American Gods: The Beguiling Man

"Their whole life they’ve been hearing a story about who you are. And you’re the enemy in that story."

In episode two of its second season, American Gods finds a reason to tell us the tragic story of Shadow's past. And it's... basically one of the less interesting episodes of Daredevil.

That's disappointing.

To be more specific, it's disappointing that they felt the need to devote half an episode to telling us the tragic story of Shadow's teenage years, because the story they tell here is essentially the same 'outsider teen moves to a new town and encounters local bullies' story that we've seen a thousand times before. It's The Karate Kid, in which the role of Mr. Miyagi is played by maternal cancer.

The underlying problem here is that there is just no reason for them to be telling this story to us in the first place, either in the metanarrative or the narrative sense. Mr. Town, played by the always welcome Dean Winters, has Shadow rigged up to a big ominous machine, and mentions Shadow's mom once. That's it. That's all the narrative justification we get for why we're being told this story at this time. Somehow that one mention of his mother inspires him to remember how his mom brought him back from France to live in Brooklyn, and how he got beat up that one time, she started dying of cancer, he got so upset about that that he went right out and beat up the guys that attacked him earlier, then she died and that was that.

And I hate to say it, but just reading that last paragraph gives you pretty much the same experience as watching it play out over twenty odd minutes of this episode's runtime. Which is too bad, because it's not like there isn't a lot of good stuff just waiting to be explored here. Olunike Adeliyi, playing Shadow's Mom – and how telling is it that she never gets identified as more than that – is actually really good when her dialogue stops being a stream of character information and 'deep meditations on the human soul.'  Watch the moment when she breaks from doing that to tell Shadow that she's going to stop for drinks with somebody named Jerry, and you witness a revelation. In that moment, she goes from being a mouthpiece for things the scripts wants to have said out loud and becomes an actual, interesting person. And I want to know more about that person, because she honestly sparkled at that moment and you could see why Shadow loved her. But we don't get to see more than a moment or two of that, because the script wants to make sure that we know that she's read Siddhartha.

It feels like a case of a screen writer not trusting the audience to understand the subtext, and this show is above that sort of thing.

Similarly, Shadow is mugged, he gets his CD player back and runs for it. And the Brooklyn cops see a black kid running with a portable CD player and arrest him, either instead of or along with his attempted muggers, it's not entirely clear. That's a huge moment that is way, way too true about America still today, but it gets completely thrown away because Shadow's Mom just wants to talk more about how much light is in him. Honestly, I wish that they'd either explored the more interesting stuff that gets sidelined here, or just told us through dialogue that Shadow's Mom had died of cancer and left it at that, because the story that they chose to tell here just ultimately didn't feel like it had anything in particular to say. I feel like I should add though that Gabriel Darku did a good job with the material he was given, and was believable as a young Shadow Moon.

OK, enough about that, because there's a whole other half to this episode and that's where all the good stuff really was.

When we left our heroes, the restaurant had been shot to Hell, Zorya Vechernyaya was dead, and Shadow had been spirited off into the night via helicopter. Here the show seems to run into a bit of a problem with not knowing what to do with all of the characters currently in play. They deal with the situation by generally having them all disperse in pairs on separate missions, which more or less works. Ifrit the Jinn and Salim ride off to the corn palace to fetch Odin's spear, not to be seen again this week. One can only assume that we'll catch up with them later, and how absolutely adorable was Salim, sitting in the sidecar and beaming at being allowed to come along. You two drive safe, we'll see you, presumably, later in the season. Probably right at the end, I would guess.

Wednesday and Mr. Nancy head off to Cairo, Illinois, although they don't get there this week, and I honestly struggled to remember where they were going every time the action cut back to them. They were basically in a holding pattern while other events got into their proper placement for what's going to happen in Cairo. But damn if it wasn't an enjoyable holding pattern to watch. I would tune in weekly for the road trip adventures of Wednesday and Nancy, even if nothing ever happened besides the two of them bantering. The entire exchange about the bucket of fried chicken, which I will not spoil here if you haven't watched it, was better than 95% of broadcast television.

Shadow, we see, has been hooked up to the previously mentioned big ominous machine, which doesn't actually appear to do anything except hold Ricky Whittle up in a sexy and dramatic way, but I suppose that's a noble enough goal. It would be nice if we ever got any clear indication of what exactly Mr. Town wanted out of the situation. Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to convince Shadow to switch sides and join the new gods, sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get information, and sometimes it seemed like he was simply torturing him for no particular reason. Unfortunately, we're not likely to ever get an explanation, since he appears to be dead either just before or immediately after the end of the episode. Ah, well.

