American Gods: Moon Shadow

"Fear is order. Fear is control. Fear is safety."

Season two of American Gods wraps up. It was... a little confusing. The episode, not the season. Well, actually also the season.

Much like 'Donar the Great' a few episodes back, 'Moon Shadow' had a lot in it that felt very Fuller-esque. So again, I ask myself how much of the planning for this was already underway before his exit from the show. Quite possibly none, and it's just the result of a DP or one of the designers having a similar artistic taste, but it seems to carry across all the elements of design, from sound to shot composition to the visuals.

Take, for example, a moment that I've seen now in a couple of places questioned as, 'What the hell was that about?' I refer of course to the gorgeously framed close up shot of the snails on the side of the burial vault. Fun side-fact, I had to look up what exactly those above ground stone things that Shadow was lying on were called and was informed that they were very common for Egyptian Pharaohs. Nice detail work there, set designer or whoever made the decision to have them in Jaquel and Ibis' cemetery.

Now, the contrasting image of Shadow sleeping on top of the Vault, then waking to find Laura sleeping on the adjacent one is a very nice, if not overly subtle, 'in life we are in death' visual. Particularly given the characters involved. But then they up their game and open the morning shots with that close up of the snails clinging to the side of the stone monument. This is a great shot for a few reasons, but it's there for a very Fuller reason. It's a stark visual of gross, complicated, uncomfortable life clinging on in the face of cold, unalterable death. It's the same message as Shadow lying on the thing put in a much more confrontational way.

But I appear to be waffling in the little details instead of looking at the big picture, so let's look at that big picture.

There are a few ways to wrap up a season finale, but two of the most popular are either by building to a spectacular reveal of something that changes our entire understanding of what we've seen before, or arriving at a climactic plot development. Both of these can either be something completely out of left field or the final realization of something that's been slow burning for a long time and is finally paying off.

Wednesday's reveal as Odin in season one's finale would be one of those slow burn examples of the former. Easter's decision to join Wednesday and unleash her power starting the war was the slow burn example of the latter.

This finale kind of attempts both, and while there's a lot I like in this one, neither of those threads feel like a complete success. Perhaps looking at the two of them individually will help me parse out how I feel about this episode, because, honestly, seven or so paragraphs in and I'm still not 100% certain that I know.

So, clearly the big reveal here is that Shadow is Wednesday's son and has some sort of powers. This is, to be fair, a huge reveal. But the problem is that they've sort of half revealed it at least three or four times this year, and so the net result is not unlike when your sassiest friends comes out of the closet to you and your first reaction is 'Oh, did we not already know that? I thought we were already clear on that.'

Side note: that's not a helpful thing to say to the friend in question, should the occasion arise.

Since almost the beginning of the series fandom has been more or less convinced that Shadow is Odin's son Baldr. Or Baldur, or Balder. Old Norse didn't have a strong written component outside of a limited set of runes, and the written forms we understand of it today were almost entirely imposed on it later. Thank you for indulging me with sharing that. Orthography is one of my favorite things. Orthography and assembling flatpack furniture.

Ahem. Fandom has long believed that Shadow is going to turn out to be Baldr. That's a nice, big reveal to end the season on, but by the time we get to Wednesday openly confirming it at the end of this episode we've already heard him talking to young Shadow in flashback while Shadow's mom is dying and been nearly beaten over the head with the implication of Shadow's paternity during the discussion of his presumably half-brother Donar.

On the other hand, we have the plot development of Mr. World officially commencing what we might call the counterattack in the war by using the newly resurrected New Technical Boy to facilitate New Media in calling the entire world down on Shadow, Wednesday, and for some reason, Salim. It was clever of them to publicly use not just the bank robbery in Chicago, but also the massacre of the cops back in 'Lemon Scented You' and the alleged 'chemical attack' in Kentucky which was of course really Easter's taking back the spring. That all gave it a nice sense of all the multiple plot threads coming together organically, and was tied together well by New Media finally speaking to Shadow in the same way old Media did. That's the first time she's really felt like a continuation of the same character for me, and I'm down with New Media now.

That's all great. But it's tied in, in fact it's the entire impetus for, Shadow's big character transformation in which he learns to use what powers he has. Specifically, he seems to alter reality by reaching into his own memories to clear the police and SWAT units from the funeral home's vicinity. From what we hear over the news, he didn't change things so much that the cops aren't still looking for them specifically, but did make them 'un-know' where specifically they were hiding.

The problem is that I think more than a couple people will have read that last sentence and thought to themselves, 'Huh. so that's what was happening,' and therein lies the episode's real problem. I think the blame really can be laid to Yggdrasil in this case. Having Shadow dragged into the tree, on top of all the flashbacks and intercuts between dream and reality so that he can metaphorically and literally hatchet his way into the god-space, is just an overly complicated and muddy way to visualize that. And that muddiness really hurt the reveal that they were trying to make the big exclamation mark at the end of the season. Instead of coming away thinking, 'Wow, I can't believe what just happened!' the viewer leaves thinking, 'What the hell just happened?' and that's not a great note on which to end a season.

