TV Recap: American Gods: Season 2, Episode 2 "The Beguiling Man"
Remember when I offhandedly compared American Gods’ Shadow Moon to Neo of the Matrix trilogy in last week’s recap? If this season’s second episode is any indication, the properties share more than just stoically insecure protagonists. One more episode into the reborn Gods, it seems like worldbuilding detours could be fewer and farther between—even if there’s no action on display here to rival The Matrix Reloaded, “The Beguiling Man” is emblematic of another series constantly in search of conflict—I can’t help but fear could get in the way of what drew me to this show in the first place.
While Gods’ adherence to a hero’s journey is no more surprising than the Wachowskis’ was a decade ago, it is a bit of a trip to see Shadow being put to the test this quickly. It seems like in the wake of a devastating attack on the Old Gods orchestrated by the New, Shadow begins this episode in captivity, being shocked and interrogated by the newly introduced Mr. Town (Dean Winters). As the New Gods continue to wonder why the all-powerful Odin needs a so-called petty crook like Shadow, Mad Sweeney accompanies Laura in the search for his light. In key moments of both storylines, some glimmers of the old American Gods glory shine through.
Many of Season 1’s strongest moments came in the form of standalone story threads initially disconnected from Shadow’s present-day journey, playing into Neil Gaiman’s original vision of America as a supernatural melting pot in search of the freedom to flourish as such. It’s hard to forget the righteous anger Mr. Nancy spews at a ship full of slaves, or Bilquis’ descent to disco clubs and dating apps after being worshipped centuries ago. In flashbacks to Shadow’s adolescence spent with his mother, similar moments of magic sneak their way back in. An early scene with mother and son staring out at the Statue of Liberty is terrific—Shadow recalls to his mother Lady Liberty’s original status as a Roman Goddess before the French gave her to America’s Founding Fathers. It’s pleasant to bask in the wonder and awe with these characters so rarely afforded the chance to feel it. Even as they travel the world, Shadow and his mother always run the risk of being targeted by oppressors, including police—as Shadow’s mother tells him, “Their whole life, they’ve been hearing a story about who you are. And you’re the enemy of that story.”
As Shadow recalls his past encounters with prejudice and tragedy in the form of his mother’s terminal illness, Laura finds herself stuck focusing on the future—and whether her efforts to save her uncertain husband are worth it. Though her spiteful exchanges with Mad Sweeney remain one the series’ most wickedly amusing delights, it remains clear as day that death has made Laura no happier than life did. When the pair reach a meadow at the end of the road, Laura lies down in the flowers and remarks she’s “just another dead girl in a field” before Sweeney crouches down next to her to light a cigarette. When the two teleport to get closer to Shadow, they end up on the outer railing of a bridge, as if they’re ready to jump. When they leap down to the train carrying the light of Laura’s life, it becomes clear that these characters’ brief bouts with despair can be repurposed for saving their loved ones’ lives—and it ends on an even more hopeful note for the self-destructive Laura as she tells her husband with newfound clarity, “I had to save you.”
Shadow’s and Laura’s ongoing attempt to reclaim lost love remains a compelling, beating heart for the series, but I’m still not sure how I’ll end up feeling about the body it’s built into. Tech Boy’s search for Media remains an uncertain venture, while Salim’s and Jinn’s relationship seems frustratingly short of the intimacy and time devoted to emotional beats it had in Season 1 thus far. Bilquis’ potentially shifting allegiance is a much more promising wildcard—she’s one of the few Old Gods who’s paved her own path by leaning into newer technology to maintain prominence, but for now, she remains convinced that she won’t fight for the New Gods. I hope this remains true, since her interactions with both Shadow and Laura in Season 2’s premiere seemed like too intriguing (and potentially romantic?) a set-up to drop so quickly. At any rate, Yetide Badaki remains an essential player in this show, bringing a real lived-in melancholy to a character that’s seen such a drastic rise and fall over centuries. The quiet determination with which she tells Mr. World, “War tears lovers asunder,” before refusing his cause is captivating and moving in a show that so often asks its performers to go larger than life.
Fortunately, said larger than life characters don’t seem like they’ll be left on the wayside any time soon, as we see in this episode with the ongoing Wednesday/Mr. Nancy dynamic. But that may be a blessing and a curse depending on how the writing shapes up for the remainder of this season. McShane and Jones are undeniably performers with gravitas and comedic timing, but it’s hard to sell some of this roadside banter when we have surprisingly hackneyed scenes like a gaffe over fried chicken. Not that this creative team should be expected to have the clairvoyance to predict what wins Best Picture, but I have to hope Orlando Jones starts getting better satirical material to take advantage of his unique intensity as a comedic performer.
Thankfully, McShane remains a scenery-chewer for the ages (and now that I’m finally watching this show after finishing Deadwood, it’s great fun to see him rekindle Al Swearengen’s crusty, reluctant authority for fantasy trappings). Wednesday’s talks of “Betty the Barbarian” and lighting the path to Valhalla before the train carrying Shadow hits his car is the sort of monologue he can perfect in his sleep. The horse running toward him right before the credits roll is both foreboding and a potential sign of even more lore for this cast to break down. McShane is among the best of these actors at making large swaths of jargon and backstory feel conversational—and if nothing else, I remain enthusiastic to see him on TV every week.
“The Beguiling Man” is another hour of ups and downs for American Gods, but for many viewers, it at least comes with a renewed sense of hope for the future. With the show renewed for a third season and another new showrunner found in Dark Angel and Murder One co-creator Charles Eglee, we now know this is a show that needs no rush to wrap things up. Though we continue to wander farther from the grace Fuller and Green brought to this property, it’s at least comforting to know these captivating characters still have time to grow.