bits that made me drop my cable needle

  • Finding Merle’s severed, still handcuffed hand on the roof.
  • The CDC centre going into lockdown and then blowing up.
  • Carl getting shot straight after seeing the stag. So there is still beauty in this world? Nope.
  • Shane reanimating without being bitten. WTF? Did I miss something? Combined with the revelation of what Dr Lister had whispered to Rick, this was jawdropping.
  • The first apperance of Michonne, hooded, with a katana and two chained, armless walkers. Bloody awesome image.
  • The Governor killing Martinez, proving he wasn’t redeemed at all, despite calling himself Brian.
  • Beth getting shot. A perplexing surprise.
  • Rick biting out Joe’s throat. He didn’t see that coming.
  • Bob telling the Terminans they were eating infected flesh after waking up to find they’d barbecued his foot. Right back at ya there.
  • Moses dying in the revolving door. This was horrible. He was a great character, with a strong back story. The revolving door was a brilliant idea and Glenn watching him die through the glass was too harrowing.
  • Carol’s flowery jumper in Alexandria. It was hideous.

Bits that made me throw my stitch holders at the screen

  • Lori telling Andrea that ladies don’t shoot, they do the laundry and the cooking. Waytogo Lori.
  • Beth singing miserable songs. How about a version of Knees Up Mother Brown to cheer everyone up, eh Beth?
  • Beth’s odd and pointless death. Why’d she stab Dawn? Why’d Dawn shoot her? (I read later the Beth actress had a singing career to pursue).
  • Everyone believing Eugene was a top scientists despite his cowboy accent and totally unscientific hairstyle.
  • Bizarre domestic violence plotline at Alexandria. Failed to engage or even interest me.
  • Aiden and his crummy chum Nicholas at Alexandria being dangerous arseholes and no-one talking about it or apparently believing Glenn and Eugene. Infuriating plotline.
Terminus - don't go there. Seriously. DON'T GO THERE

Terminus – don’t go there. Seriously. DON’T GO THERE

Bits that made me cry into my tension swatch

  • Carol telling Lizzie to ‘look at the flowers’ before shooting her. I mean, that whole episode. Sob.
  • Tyreese’s death. That whole episode. More sob.

Things that make me lose track when I am counting stitches

  • The superclean, fully stocked chapel of rest where Beth and Daryl stayed. Who looked after it? Where did they get the bargain bottles of cola from?
  • The hermit in the woods who threatened to call the cops. Had he really been asleep all those months, with a dead dog in the room, and no idea there was a zombie apocalypse going on?
  • The hitchhiker outside the prison they ignored, then stole his bag once zombies had taken him down. He had managed to get that far, alone, and they let him die. That still bothers me.
  • The one-eyed dog at the chapel of rest. I hope it’s ok.

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #5: The Man In The High Castle, series 1

My husband describes The Man in the High Castle as a ‘morbid soap’, and he’s not wrong. Laugh a minute it ain’t.
After the action of the first couple of episodes, not much actually happens in the rest of the series. No-one ever has a proper conversation – they all just look meaningfully at each other and then look away, also meaningfully. However, this creates an impressively oppressive atmosphere – we have no idea what is going on but we know it isn’t anything nice.
Most impressive is the setting – a grubby, run-down America, with pompous Nazi symbolism and mystical Japanese culture pasted over the top.
There are too many coincidences and mumbled misery to take it all too seriously; the chances of Juliana running into Joe the amount of times she does is ludicrous, for a start, and why does Frank’s friend Ed take the gun back to work to dispose of? I mean, the place is full of suspicious eyes and the Japanese have been crawling all over it. Drop it down a drain, for gawd’s sake!
But in most parts, the storyline is solid and the acting is excellent. Top US Nazi John Smith discovering his son has an incurable disease was cleverly handled without histrionics, and the relationship between gentle Mr Tagomi and nervous Juliana was touchingly portrayed.
The closing scene (with the i-ching consulting Mr Tagomi opening his eyes to an alternative 1962 America) was so beautiful and compelling I watched it three times. Man in the high castle posters
After a few episodes of running around and hard stares, the ending of the final two episodes was masterful. It turned the whole premise of the series from ‘what would have happened if?’ to pure sci-fi. Do these films show the future, or a scenario of different futures? Or are they not the future at all, are they different realities? Are we in a time-travelling situation here? Hitler had racks and racks of films – did they help him win the war? Do the films change depending on the things he does? Is he the man in the high castle?? Bring on season two.

Things I think about when I trek to the airing cupboard:

  • Who was the second man in the film Juliana and Frank saw being shot?
  • Is Joe Blake John Smith’s son? Has that actually been said, out loud, by anyone?
  • Why does the nasty Nazi want to kill John Smith? I know it all has to do with the plot to kill Hitler, but that’s as far as I can go.
  • What conditioner does Juliana use? Is it some sort of Japanese concoction? Because, despite all her troubles, her hair is unfailingly divine.

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #2: Outlander series 1

Outlander cast

Altogether now – Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing…
You end up warbling this ALL DAY after watching Outlander. My daughter can even play it on the recorder.

I have not read Diana Gabaldon’s books, although the first one is on my teetering ‘to read when I am recovering from the car crash that renders me totally bedridden but not in any pain for six months’ pile.
And while the concept of travelling back in time and falling in love with a be-kilted piece of Scottish hunk is a bit, well, wet, you gotta admit it is damn appealing. Everything was so much easier in the 18th century – no worries about updating to iOS 9, or renewing the house insurance. OK, chances were you would die in childbirth, if the smallpox, malnutrition or hypothermia didn’t get you first, but there is nothing like a real life-or-death struggle to teach you the priorities in life.

