American Gods: House on the Rock

"To be continued, in what some call the real world."

American Gods is back, and opens season two with the centerpiece location from the first half of the novel. Was it worth the wait? Yes. It was worth the wait.

I don't think that there's anyone who's watching this show who is unaware of just how long the wait was between seasons one and two. It's been just shy of two years since the corpse of Laura Moon walked out onto Easter's balcony and politely interrupted the opening ceremonies of God War I with a relatively polite request to speak to her husband. It wasn't precisely a cliffhanger, but it definitely was a tense situation which was waiting for some resolution.

Unfortunately, due to circumstances behind the scenes, they weren't able to pick up the scene where they left it, and had no choice but to paper over the join as best they could and continue with the larger story.

To quickly sum up the scene as we left it, Wednesday had convinced Easter to join the side of the old gods in his coming war. Media, Technical Boy, and Mr. World were present to witness her choice, and it forced Mr. World to finally accept the declaration of war; something he had previously been disinclined to do. As a result of these advancements in the god/war plot, Shadow found and declared his belief in all the gods around him. Or, alternately, as a result of Shadow finding and declaring his belief in the gods around him, those advancements in the god/war plot occurred. It depends on how you read the situation. And as those events simultaneously climaxed and/or caused one another, Laura and Mad Sweeney joined them on the lanai to deal with her marital problems.

Fade to black. End series one.

Series two picks up in the aftermath of those events, but only indirectly. As discussed at length in my previous review, one quarter of the actors present in the finale are no longer with the show, which means that we don't get to see how the immediate moments following the end of season one play out. To be fair, it's possible that they never would have picked up exactly where they left off. There's a school of thought that leans toward resolving cliffhangers by picking up somewhere unrelated and then winding your way back to explain what happened. Steven Moffat, as an example, is a big proponent of that technique. Maybe the plan was always to begin with Technical Boy frantically driving his limo away from the scene with the remnants of Mr. World in the back. Perhaps the only real difference is that Media would have been with them, if Gillian Anderson was still on the show.

In any case, they have two missing characters to account for, and I think they made a really good decision in the case of Media. Making her absence part of the plot turns a problem into a storytelling opportunity, and was a good call.  We find out pretty quickly that Media has gone missing after the finale, and Technical Boy's plotline is going to be looking for her on Mr. World's orders. That opens up a lot of storytelling possibilities, and it was a good solution to the problem. It is a little odd that we last saw all three of them together and perfectly fine, only to be told now that she somehow vanished, but it holds together, and they have plenty of time to give us more explanation as the search for her goes on.

Easter, on the other hand, merely gets a line of dialog later on from Mr. Nancy, stating that she's not going to participate anymore because she's mad about Wednesday running over her bunnies. That's kind of a cop out, but Easter's story was essentially told last episode, so it's not too great a loss to move on from her to other characters. If you're familiar with the novel, you know that Easter has one fairly significant plot function down the road, but at the pace the show is going that probably won't happen until season five or six, so there's plenty of time to either mend fences with Kristin Chenoweth or figure out another option before we get there. If we even get there, for that matter – serialized television has broken all of our hearts before, remember.

The somewhat utilitarian way that the show moved on from the season one climax is kind of indicative of a change of tone overall. It's not that there's less meat on the storytelling bone, but there is notably less fat on it. When we left them, Laura had just found out that Wednesday had her killed, Sweeney had revealed to her that it was him who actually did the task, and Laura was about to tell Shadow both of these facts. But we pick up with the four of them on a road trip together, so whatever happened they apparently worked that all out. What we do get is the map segue showing the trip to Wisconsin and while there's some admirably efficient dialog between them that reminds us of a couple of plot points that we might have forgotten over the hiatus and establishes a few character touches that are going to be relevant later, it seems pretty clear that the show is mostly interested in getting them to the big showpiece and isn't going to be delayed by a little thing like character conflict. Witness, for example, the way that Salim just walks into a scene with the Jinn with no lead in about his journey to Wisconsin, or how he found the Jinn inside the house. Neither of those things matter, the show just wants to get to their long awaited reunion.

Honestly, it mostly feels like after spending all of season one not getting to the House on the Rock, arguably the big showpiece of the setup phase of the novel, they were determined to make it happen in the season two opener as quickly and efficiently as possible. So while we finally get to meet Mr. World's network, and Mr. Town finally gets brought into things, the Black Briar Secret Government Safehouse and Country Club is clearly being sketched in quickly so that they exist by the end of the episode, when we need them to be responsible for a sniper attack.

