American Gods review: 'Everything about it, not least its incredible visual quality, is designed to be savoured'
You don’t so much watch American Gods as become immersed in it. You let it consume you, absorb you — much like the poor sap early in the first episode, which went up on Amazon Prime yesterday, who’s consumed and absorbed by a woman he meets through an online dating site.
The woman is Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the ancient goddess of love in mortal form, who brings her conquest back to her apartment and literally swallows him whole during increasingly frenzied sex. And I don’t mean through her mouth, either.
It’s an extraordinary sequence, surreal and weird and disconcerting, and a triumph of special effects that never look like special effects. It’s not the only standout scene in American Gods.
Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller’s mesmerising adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s magnificent 2001 fantasy novel is chock-a-block with eye-popping moments and striking characters even before we get to Bilquis.
I read the book a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. Anyone coming to American Gods cold, however, could have a “WTF?” reaction, so a quick primer might be in order. It’s giving nothing away to say that Gaiman’s novel, which is steeped in mythology, is about the conflict between the old gods and the new.
It posits that when the first immigrants arrived in America, they brought with them the ancient gods they worshipped. But over time, new gods — media, technology, money — rose to tempt the masses, and people gradually lost faith in the old ones. And without faith, without worship (in Bilquis’s case, the physical worship of her body), the old gods wane. So a war is brewing.
Drawn into it is our unwitting hero Shadow Moon (English actor Ricky Whittle), the African-American son of a hippy single mother. On the very day he’s released from prison, having served three years for assault and battery (he worked for some shady types in the gambling racket), Shadow learns his wife has died in a car accident.
As he makes the long journey home for the funeral, he ends up in a plane seat next to the mysterious Mr Wednesday (students of Norse mythology will spot a clue to his real identity in the name), played by the wonderful Ian McShane. Wednesday — a one-eyed trickster first seen blagging his way into first class by pretending to be a helpless, confused old man — seems suspiciously well informed about Shadow’s life and offers him a job as his assistant/bodyguard. Shadow declines, as a buddy already has a job waiting for him back home.
But there’s another nasty surprise in store for Shadow. It turns out the buddy offering him the job died in the same accident as his wife. Worse, the two were having sex when the car crashed.
Mysteriously, Shadow keeps bumping into Mr Wednesday. With no wife, no job and no prospects, he agrees to take Wednesday’s offer and the two are soon off on a road trip.
Wednesday introduces Shadow to Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a lanky, red-headed Irishman who claims to be a leprechaun and has a nifty trick of pulling gold coins out of thin air.
He’s a bit tall for a leprechaun, notes Shadow. “That’s a stereotype,” Sweeney snaps, before taunting Shadow into a massive barroom brawl. If this all sounds a bit daft when squashed into a few paragraphs, it works superbly on screen — provided you’re willing to go with the flow.
Fuller and Gaiman are in no particular hurry to get American Gods to its destination. Everything about it, not least its incredible visual quality, is designed to be savoured.
This first eight-episode series, which features a very gory prologue about the Vikings and their gods gaining a foothold in the new world, covers just a third of an admittedly long book. Gaiman has created new characters for the series and expanded the roles of existing ones. Bilquis, for instance, appears in just two chapters of the novel, but is a more significant entity here.
The world has changed a lot since American Gods was first published, so some characters have been given an upgrade. Internet god Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), who sucks Shadow into a terrifying virtual world, has been changed from the fat Coke-guzzling geek of the book to a slick, smarmy millennial.
American Gods requires an investment of patience. The reward is something pulsatingly original.