In Outlander, nurse Claire Randall is recovering from the horrors of the Second World War by having a second honeymoon in Scotland with her nice, intelligent and sensitive husband Frank. Somehow (and this is the only magicky bit in the series, which is why Game of Throne comparisons are just daft) she taps into some ancient power in some standing stones and ends up running for her life in bare feet and a thin white frock back into 1743.

Once you take this on board, things get a whole lot better. Claire is confused and angry, but she isn’t daft, and cottons on pretty quickly to what has happened. At one bit she does demand iodine and something else no-one outside of a 20th century pharmacy would have heard off, just so the dour-but-heart-of-gold Scots can look dumb, then grin and cackle when she asks for alcohol instead.
Using the Highlanders for comic relief does grate a bit, much like turning Gimli the Dwarf into a comedy character in the Lord of The Rings films. And the plot twist that has Claire and Jamie being forced to get married made me wince – especially as Jamie is the biggest, handsomest, cleverest and kindest of all the men she has met so far. Talk about lucky.

Redcoats, Outlander

Would you rather be here or 1946 England? (Outlander-online.com)

But this is a historical romance, and it works well. The whole thing looks wonderful, although they have done something cunning with the photography. I have been to Scotland and, believe me, it is stunning, but it isn’t quite so cartoon green.

Unusually as well, we see many things from Claire’s point of view. She is the experienced, focused one, and she falls for innocent-hearted virgin Jamie, who frequently finds himself needing rescuing (by her). Also, while it is hard to resist the buff and broad-shouldered redhead, Claire can’t forsake Frank for quite a while. It would have been easier to make Frank a horror, or needy, and worth escaping, but it doesn’t. However, when she does get the chance to return, and decides to stay in the 18th century, I’m still not sure what made her change her mind (apart from the thought of Jamie’s pecs, obvs).

It is romantic, swashbucking nonsense, but I would enjoy it much more if I didn’t dislike Clare SO MUCH. I know she is all feisty and stuff (hate that word. When do you get a feisty man?). It’s not that, at least she isn’t a screeching, pouting wimpoid. But she has absolutely no sense of humour. She never finds anything weird and amusing, it is all just so dreadful and serious and important. But, then again, just about everything she encounters is dreadfully serious and important.

One of the cleverest things in Outlander is that her lovely bookish husband is a descendant of English captain ‘Black’ Jack Randall – a psychopathic sadist who makes it his mission to terrorise her and Jaimie. Black Jack and Frank are played superbly by the same actor (Tobias Menzies), and he steals the show. Jack is mesmerisingly vile – so well-spoken and gentlemanlike, so persuasive and commanding – and so utterly, utterly twisted.

Which brings us to… the rape. Using rape as a plot device can be lazy and immoral. It’s like throwing a hairdryer in a bath – chuck it in a storyline to evoke an immediate reaction. You know who you are supposed to hate, and why, and who has your sympathy. The victim is given a cast-iron reason to exact a horrible revenge, the victim’s supporters are given reasons go along with this revenge. Anything that serves rape up as entertainment (much like the over-use of child abuse in modern storylines, which has become a catch-all reason for why someone is harbouring a Terrible Secret, or is troubled, or evil, or criminal or whatever) runs the risk of making it commonplace, of anaesthetising us to it and its effects. Game of Thrones series five managed this – we already loathe Ramsey Bolton, we already root for Sansa, so why? (Don’t get me started.)
You can’t pretend rape doesn’t exist – that really would be a fantasyland. But if you are going to gratuitously dish it up, then you have to employ it to truly devastating affect, which is what happens here. The fact that in Outlander it is a man – a big, strong man – who is the victim turns the usual tropes on their head, illustrating that rape is about power, not violence. It also says everything about Jack Randall’s dark and complex character.

Things I think about when I’m matching socks:

  • Everything you know from living in the 21st century means sod all if you go back in time. Claire is a nurse, so she can stitch wounds and sort out dislocated shoulders and knows about sterilisation. But it is her hobby as a botanist that helps her as a healer – no aspirins or Savlon in the 1700s. She also has a working knowledge of history, but what good can that do you? Unless you know names, dates and incidents in precise detail there is not much you can do except advise folk to give Culloden a wide berth or maybe move to London and buy lots of land in a little village called Chelsea. In fact, Claire’s advice to her sister-in-law to plant potatoes instead of wheat was inspired, and probably just about the only thing 300 years of advancement could give you.
Claire, Outlander

Scotland – bloody lovely, and bloody cold (Outlander-online.com)

  • They are all totally impervious to cold. Probably because I am not, and live in a House of Many Draughts, I notice these things. Is it only me who is still concerned about the nice little shawl Claire dropped by the spooky stones when she went back in time? Is it still there? She runs the risk of a terrible sore throat without it. Scotland is bloody chilly at the best of times, and usually damp, but Claire and Jamie happily tumble in the heather together, usually with artfully ripped bodices and bare knees and never once shiver. Even when Claire has some sort of plaid rug pinned around her shoulders, it leaves her chest bare. Get a bloody scarf on, woman.
  • And while we all buy into the conceit that everyone has perfect teeth (would we really want to see everyone – even the nobles – with brown rotting stumps?) Outlander is pretty good at stopping there – the make-up is toned down, apart from lip stain and cleverly applied smears of mud and blood. All that is apart from Claire’s hair, which usually ends up whipping around her shoulders in romantic waves. Yes, it looks lovely and all that, but how the hell does she get the knots out? This is the age before Denham pure bristle hairbrushes, let alone Herbal Essences conditioner and Frizz-Ease serum. Hell, this is the age before combs. Anyone with long hair who has undergone a brisk walk to the Co-Op on a blustery day knows how tangled it can get.