TV Recap: American Gods: Season 2, Episode 8 "Moon Shadow"
American Gods’ second season has come to an end, with the war between the Old and New Gods in full swing. But the war for this series’ quality has been decided — not in a decisive victory or a crushing defeat, but with a draw. Conceptually, this is a series committing to a darker expansion of the idea it built a foundation on: the intersection of belief and identity. That was once a beacon of hope for Shadow Moon, but now it holds him back from the love of his life, Laura, and stains his hands with the blood of another lost soul, Mad Sweeney. There’s a psychologically unnerving future for this show on paper — but tragically and perhaps inevitably, it now seems doomed to a perpetually hit-or-miss execution of its promising core.
It’s hard to escape my anxiety over this show’s future when fear is such an overt focus of this season finale from the first frame. We start with a broadcast stoking fear of an alien invasion — it’s this show’s interpretation of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds from 1938, in which we’re left to figure out from a newspaper headline about the Munich Agreement. Scenes of a family taking this all in are interspersed with a monologue from Mr. World, discussing the inevitability of fearing thy neighbor. Soon enough, the New Gods’ mastermind walks through a movie set, spitefully reminding audiences of their love for horror and spinning it in a twisted new light. “If it’s real in your mind, it’s real in the world,” he eventually proclaims. Crispin Glover’s anguished whispers are always put to effective work on this show, and for any misgivings I’ve had this season, I’m happy to report he’s never been one of them.
When we cut to Shadow in the present-day plot, scenes and lines from episodes past reverberate in his mind — most notably, Mr. Wednesday’s definitive statement that “Gods are real if you believe in them.” The opportunistic father figures of American Gods recruit their aimless up-and-comers with different phrasing of the same sentiment, one which costs their recruits once-meaningful relationships. In Shadow’s case, he has finally fallen out with his wife, after they reunite in a Cairo graveyard. Admittedly, Laura was already facing an uphill battle with him, having slept with Shadow’s best friend and inspired the scheme that landed her husband in prison. But while her apology to Shadow may fall on deaf ears, this relationship is a two-way street — Laura calls out Mr. Wednesday as a “psychopath,” the one who orchestrated her death to make Shadow more impressionable for Old Grimnir. A marriage once put on hold by Laura’s self-destructive tendencies is now kept from healing by Shadow’s commitment to an unhealthy alternative.
The onscreen rendition of American Gods has always worked best for me as a doomed romance, and if nothing else, that was on full display in this episode. In a welcome flashback, we see a happy Shadow and Laura on a sunny day from well before everything went south. They’re sitting on a park bench when Laura becomes ecstatic at the sight of a dog walking by — but as much as Laura wants a puppy of her own, she’s allergic to dogs. This is where Shadow steps in, affectionately telling his wife, “I will be your puppy.” Thus Laura’s trademark term of endearment toward her husband is born, but it’s quickly put to rest in the present day, where Shadow lays on a gravestone that reads “She hath done what she could.” He tells Laura, “Don’t call me puppy,” and when she announces her intent to kill Mr. Wednesday, his apathetic answer speaks volumes. Laura might have sowed seeds of doubt in their relationship, and however unfair it might be for Shadow to pick up the slack, Wednesday has led him away from the proper state of mind to do so. Seeing two flawed people take flawed approaches to fixing things is painful, and as much as I would have liked more time between the two lovers this season, Whittle and Browning sell this bitter realization with enough conviction to make it feel earned.
It makes this series’ less successful doomed romance stick out like a sore thumb, unfortunately. Salim and Jinn have been done no favors by this season’s insistence to put them in plot-heavy scenarios undermining everything that made their first embrace so somber, mystical and moving. When a new attack from the New Gods sends them on the run together, there’s just not as much weight as there should be — the sight of these two on a motorcycle has been reduced to a gag for too much of the season, with the odd homophobic slight from Wednesday or Sweeney feeling out of touch from what Michael Green and Bryan Fuller established with their characters. As good as Omid Abtahi and Mousa Kraish are in these roles, even a long overdue kiss between them feels like a shell of what it could have been. At one point, Salim admits to Jinn, “I don’t know what we are going to be.” Regrettably, I really don’t either.
