TV Recap: American Gods: Season 2, Episode 3 "Muninn"
For a show in dire need of the steady creative hand it once had, there are certainly less ominous ways to start an episode than in flames. But in its first few scenes, “Muninn” shows a real attachment to the concept of rebuilding—from an eerie overhead view of (what else?) a train wreck followed by Shadow floating aimlessly in an undefined space, we cut to both a woman and a vehicle in need of fixing after last week’s big collision. The still-deceased Laura’s body parts are strewn across the scene as Betty the Barbarian, Mr. Wednesday’s supernaturally gifted car, repositions itself into tip-top shape just like Stephen King’s and John Carpenter’s Christine before her. As Shadow calls for his wife from behind the skulls that haven’t left his dreams, there’s a strikingly smooth, nightmarish edge to the visual storytelling here that I’ve missed in this show.
But before we can revel too much in the surprisingly atmospheric delight of this episode’s introduction, Shadow once again becomes a man on a mission, this time to Cairo, Illinois. That’s pronounced “cay-ro,” as the soft-spoken Sam Black Crow (Devery Jacobs) tells him at a gas station. As Shadow tries to regain his old identity as the smooth talker who warmed Laura’s heart years ago, she’s quick to shut down his attempts at flirting with a cashier and swoops in to take his cash for gas money. By the time Sam and Shadow hit the road toward Cairo together, it becomes clear that they make for a well-matched pair of wisecrackers.
It’s an even more pleasant surprise to discover there’s more than just snark to Sam—she’s the most engaging new character of Season 2 thus far. From the pictures she takes of Shadow to the Rock & Roll Museum and Poetry Battle tickets found in her car, Sam seems like the type to make sense of her surroundings through art and culture. The latter comes into clearer focus as she describes the Crow Nation warrior named “Finds Them and Kills Them,” and we learn that she’s a two-spirited individual like he was—and in another time, that would have made her godlike, she says. Sam was also caught between two worlds with a full-blood Cherokee father who called her a “half-breed,” and a mother who raised her with the Bible. In learning more about her ancestors and identity, Sam found what she calls a “home.”
Sam’s life story is a memorable addition to the show’s roster of individuals who are forced to carve new identities in the face of personal and cultural changes surrounding them—“rebuilding,” if you will. We even get a case of that in this episode with Technical Boy, perhaps the show’s most cynical, unlikeable character. Initially, TB is angry at a lack of change, saying he wanted surveillance god Argus to upgrade “eons ago.” But if the appearance of New Media (Kahyun Kim) is any indication, he might be more set on old practices than he’d ever admit to the Old Gods. The younger, more social media savvy reincarnation of Gillian Anderson’s Media admits she’s a bit redundant for the New Gods with TB still in the picture, but points out to him that they serve different audiences—and you can see the barely masked fear of being replaced in the snotty young man’s face.
Back when he was introduced in Season 1, my impression of Bruce Langley’s performance as TB was that he eerily channeled an entitled incel (I could never shake the mental comparison I made between InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson and him). I feel like TB’s power play with New Media gives new validity to my case—he’s quick to tell the “new girl” that he’s in charge, and you can register a bit of surprise when she doesn’t let that phase her—at least for now. This is a dynamic I could see improving with time, but before it’s expanded on too much, they’re off to see the Wizard—or at least the aforementioned Argus.
The god of surveillance is, simply put, a visual marvel. From the eyes that phase in and out of his body to the bed of wires he’s wrapped up in, he feels in part like a high-tech reimagining of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth. He’s far more presence than personality, but said presence is the driving force behind two storylines in this episode. As TB and New Media are off to speak with him, Wednesday and Laura are off to kill him—at least, the latest version of him. Argus is known to leave behind “husks” of his former self before upgrading like computer software, and it’s through these husks that Laura gets some of her finest moments so far this season.
When she and Wednesday first discuss Argus’ ongoing metamorphoses, Laura’s pressed to think of her one mission in this afterlife. She stands by Shadow being her mission, but when asked by Wednesday whether she wants marriage, kids or a summer house with her lost love, all she knows is that Shadow’s shining light gives her something to work toward. After moving from a virtual field to a recreation of the Great Library of Alexandria, Wednesday reminds Laura of a painful childhood memory—when she was 10, her presumably alcoholic father spilled his drink on a library book she’d checked out. Feeling too ashamed to return the book, Laura’s never visited a library since. By the episode’s end, we even learn her pre-married name—Laura McCabe. Like Sam, she’s always searching for an identity removed from her upbringing—perhaps it’s no coincidence that Shadow forges meaningful connections with them both.
Less meaningful are the ongoing antics of Mad Sweeney’s bumbling fish out of water routine. Following his decision to head toward New Orleans, Sweeney slips and falls in a boat, accidentally lighting a fire with his cigarette. Just scenes later, he’s walking down the road trying to catch a lift, and luckily finds folks heading to his destination—but wouldn’t you know it, now he’s stuck on a Christian rock band’s tour bus! Between this and last week’s fried chicken gag, some of the show’s broader jokes feel like they’d work better on the page, with Neil Gaiman injecting lived-in cynicism and acidic wit to even his lesser work. As presented onscreen, American Gods too often takes the low road when we regularly see it’s capable of much more natural charm. It helps that Pablo Schreiber remains adept at physical comedy and cutaway reactions. He’s got a real knack for selling short man’s syndrome in a tall man’s body, but that’s always worked best playing against Shadow’s and Wednesday’s varying shades of cool, or the comparatively petite Laura upscaling him at every turn. I can’t help but wonder how well he’ll keep me invested in a solo arc, should the season choose to take him in that direction.
The more disappointing downside of this episode, sadly, comes again in the form of Salim and Jinn. Though their romance in Season 1 was mostly presented as a spiritual, visually sweeping affair, Omid Abtahi and Mousa Kraish sold their chemistry to the point where I anticipated seeing this season give them substantial, loving exchanges to contemplate how their shared history of faith and immigration would inform their relationship going forward. But so far, they’ve been saddled with progressing the plot while getting tragically little room for detours (ones thrillingly nailed by their co-stars in this very episode!). When the pair pay shapeshifter and trickster god Iktomi a visit to pick up an “instrument of death” (also ending up with a mysterious seedling), Jinn does offhandedly mention that he likes being sexually involved with “humans.” I now can’t help but wonder if Jinn would consider himself bi or pansexual, or if his state of being even reads much into human gender expression to start with. Or how this compares with Salim’s understanding of his own queer identity. Or if, in a post-Fuller world, the show is even interested in exploring any of that. At any rate, there’s still time to pull a Thor Ragnarok and have an actor clarify without any onscreen proof.
I’m hard on this show because I love this show, even now. In its best moments, “Muninn”reminded me of how effectively American Godscan take intentionally archetypal characters and surround them with such jaw-dropping wonder and awe that they must open up to make sense of it all. Its worst moments go down much smoother with the presence of lowered expectations. It seems wise to heed the advice Wednesday offers Shadow near the episode’s end, when they finally meet in Cairo: “Revelations come when ready, not when requested.”