American Gods: Donar the Great

Shadow: "If I upset you back there…"
Wednesday: "It wasn’t you. Ghosts from the past."

American Gods serves up its first unequivocal triumph of the season.

There have been good episodes in season two prior to this one, I want to make that clear. But 'Donar the Great' is the first time all year that I haven't been mentally comparing what I'm watching to the previous season at any point. 'Donar the Great' is, as described, great. Really, really great.

We're told a story in two halves. On the one hand, we're told the story of that time back in the late 1930s when Wednesday was known as Al Grimnir and owned a burlesque club in Chicago. On the other we watch as the present day Wednesday and Shadow continue in their attempt to get Wednesday's spear fixed; a quest in which Lou Reed features to a surprising and delightful degree. Sprinkled between these two plotlines we get a few check-ins with Mr. World and New Media, primarily just to remind us that they're still out there.

Since that strand of the episode is the least of the three, let's talk about that one first. Last week I complained a bit about the fact that they wasted a lot of time getting Shadow and Wednesday to the Dwarf-king so that they could get the spear fixed, only to be told that he couldn't do it and they'd have to go see a different dwarf instead. I said then, and stand by the statement, that this was a huge waste of time in the episode that could have been better spent exploring Samedi and Brigitte.

The same is not true of the side scenes with New Media and Mr. World this week, for a couple of reasons. First, they're far briefer, and so they don't feel as intrusive. Second, and more pertinently, they don't promise a plot development and then at the last second announce that they aren't going to do that after all and, 'oops, I guess we'll have to wait till next week, sorry.' Instead, Mr. World, New Media, and that third guy (who I think is supposed to be someone called 'The Caretaker', if IMDb is to be believed) achieve a few small things and then get out of the episode's way.

First, they establish that Mr. World is making tactical strikes in the coming war; a truck driver killed with a hammer, a lobster tank smashed, etc. Speaking of, if those strikes he references actually refer to something specific that I'm not picking up on, could you please mention it in the comments, because I have nothing. Second, they establish that New Media is 'powering up' somehow by rousing her followers in what I think was Japanese, but could be wrong. Why he needs her to do this we don't yet know. Third, they plant the seed that New Media needs more tech support and that the boys in the valley assure Mr. World that their 'new friend' would be ready 'in time.' I'm just going to say what we're all thinking; they're setting up a new version of Technical Boy, hence keeping Bruce Langley around this week in the flashback. I'm OK with that, if it means more Bruce Langley.

As to the burlesque flashbacks, all I can say is that they were wonderful and I want them to do a touring show so I can go see them live every single night. Ian McShane absolutely crushes his role as Al Grimnir, and I'm very surprised to check out his Wikipedia page and find out that he doesn't have any background in Broadway or musical theater, because he owns it. I wouldn't describe his voice as strong in a traditional sense, but it's just dripping with character and what I can only describe as salesmanship. Someone please cast him as Billy Flynn in a revival of Chicago, sooner rather than later.

It was a good decision to go with the name 'Donar,' rather than the more recognized 'Thor' for Odin's son, by the way. Derek Theler absolutely hits it out of the park, playing a very different take on this god, but it was wise of them to do as much as they could not to invite comparisons with Chris Hemsworth, when what they're doing with that particular god is so vastly unrelated to what Marvel is doing.

What they're doing, as you ask, is a really nice riff on the classic 'boy and girl fall in love and plan to run away together to escape the dire circumstances of their lives, but are tragically prevented from doing so by cruel twists of fate.' There are hundreds of examples of this story, but West Side Story and the stage version of Little Shop of Horrors are the first examples that leap to mind.

Fate, in this case being Mr. Wednesday/Al Grimnir/Odin, who reminds us forcefully in this episode that he's an untrustworthy bastard who will do anything to achieve his own goals. His desire for a new source of worship leads him to destroy both his own son and Columbia, whom he seems to be fond of prior to ruining her.

Lastly, we have Wednesday and Shadow giving a eulogy for shopping malls and conning their way into possession of Lou Reed's jacket, as it's the most powerful object in the mall, and Dvalin the dwarf needs power if he's going to fix the runes on Wednesday's spear. One thing the series has been very clear on is that all of the gods' power comes from belief. Wednesday even explicitly says so this week. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that Lou Reed's jacket would be a source of power. Wednesday's description of Lou Reed's importance is not wrong. The Velvet Underground's first album is often described as, 'It was purchased by 200 people. And every single one of them went out and formed a band that changed the world.' That sentence is true.

As a bonus, the way they get the jacket,'The Bishop Game' con, is described in the novel in conversation, but it's so much better to see it acted out here, particularly with Shadow being part of it instead of just hearing about it.


Quotes:

Wednesday: "Playing dead convincingly is an underrated skill."

Wednesday: "Dies irm, dies illa, Solvet saeclum in favilla. Teste David cum Sibylla."
These are the opening lines of the Requiem Mass, and the amount of contempt that Ian McShane manages to put into them is amazing.

