TV Recap: American Gods: Season 2, Episode 1 "The House on the Rock"
Bryan Fuller has long been forced to make the most out of his brief stays on TV. Many a devoted fan may still hold Pushing Daisies dear to their heart—even if, like me, they found the endlessly romantic and whimsical spin on network mysteries of the week to be weighed down by a rushed attempt at closure in the last minutes of its two-season run. And even more might still long for what could have been with a fourth season of Hannibal—though for my money, that was at least blessed with the time to build toward a more organic, emotionally uncompromising conclusion.
With American Gods, a Fuller (and Michael Green) creation faces a different dilemma—an unlikely return after a two-year gap, but without either of its captains on board. Much has already been made of the behind-the-scenes shuffling of talent—Fuller and Green left not long after the show’s Season 1 run, only to be replaced by Fuller’s Hannibal and Star Trek: Discovery collaborator Jesse Alexander, who would also go on to part ways with the ambitious adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved novel. Then you factor in the departure of Media and Easter—Hannibal and Daisies alums Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth, respectively. It’s an understatement to say there’s lots to give viewers pause. A brilliant series has been saved from being a one-and-done, but at what cost?
One episode into the long-brewing second season of “American Gods,” that cost is clearly not the series’ visual panache. There’s the same sense of otherworldly novelty to the show’s sense of worldbuilding, one where each deity feels like a well-oiled attraction at a knowingly artificial theme park. Nor has the revolving door of showrunners cost this series its wit or heart, at least so far. From the second you see the reckless and mouthy Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) shuttling Mr. World (Crispin Glover) to a hush-hush hideout spot, followed by the dynamic quartet of Shadow and Laura Moon, Mr. Wednesday and Mad Sweeney packed into a car, it becomes clear that this cast can still cut to both the cruelty and humanity of their larger than life characters. There’s enough to enjoy here that one might say it’s safe to be cautiously optimistic.
After the methodical set-up Season 1 reveled in—making most of these Old Gods the hero of their own story—Season 2 is much quicker to establish ground rules and a conflict, at least by this show’s heady standards. Following the climax of S1, where an impending war between the aforementioned Old Gods (mostly figures of more traditional mythology, including Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday/Odin, Orlando Jones’ Mr. Nancy/Anansi, and Peter Stormare’s wildcard Czernobog) and New Gods (signs of cynicism in a more technological era -- namely Media, Technical Boy, and Mr. World) was established, we pick up with both teams regrouping.
There’s an early sense of shady intrigue as Tech Boy and World reach the “Black Briar” through a parking garage resembling something out of a candy-coated All the President’s Men and—as World admits, “I can’t sell war without my best salesman,”—one wonders how and when Media will make her grand, newly cast reappearance. Meanwhile, the Old Gods find a meeting place with much greater sense of wonder—The House on the Rock in Wisconsin. As they descend deeper into this roadside attraction, they meet up with even more key players who injected Season 1 with much of its heart—including love goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) and lovers Salim and Jinn (the latter now posing as a more blatantly Americanized “Bob”).
And here is where we reach what may be a make-it-or-break-it point for some, the centralization of Shadow Moon. After a psychedelic merry-go-round ride into the depths of Odin’s mind (looking, at first glance, like one of Christopher Nolan’s greyscale beaches), Shadow is accompanied by Bilquis toward a temple where the Old Gods take on their ancient, otherworldly appearances. Shadow was deliberately utilized as a stoic cipher unsure of his own beliefs in the first season, albeit one with Ricky Whittle’s surprise movie star charisma gradually clawing its way out. He was then frequently surrounded by larger-than-life supporting players regularly stealing scenes from each other, and while he still is, it’s now more readily apparent that Shadow is meant to guide their journeys toward reclaiming prominence in the public eye -- to “take the chance to be worthy of their belief,” as he tells them.
It’s a bold move to give the dramatic focus to a deliberately, sometimes frustratingly passive character (though I suppose it worked well enough for Neo of The Matrix Trilogy—fitting, since this series recalls the colorful and queer-friendly exuberance of The Wachowski Sisters’ filmography at its best). But “American Gods” has a secret weapon in making Shadow’s search for belief not just one of religious conviction, but a conflict between his lost love for Laura (Emily Browning, who gave an especially wry and sneakily emotional performance in last season’s “Git Gone,” a sobering breakup story if there ever was one) and his newfound devotion to Wednesday’s cause. After the newly crowned “dead wife” Laura works her way back into Shadow’s path, she admits she’s not used to fighting for his prioritization. Gone is the husband who liked mundanities like a 9 to 5, going to the gym and spending Sundays in bed with her, Laura laments.
After a tumultuous marriage slowly wedged apart in their past life by Shadow’s prison time and Laura’s affair, their on-and-off attempts to reclaim the ghost of it are what I’m most invested in moving forward. I can take or leave the ever-expanding mythos and some of the more gimmicky bloodshed in a shootout presumably orchestrated by Mr. World—it lacks both the gallows humor of something like Fuller favorite Scott Thompson’s quick demise from Season 1, and the mournful meaning of Laura spraying Shadow with their enemies’ blood as she saves his life. But there are many worse conceits for a heartfelt genre series than a bloodstained marriage—and if the light Laura sees after this episode’s climactic carnage is any indication, perhaps this show can still carry on in its original creators’ absence.