It’s been 21 months since an episode of American Gods aired; in that time, Starz’s ambitious adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel was plagued with production difficulties, cast and creative departures, two showrunner changes, budget issues, scripting problems – and even news that the season finale was shooting with an unfinished script, a logistical nightmare that could easily drown a show so married to its expressionist style. Finally returning this Sunday, it’s hard not to view the two opening episodes through the lens of its many dramatic off-screen issues; the feeling of a creative void is real, and plagues the opening hours of American Gods Season 2 throughout their lengthy running times.
The first season of American Gods was visually ambitious, almost to a fault: storytelling took a backseat to atmosphere, which led to some truly exhilarating, frustrating experiences. Bilquis, for example, was a character mired by the intoxicating imagery of her few scenes in season one: as a fulcrum for the growing cold war between old gods and the new, her character’s importance was overshadowed by the show’s endless expression of her sensuality, drawing out sequences featuring her and minimizing her impact on the central narrative of the show. Despite her perceived importance, American Gods kept her isolated from the rest of the gods – and despite her influence on the events of season one, she’s marginalized to be a character of images, rather than one of action or importance.
“… the feeling of a creative void is real, and plagues the opening hours of American Gods Season 2 throughout their lengthy running times.”
The first two hours of season two tries to take a markedly different approach: there is a concerted attempt at a more careful balance of story and atmosphere – unfortunately, to get to a place where that balance feels more natural, the season premiere is a hodgepodge of hip film making (aka lots of quick cuts, bokeh effects, slo-mo; you know the drill here) and overcooked world building; there’s so many plot elements and new characters to introduce, and American Gods struggles early to find the balance between them (not to mention all but disregarding the drought caused by Easter in the finale, which is extremely weird to not address), while still leaving room for the intoxicating imagery and large performances by the stars of the show.
As the show reveals more story, more background, and more conflict, it quickly erases any momentum built in the season one finale – and frankly, as more and more of the history of the old gods and the new is revealed, it becomes a slog to watch. World expansion comes at the cost of actual development; there really isn’t a lot happening in these first two episodes, and what these two episodes use to fill in the spaces between its few events is mostly regressive. There’s no excitement in returning these characters to see how the events of “Come to Jesus” changed them. With no intriguing narrative or thematic developments to explore from the season finale, saved for a more pissed off Mr. World, American Gods feels like its stuck in its own past: everybody is the same as they were, and there are way too many scenes to remind audiences of this in these first two hours (almost as if they realized people will have mostly forgotten the beats of season one, which is probably an astute observation).
What it leads to is an unsustainable dichotomy; regressing conflicts back to their simplest forms, while complicating the context of those stories with a half-dozen new elements and characters, feels more like a move you’d see on a network drama with a “dramatic” finale – you know, the kind that disappears within the first hour of the next season. That’s what these two episodes feel like; a soft reset of sorts, just one with a few tweaks to the formula of the show itself. In this version, Ansani’s character gets to be a lot more prominent (not exactly to the show’s benefit), the conflict between the old gods and new is slightly redefined and more complicated (aka “exciting”), and everything that happened in the season finale is revealed to be mostly inconsequential; if anything, it feels like American Gods trying to make a more straightforward version of itself, but trying to do so in a way where it doesn’t alienate the dedicated audience of Bryan Fuller fans from the first season.
It is a balancing act American Gods is not able to pull off, at least not in these first two hours: in fact, regressing itself into a simpler form just doubles down on the show’s worst habits. Shadow is still a wet blanket of a character who is way too much of a focal point, the slut-shaming of Laura Moon returns in full glory (see my review of “Come to Jesus” for more detailed thoughts on the frustrating gender dynamics of the show), and Mad Sweeney is back to full-time dickhead status – and, perhaps most frustratingly, it continues to employ a diverse visual palette that feels even more self-important than it did in the first season. In the “Fuller season”, I could at least appreciate the aesthetics he was aiming for: although it was a bit over-utilized, the visual expression of American Gods gave the world a fantastical, dream-like quality – it was just one that never really synced with the fantastical material it was portraying.
At best, those visual tics and stylings feel more like hollow imitations in season two, trading in the deep, emotional imagery for something that feels more boilerplate and reductive, more like those episodes of Mr. Robot where Sam Esmail was trying to imitate David Lynch, then the explosion of visual creativity those first season episodes were. Rather than try and find a better way to marry the show’s love of trippy images with the outlandish narrative, American Gods now tries to isolate the two to allow them to exist in harmony; and it mostly doesn’t work, save for “The Carousel” sequence in the season premiere.
American Gods is a show that I want to love; Ian McShane still chews up scenery and dialogue, and I think Emily Browning’s performance as Laura Moon is one of the more overlooked performances on television. But with a cardboard box for a main character, and a dissonance between story and visuals that is just impossible to ignore, it’s hard to enjoy watching the incongruous parts of this show try to fit together. A more plot-focused American Gods is, ultimately, a less entertaining one; for all the frustrations that came with the abysmal pacing and indulgent design of season one, the convoluted political plots and more straight forward storytelling choices of season two’s opening hours is much harder to enjoy.