Nancy: "Double up on that nipple tape, Ecdysiasts, nobody comin’ her to see your areolas. It’s Donar’s moose knocker that brings all the boys to the yard."

Nancy: "Get yo’ face out the mirror. Get your ass on the stage. I’m gon’ count to seven. And I’m starting at four!"

Wednesday: "What say you, son of Emir? Want to etch my runes?"

Manfred the Nazi: "We’re an organization with American values, and we see those values in you. Strength, confidence, good breeding. Donnie… what’s your last name?"
Donar: "I don’t have one."

Donar: "I accept your proposition, fiend of Germany."

Music store guy: "Want to try this puppy on?"
Wednesday: "Is Martin Luther a Lutheran?"
Music Store Guy: "…Yes…? I have no idea."

Donar: "Humans serve us, not the other way around."


Bits and Pieces:

-- So Columbia was essentially the first 'Goddess of America', based on how America saw itself in the beginning. That's actually more or less true, by the way. Her name was derived from Christopher Columbus, and it's why the Capitol is Washington District of Columbia.

-- Which means that Donar's sin, from Odin's point of view, was falling in love with America instead of siding with him, and by proxy the old countries.

-- It's implied that due to event here Columbia gave in to Technical Boy (then Telephone Boy) and rebranded herself for the war effort, becoming Rosie the Riveter, hence the presence of that poster behind Donar in his room in 1942.

-- One of the interesting threads this season is the way it's making it clear that the stark delineation between new gods and old gods is basically a load of horseshit. Columbia got replaced by a rebranding of a Roman Goddess, Libertas. Telephone Boy is warned here that eventually the telephone won't be the cool new thing, and we see the beginning of his evolution into Technical Boy. All the gods we see are in a constant process of evolving or withering.

-- That said, we're all agreed that immediately after this Columbia went to Frank-N-Furter's castle and hung out until the '70s, right? Because I need these two properties to exist in continuity with one another.

-- Wednesday's burlesque house is very gay friendly, and is openly acknowledged to be so. This confirms that he just enjoys teasing Ifrit and Salim and isn't particularly bothered or surprised by their relationship. But we kind of knew that.

-- Hello, muscly cowboys.

-- It makes sense that a success for the Nazis would actually have been a plus for Wednesday. As the Wagner we hear tonight reminds us, the Nazis were huge into Norse mythology. Wednesday would have been rolling in belief if they'd won.

-- Sindri the dwarf has a curious reaction when he hears Shadow's name, which we never get an explanation for. Are we going to find out why?

-- Both Derek Theler and Laura Bell Bundy brought it and brought it hard as guest stars this week. I'd happily have either or both back any time.

-- Nobody really believes that Donar committed suicide, right? That shot was very carefully framed so that we saw Donar's hand on the barrel of the shotgun, but did not see the stock or the trigger. We're all pretty much assuming Wednesday pulled the trigger, right?

An absolute gem of an episode. It's not quite 'A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,' but it's very, very close.

Hey, it's the little girl from the first Jumanji film.  Yeah, feels creepy now, doesn't it.

Just the tiniest bit under four out of four moose knockers.

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.

7 comments:

magritte said...

Thanks for this review. I quite agree: this was the first episode that really nailed it in the second season. Though it occurred to me that there was room to have a "mall god" to represent the diminishing importance of malls in American life.

By the way, you might enjoy the German TV show Babylon Berlin, since it has some splashy cabaret numbers in the early episodes.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Ooo, a mall god would have been awesome. Missed opportunity there. I did enjoy the banner in the mall that said 'The future is 1989'

I'll check that show out. Is it available on Netflix, or Prime?

magritte said...

It's on Netflix, at least in Canada. It's a totally different kind of show from American Gods, a sort of crime thriller set in 1929 Berlin with two seasons so far. I love it, but the convolutions of the plot take a while to come together. But if you like the era and the Berlin decadence feel, I think you'll enjoy it.

Mikey Heinrich said...

It sounds good. I'll check it out

Mikey Heinrich said...

Hey all, quick note - My review of Treasure of the Sun (aka episode 7) was delayed a couple days due to the Easter holiday. Should be up tomorrow. Many apologies, my dad is a huge baseball fan, and I didn't have the heart to kick him off the TV to watch the episode earlier.

I mean, the man is a Twins fan. He suffers enough :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the reviews. Really enjoy reading these and I agree that this episode was great. What do you make of Nancy's story about his past? We didn't know that did we?

P.S. New Media was speaking Korean, not Japanese.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Thanks so much :) I figured I was probably wrong about the language. I know vary little about Asian languages. I don't have a great ear for languages in general, sadly.

I'm still processing what Mr. Nancy told us in this one. Yes, it was the first time we've been told that. There are a lot of implications to it that are kind of icky, and I'm still trying to parse out how I feel about them.

I'm so glad you've been enjoying these!

The season finale review will be up tomorrow morning, btw. I had to sit with it a little to figure out how I felt about it.