Spoilers to follow for “The Bone Orchard,” the premiere episode of American Gods. I have read the book, but I will not mention any spoilers from that.
There were a few segments of the show that fitted together in thematic parallels and anti-parallels. As I saw it, we had these primary pieces: Shadow’s attempt to make sense of the nonsense, Bilquis devouring people, and Anansi brought to America.
In the book, this opening scene was not included, but it certainly fits within the conceit. Anansi was a trickster god, often portrayed in the form of a spider, originating from ancient traditions of the Ashanti people in sub-Saharan Africa. I remember reading about some of his stories as a kid, which were fun; I know that the problematic Brer Rabbit stories are directly inspired by Anansi as well, especially the Tar Baby story.
Because of that, we can see the parallel to the “Coming to America” in the last episode, where Odin was brought by Vikings to America using sacrifice and death. Here, Anansi is also prayed to and summoned, but he makes it to America because of slaves sacrificing their lives. His true plan and intent, if there is any, is unclear. That’s sort of the style of the trickster god archetype.
Orlando Jones, whom I initially recall as a talented comedian on the forsaken Mad TV show, killed it as Anansi, delivering a monologue of truth and pain, connecting the past transgressions with the modern inequities and death. For me, this was a bit too good, because the rest of episode wasn’t nearly as impressive, despite being closer to precise events in the book. Of course, the way Anansi discusses time and blackness connects later with the words of Chernabog.
Chernabog I first encountered as the Devil-analogue in the movie Fantasia, although I didn’t know that he was anything other than a big demon when I first watched it as a youngling. He is an old Slavic deity of confused origin and meaning, as he was conflated with Christian takes on demons. Even Walt Disney referred to him oddly as Satan himself. In the books he is called “Czernobog,” but the subtitles said Chernabog. And the Starz website says Czernobog, so that’s what I’m using now.
The character actor Peter Stormare did an excellent job here as Czernobog, telling his chilling and incongruously humorous tale of cow killing while emanating an air of menace. His discussions of shades of skin color and becoming gray like his white haired “good” brother belie the changes in racial perspectives over the centuries.
The episode had a few oddball moments, although nothing as bizarre as the first episode. There was the odd dream Shadow had about his dead wife, but that wasn’t too odd. Certainly the figure of Lucy Ricardo as the incarnation of all media (a game and kickass Gillian Anderson) was intentionally odd, considering it shook Shadow deeply. Despite it being a bit funny.
Ian McShane continues to dazzle as Mr. Wednesday, and he devours his lines with abandon. His interactions with the sisters Zorya (the eldest played by the imitable Cloris Leachman) were great. And it was interesting to see the continuation of Bilquis’ devouring of her lovers, but more so to see her connection to the old aspects from the ancient Aksumite Empire, which connects differently to slavery, as it was an empire that traded slaves.
When Shadow mentioned “if there is a world between the world” I was impressed, because that is the theme of the entire book expressed in a sentence. Although the cliffhanger in this case seems a bit cheap, because I think we can feel pretty safe Shadow isn’t about to die twice in two episodes.
I didn’t really like the change where Shadow didn’t volunteer himself to play Czernobog in checkers, but that’s a minor nitpick. I still continue to be impressed by this show, although it, like the book, is letting people figure out what’s really going on. As a kid obsessed with mythology and folklore, I was annoyed how long it took me when I read the book. I wonder how long it will take watchers of the show or if they’ll just give up early.
What are your thoughts about American Gods? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.