No Yggdrasil!  Bad Tree!  Put the nice man down!
Quotes:

New Technical Boy: "Hello, old friend."

Laura: "I am not my mistakes, Shadow."

Burial Vault Inscription: "She hath done what she could."
That is just an incredibly depressing final memorial.

Mr. Xie: "Science is the closest we come to wrestling god."
New Technical Boy: "Why would you want to…?"

Laura: "Planning on kissing me again? Cause I’ve had kind of a day."
Bilquis: "My kisses have been known to improve a day."

Laura: "You don’t like him either."
Bilquis: "Is that what your intuition tells you?"
Laura: "No, I just know an I’d-like-to-punch-that guy-in-the-mouth-look when I see one."

Salim: "Sorry, I’ve never purchased liquor before. It’s for a friend. He’s a leprechaun. He died."
Cashier: "OK."

Bilquis: "I’m a great believer in frankly assessing one’s situation."

Salim: "I don’t know what we are going to be, but I want you to know that I don’t regret any of it. You have taught me how to love."

Jinn: "You know me. Eyes of fire, shit for brains."


Bits and Pieces:

-- I suspect that Nancy and Ibis' conversation over the chess game is going to reward re-watching after all is said and done and the whole story is told.

-- I still don't entirely understand whose side Bilquis is on or what her goals are. She's certainly all right with Laura killing Wednesday and actually seems to consider the offer to join her. No Ruby Goodchild this week.

-- The first ten minutes with Mr. World and the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast is hands down my favorite thing this show has ever done. A beautiful exploration of the interrelationship between fear, belief, and objective reality. Crispin Glover was born specifically to deliver that monologue.

-- I've come to realize that the most useful way to watch this series is to assume that whatever happens was the outcome wanted by someone, and then work backwards as to who would want that outcome and why. That also works for Agatha Christie books, by the way.

-- I liked the old Technical Boy better. He had much more personality. And while I get that they were going for fiber optics with the new costume, it ends up coming across as Green Lantern. Was that a Michael Green nod?

-- The echo of the opening War of the Worlds monologue sprinkled throughout New Media's on-air rant was very effective at bringing everything together. Nicely scripted.

-- I love the wall-size bas reliefs of Bruce Langley's head on the walls of Xietech. I need them in my home.

-- The NRA logo on the opening film card leading into a discussion of how creating fear allows you to control people was an inspired touch.

-- Here's hoping that Laura's running away with Mad Sweeney's body means that we haven't seen the last of him. Even though they're both dead, I'm still 'shipping them super hard.

-- The Jinn chose to protect Salim by taking him away, even though it means facing consequences for disobeying Wednesday. That's very touching. I assume we'll learn in season three why the Jinn is bound to Wednesday.  I very much hope it doesn't involve rubbing a lamp.

-- It's very in character that Wednesday's entire role this week was 'Go out for dinner and watch the pieces fall into place.'

-- It's strange that they went out of their way to remind us in the pre-credit sequence that Sweeney had sent the spear into the Hoard, and never got around to addressing that this week. Setup for next year I suppose.


A mostly enjoyable season finale with some very high highs and some very low lows, which sums up season two in a nutshell. Still, any series that gives me this episode and 'Donar the Great' in a single season deserves to go on for many, many years.

Two and a half out of three graveyard snails.

P.S. please bring Chris Obi back next season.

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.

3 comments:

magritte said...

Thanks for this review and your explanation because I was completely lost by this episode. I wasn't sure if Shadow had entered an alternate reality or gone back in time or what had happened. I also didn't realize that it was the last episode of the season.

I'm also confused by the overall direction of season 2 because I had the idea that they were planning to be closer to the novel. While the second season can be said to have focused more on the war between the old gods and the new, other than the meeting at the House on the Rock, there was nothing I recognized from the novel in season 2 at all.

Mikey Heinrich said...

I had to watch it three times before I could figure out what was going on, and even then I should acknowledge that I might be completely wrong. If Neil Gaiman is reading this somewhere and shaking his head at my stupidity... Well, that would mean that Neil Gaiman was reading something I wrote and I could still die happy, so that would be nice.

I agree about it not being terribly recognizable from the book. It mostly felt more focused on the same set of characters every week with fewer side treks, but didn't skew terribly close to the book structurally. Not that that's a terrible thing, but it's not what we thought their stated goal was.

Billie Doux said...

I tend to think that if one of our clever reviewers -- and one of our clever readers -- both have trouble figuring out what is going on, the fault is with the show.