All of this makes me suspect that my take on things behind the scenes was correct, and it came down to Fuller and Green wanting more of an anthology show and Gaiman wanting to focus more on the plot of the novel. Both of which viewpoints are totally valid, if that needs to be stated.

So, now that we've gotten to the big showpiece setting, how did they do with it? Well, the House on the Rock looks fantastic, as it would. They filmed at the house itself, which is a real location and exists pretty much exactly as described, if anyone hadn't already heard that. The carousel looked fantastic, and the realization of the council of gods inside Wednesday's head is beautiful and stuffed to the brim with nice little details like the way Zorya Vechernayaya has three faces when you focus on her and Anansi's spider eyes. They really needed to make that scene look amazing, and you can see the work on screen. Although there is just a little too much usage of smoke and sparks, which is usually a tell that there's a lot of compositing that they're trying to blend together. The diner scene afterwards is equally well presented, and actually more deserving of a shout out, as 20-30 people having a party at a restaurant is a nightmare brief as far as staging and filming goes.

That's really the episode in a nutshell. The things that needed to happen they did very, very well. It's just that there's very few instances of extraneous details outside of the big important things that needed to happen, and I think the show is just a little less rich for it. Of course this is only the first episode of the season, and premieres are notorious for that exact criticism, so we'll see how things develop.

You'll never not know that about smoke and sparks again.
Quotes:

Laura: "I still don’t understand how such a sweet old man can have so many enemies."
Wednesday: "Oh, it’s perfectly simple, my dear. Jealousy. Unmitigated jealousy."

Laura: "Do you believe in mermaids now?"
Shadow: "I don’t know what I believe in yet. I guess. I don’t know."

Jinn: "You’re here for the meeting?"
Bilquis: "I wasn’t formally invited."

Mr. Nancy: "Mad Sweeney, is that you? Or is it Wednesday’s bullshit I smell."

Sweeney: "You sound like a man who’d fight to get back into those maggoty panties."
Maggoty Panties is the name of my new punk band.

Bilquis: "I was old in the desert before they sacrificed the first horse to you. I will be heard. Unless you’re afraid?"

Mr. Nancy: "Apparently the houses in this area were built by some skinny white motherf**ker named Frank Lloyd Wright. Some say his evil twin brother built this one. Frank Lloyd Wrong."




Bits and Pieces:

-- I'm not 100% clear what Bilquis' goals at the meeting were. She's nominally working for the new gods, or at least seems to be, and she clearly knew about the sniper because she left the restaurant immediately before the shooting started. Is she a spy? Was she supposed to disrupt the meeting? That would explain her speech about the new gods being nice and giving her a new platform, but it didn't seem like her heart was in it.

-- It's very sad that Zorya Vechernayaya was shot and killed, but didn't we just see like three other gods killed in the same crossfire? Did we just not like the god of getting his face blown off as much?

-- It's intriguing that we were shown twice that gods can't identify one another as gods on sight. Wednesday might have been lying for reasons of his own when he claimed to think Salim was a god, but then Bilquis made the same mistake with Laura, so it looks like they genuinely can't tell. That surprised me. Neither Salim nor Laura took Winston Zedmore's advice on this issue.

-- I can't have been alone in momentarily believing that Anansi was about to launch into the story about the tiger's balls. Which I suspect was deliberate.

-- This week in Orlando Jones' Fabulous Outfit Watch: He was sporting a blue plaid number that was quite nice, but not quite as shiny and wonderful as the shiny cream number he was wearing while he did the tailoring a few episodes back. Again, I really, really hope that Orlando Jones is enjoying every second of his wardrobe.



-- As they got on the carousel, Mr. Nancy rides a lion, Wednesday appears to be atop a wolf, Shadow climbs on an eagle, and Bilquis mounts a pirate.

-- Mad Sweeney, after complaining repeatedly about Laura having his luck, got lucky when he slipped in a patch of blood and avoided getting shot. Emily Browning's eye roll when the bullet hit her not-previously-damaged shoulder was priceless.

-- According to the fortune teller booth, Shadow's lucky number is none and his lucky color is dead. Man, just when you thought fortune teller booths couldn't be creepier.

-- For all his irritation that Salim had followed him, the Jinn immediately moved to protect him when the bullets started flying. That was sweet.

A solid season opener that manfully took the occasionally wandering larger plotline from season one and firmly put it on a more defined course. I just hope that less exploration of the corners of the novel's universe doesn't end up being no exploration of the corners of the novel's universe. Oh, and I already miss Fuller's trademark screeching strings and horns approach to incidental music. Hope that makes a return as well.

Three out of four creepy fortune telling mannequins.

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.

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