Friday, May 12, 2017

American Gods, Season 1 Episode 1 "The Bone Orchard"

american gods opening titles
Published in 2001, post the Y2K mass hysteria and only months away from 9/11, “American Gods” is a unique novel; equal parts fantasy tale and travelogue, with just a smattering of social satire. To briefly summarize the story, “American Gods” is a journey into the American firmament wherein modernity has made the old gods as obsolete as the telegraph or landline phones. Fast-forward to seventeen years later and fans of the literary work can now indulge in a visually sumptuous adaption of the work by TV auteur Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, creator of “Kings” (2009) and a successful screenwriter in his own right.
For those unfamiliar with Gaiman’s novel the premise of “American Gods” is simple. Long ago, gods roamed America. They fed and grew strong on people’s faith. As modernity approached faster and faster with every technological discovery and social revolution the Old gods of religion gave way to the New gods. These New gods; media, technology, the stock market, etc. etc., represent America’s obsessions. Yet, though the Old gods have lost most of their power there is an uneasy truce between the two camps, until of course, the start of our story.
The premiere episode, “The Bone Orchard”, does exactly what all good pilot episodes should do: introducing our leads, developing the central conflict in the series, and setting the tone for the entire show. Our audience surrogate, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), is an everyman for any age. The strong silent type, whose been serving three years of a six-year jail sentence for assault when the series opens. Ricky Whittle, all stares and nonchalant gestures, has a real talent for conveying the character’s anxiety or Pollyannaish daydreams of the life he left behind while being locked up just through subtle variations in his posture, tone of voice, and even the way he lets the pauses in conversations impart a panoply of emotions and backstory. And though this is just the first episode of the series, a lot happens to Shadow. He gets out of jail, his young wife dies, he makes several new friends, and makes a really dangerous enemy.

Headlining the entire show, Ian McShane plays the impish con artist Mr. Wednesday whose secret identity won’t be much of a secret to anyone with even a smattering knowledge of world mythology. For fans of McShane’s other work, especially his tenure as the foul-mouthed, scheming Al Swearengen in “Deadwood”, his performance in “American Gods” is just as rewarding. Watching the man pontificate and monologue is really a master class in oration and wordplay. In a slight variation from the book, the episode introduces the audience and Shadow to Wednesday in an airport scene wherein the cunning old coot puts on an act and scams a free ride in First Class. As the story progresses though and Shadow is propositioned by Wednesday to work for him, McShane sheds the Nice Guy act and reveals within the character a sense of foreboding, his sweet words more like poison being poured into the ears of his victims.

Scattered throughout the pilot we get several characters, many of which have no lines whatsoever or play only a tangential role in the main plot at the moment, but their scenes are never dull and they all contribute to building the world that the show inhabits. Case in point the show’s opening scene, a typical Neil Gaiman scene, which fades in on a character, Mr. Ibis, the Egyptian god of writing and stories, opening a book and transcribing a story, in voice-over, to us. The anecdote, an immigrant tale but not just of people but also of gods, is a black comedy. With a band of weatherworn Vikings landing on the shores of pre-Columbus America, and, finding the natives hostile, attempting a series of violent rituals to get the god Odin to blow a mighty wind to take them and their boats back home. In a far inferior show this seemingly disposable yarn, funny and well told as it is, would be just fluff and an excuse to revel in violence like some imitation Tarantino flick, but this opening scene encapsulates what the story is about and, in a way, what America is about.
Gaiman and the showrunners’ commentary of America as being a melting pot of people and religions are nothing new, but instead of presenting the rose-colored perspective on American history. With white Christians fleeing an intolerant home for a new land to practice their faith peacefully, and Native Americans that occasionally pop up but are just the friendly neighbors who graciously give up their land so Western European settlers can build homes, towns, and railroads over verdant fields that once fed and housed countless tribes. “American Gods” is a fictional true story of America. As the opening scene illustrated the “first” Americans to arrive on the shores of the continent didn’t just bring their stuff with them, they also dragged along their gods for the ride. Gods who had to contend with a vast open terrain that was unforgiving and far more powerful than one god could control. And, like all immigrant story, the gods evolved and adapted to their new country; the accouterments of the Old World traded in for the bland accessories of the New World.
Driven by a singular need for closure, “The Bone Orchard” eventually delivers Shadow to the front gate of a church, his wife’s funeral going on.  A sobering affair where Shadow’s own rose-tinted view of his wife is burst as he learns of her infidelity, with his best friend no less. Of course, the real trial by fire is Shadow’s meeting with Technical Boy, a New god of technology, who is anxious for some answers from Shadow about his new employer, Mr. Wednesday. The meeting quickly turns sour and Technical Boy’s droogs savagely beat and attempt to lynch Shadow. Stopping short of killing him as the rope strung around Shadow’s neck breaks and our hero is bathed in viscous carmine-blood, a mix of his own and the droogs, as he watches each member of the Technical Boy’s posse explode into a cloud of viscera and bodily fluids. A baptism of death and an awakening to the world underneath, populated by inhabitants of our stories and our nightmares.

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