Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on AMERICAN GODS, S1 Ep1; “The Bone Orchard.”
Parental discretion is neither required nor advised.
The Joy of Not Knowing
It’s been a good long while since I’ve read Gaiman’s source text and I’m enjoying the opportunity that my imperfect memory is providing me to rediscover the world that he built, through the lens of Bryan Fuller & Michael Green’s production. I retain enough of the basics of the story as well as a longtime understanding of Gaiman’s aesthetics to quickly develop my sea legs, but it’s delightful to be surprised again.
The prologue to the series is new, but to the great credit of the script, it immediately captures Gaiman’s exact voice with its first line of narration, while then charting a deviation forward with the arch, black comedy of the violence that follows.
The Little Death
A theme that comes into play a few times during the course of the episode is the question of how much divine influence and free will are tugging back and forth at each other. When Shadow wagers his servitude to Wednesday on a coin flip that he insists is rigged–“it will always be tails, because I don’t want to work for you”–Wednesday doesn’t necessarily display any sign of intervention to change the outcome. Instead, he simply says “it won’t always be tails,” and when it isn’t, there’s a sense that perhaps on a subconscious level Shadow didn’t rig the toss at all, and that he is looking for a purpose that might involve working as Wednesday’s aide-de-camp. Similarly, when Bilquis takes her sacrificial lover to bed, there’s a moment mid-coitus when something clearly shifts within him, but the scene is ambiguous about the origins of that shift. Is his lustful, pious poetry being fed to him by the goddess’ will, or has he simply been inspired by his pleasure such that his mind transcends his normal vocabulary during his final moments?
The Legless Mare
The existence of gallows throughout this episode, in the form of nooses and trees, is deliberate and pointed, particularly since Shadow is a black man existing in America. The show knows exactly what it’s doing here and is taking the opportunity to disturb us with our own history.
Of note: In addition to being the Asgardian all-father, Odin is traditionally known as the god of gallows.
Offerings and Averages
The mystery of Wednesday right this moment is “What does he need to survive?” We know what Bilquis requires by way of sacrifice, and we see that Mad Sweeney requires a decent donnybrook in order to “feel” alive, whether or not it actually sustains him. The prologue reminds us that the Viking explorers had to war amongst themselves simply to gain the attention of Odin and be allowed to go home, and in this first episode we meet a representative of his adversaries in the form of Technical Boy. “I always get what I want, on average, over time,” he tells Shadow on the airplane, which is a pretty good indication that–in contrast to Bilquis and Mad Sweeney–he may be willing to play longer games and go for a singular, quality sacrifice instead of a series of small and immediate offerings.
When Shadow’s cellmate warns him “Do not piss off those bitches in airports” it’s being presented as salty comedy, but considering that the character is hiding beneath the thinly veiled moniker of Low Key Lyesmith, it’s worth it to peel back the layers beneath its everyday advice. The airline employees who handle check-in are, in their way, an analog for gods in a mortal form–their whims and occasionally inscrutable set of rules determine your ability to go from one place to the next and how much it costs you to do so. In several mythologies there is a god or demigod figure whose role is to serve as psychopomp, providing passage from one world to the next.
And you do NOT. Want to piss off. Those beings.
I read elsewhere that certain members of the studio or the production staff had initially pushed for Shadow to accept Audrey’s proposition in the cemetery, and that Gaiman himself had had to stand against that terrible idea like an unyielding wall of stone. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine how fundamentally such an exploitation would have changed Shadow and our empathy for him, and I think the producers would have spent the rest of the season, if not the rest of the series, trying to answer for the character defect it would represent.
This is a promising first episode, and I imagine that after the season is completed it will be rewarding to review it to see what else was planted within its more oblique moments. Many good stories about con artists tend to flirt with perpetrating a con on the audience as well as on the players within the story, and Mr. Wednesday is a very good con artist indeed.