But the real MVP, and the only real reason to ever watch this episode again, is the continuing adventures and burgeoning friendship of Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney. Pablo Schreiber and Emily Browning have great chemistry together, and both excel at playing broken, friendless assholes who make a connection with one another despite both of them trying as hard as they can not to do so. When Sweeney says, 'Is that how you ask for a favor,' you can tell by the look on his face that he'd pretty much die to help Laura and this point, and he'd definitely die before he'd ever admit it. Everything they do together is wonderful and complicated and they're by far the best thing the show has going on that didn't come from the book.

I'm shipping these two so hard.
Quotes:

Wednesday: "Mama-Ji, you hear the battle cries. May I count on your blades?"
Mama-Ji: "You brought the fight to my doorstep. I have no choice but to resume the lopping of heads, drinking of blood, and liberating of souls. That is, if I can swap my weekend shift with Arjun."

Sweeney: "…And God didn’t f**k up your life. You did a great job of that all by yourself."
Laura: "Well, it was my life to f**k up."
Sweeney: "Indeed it was. And you f**ked the shit out of it, didn’t ya?"

Bulquis: "Love and war may sit on opposite sides of a coin, but only so they may never meet."

Sweeney: "Last week you could have lifted an entire f**kin’ elephant. Two f**kin' elephants if my nuts are the judge."

Laura: "What do you usually drive, horse and buggy?"
Sweeney: "Says the corpse who flipped an ice cream truck."


Bits and Pieces:

-- Apparently Bilquis was supposed to talk the old gods out of joining Wednesday, but didn't try that hard.

-- They showed us that Shadow was on a train early on, then wasted a lot of time having us watch Laura work that exact same information out. That's sloppy plotting.

-- I can only assume that Ricky Whittle was excruciatingly uncomfortable filming this week.

-- What is up with the restaurant owners and staff? They just got shot up and people died, and yet there are no cops on the scene, and the restaurant is somehow still serving pancakes for Sweeney.

-- Technical Boy's search for Media got a little further this week. Going to Times Square was a clever idea to find her what with all the screens. The show is still playing coy on revealing Gillian Anderson's replacement as New Media, though. All in all, that changeover has been very well handled. Looks like we get the reveal of New Media next week. Let's see if they stick the landing.

-- There's no way they could have known this in advance, but it was so very nice to have a respectful and peaceful representation of Islam this week.

-- What does Ifrit think of Salim's prayers and faith? I'd be interested to know.

-- Ricky Whittle is 37, and Young Shadow appeared to be about 17 or thereabouts. That would imply that the Brooklyn segments were taking place around 1999. I really dislike using the World Trade Center as a visual signifier for 'in the past,' by the way. It's a personal thing.

-- We were clumsily shown this week that Shadow doesn't know who his father is and his mother won't tell him. We pretty much all know where that's going, even if they had been remotely subtle about it. Which they were not.

-- Wednesday's eulogy for Betty the car, as he waits for Shadow's train to plow into her on the railroad tracks, is a thing of strange beauty and inexplicable dignity.

-- Seriously though, you need to stand a lot further away than that if a train is about to hit a car. I know this from experience.

-- Sweeney takes Laura through something he refers to as 'The Hoard' to get catch up with Shadow.  I'm assuming that that's 'hoard' as in a big collection of treasure.  They don't appear to have passed through James McAvoy.

I really hate to say this sort of thing, but the show just hasn't felt the same without Fuller and Green. The strange ambient noise and slow motion shots of fluid in motion are pretty much all gone, the storytelling is significantly more linear, and I really think the show is weaker for the change. But, of course, we're only two episodes in. I really shouldn't judge too much yet.

Two out of four buckets of chicken. Almost entirely due to Laura and Sweeney. Just fastforward to their parts, and assume everything else works out all right.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

1 comment:

magritte said...

I completely agree with you on this one. Laura and Mad Sweeney were great, but the rest of the episode...not so much. They did so much better with flashbacks in previous episodes like Git Gone and Prayer for Mad Sweeney that really helped us understand those characters. I didn't feel like the episode explained anything much about the current Shadow. It doesn't account for his devotion to Laura when she was alive; he certainly couldn't have seen her as a maternal figure, nor does it really explain his preference for keeping his mouth shut and letting people think he's dumber than he is. And given that he didn't have anything to do this episode in the main timeline except hang there, it certainly didn't explain any choices in this episode.

Are we not going to have any "Coming to America" sections this year? I suppose technically since he and his mother came from France it could be viewed as a Coming to America bit, but it was a pretty pallid one, and lacking in a piggybacking God.