It’s at least a relief that on his own, Salim fares somewhat better than usual in this episode. He’s given the responsibility of key reactions to a scheme orchestrated by Mr. World and New Media, who spin a news story connecting two men to a chemical attack in Kentucky, and “the Belfontaine, Indiana massacre 10 days ago.” Shadow and Wednesday are the fabricated suspects, and soon enough they’re blamed for the deaths of 7 police officers. Salim is much too quick to believe all this — most notably, when he’s clearly in shock at the slain officers in this story. For however underwhelming their romantic chemistry has been, this gives some long-overdue significance to Jinn’s insistence that the sheltered Salim believes everything he’s told. This is someone who’s never questioned his monotheistic faith, and seems to hold institutions like law enforcement to a level of infallibility that clashes with some of the Old Gods’ skepticism. But Salim soon realizes he’s at risk of slander from the same sensationalized media he clings to, when he’s named as a third suspect — one knowingly referred to as an “Omani national who stole a taxi in New York City.” One can hope Salim will gain a long overdue sense of cynicism alongside Shadow in Season 3.
A third, unexpected relationship is on display in the form of a reborn Tech Boy and his long-time friend and follower from The Greatest Story Ever Told. Now credited as The CEO, that friend has been hard at work developing technology for the New Gods, but he still finds the time to marvel at his latest creation. After a holographic Tech Boy takes human form, The CEO calls his reanimated friend “perfect, beautiful, simple.” Tech Boy does not share the same affection for his re-creator, who he calls “messy,” with “so many systems that can fail.” The CEO faces an uphill battle working with a New God, but since he’s practically married to his work, it’s a challenge he’s willing to undertake. The Silicon Valley star in the making laments the family and the life he could have if he got outside his office more often, but by his own admission, he can’t be in two places at once. It’s a speech coming from someone who sounds pretty religiously devoted to the art of creation — and when Tech Boy asks if he knows what happens when you touch a god, it becomes clear as day that The CEO is as far down a cult-like rabbit hole as Shadow.
As someone who still answers to Mr. World, Tech Boy is far from an independent spirit himself — but unlike The CEO, he CAN be in two places at once. The philosophical, seemingly intimate conversation between these two old friends was just a means for the New Gods to steal The CEO’s technology — like Shadow’s, Tech Boy’s personal connections are ultimately thrown out the window to prioritize loyalty toward the higher power he serves. And as an unknowing vessel for their cause, The CEO’s failure to please his father stings even harder — he’s found an audience for his inventions, but with no sense of personal validation.
If American Gods were more consistent in its output, it might make waves as a series about young men in desperate need of validation from father figures, and all the ways that can make them dangerously impressionable. During the climax of Moon Shadow, that subtext makes more sense than ever. As police officers and the FBI line up outside Mr. Ibis’ funeral parlor to take in Mr. World’s wrongly accused scapegoats, Shadow is snagged by Yggdrasil and discovers the barely-hidden truth — Mr. Wednesday is his true father, the one he never knew growing up. Though the foreshadowing couldn’t have been clearer in Donar the Great, it’s at least a relief to see this show being less coy with its text, so we can really dig into the emotional implications. And it’s almost a relief to see such a bizarre sequence as Shadow stops the police from encroaching on the Old Gods’ home base — through his visions, we get the impression that a young Shadow is controlling his future, but the present-day Shadow intervenes to change things for the better. It’s the sort of mythic, ambiguous scene you don’t see too often in a show that likes to spell things out so often these days, but it feels like a muddled stretch by the series’ newly revised standards.
At any rate, it feels like there’s new life for this show with so many big revelations out of the way. The battle lines have been drawn, lovers have been forced to open up with each other, and the titular Moon Shadow is on a bus heading out of Cairo. We learn he’s using the alias “Michael Ainsel,” which is a promising sign for readers of Neil Gaiman’s novel, one suggesting we may see the return of Sam Black Crow next season after her compelling debut in Muninn. And with Mad Sweeney out of the picture, having ended his arc on an admitted high note, I can only hope that Laura can really come into her own, now that Shadow’s the one turning his back on her.
As I’ve harped on time and time again, this is a series with an emotional core for the ages. All I can hope is that the bumpy detours are out of the way, and that a consistent creative team can reign this all back in for Season 3. I find myself too attached to this show and its central cast to back out as others are understandably jumping ship. But as we await the return of these Gods, my heart is guarded.