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American Gods: Ashes and Demons

"Shhh. It’s better if you just watch."

Laura really sums up the episode for us about three quarters of the way through. A bunch of empty hallways that don't go anywhere.

I mean, they're pleasant enough hallways. I didn't hate the wallpaper. But still.

Oh, that probably counted as a spoiler up there. Laura's still around, despite having dissolved a couple episodes ago. Of course, they've been showing her all over the trailers for the rest of the season, so I'm not going to lose any sleep about it. Why don't we start the discussion with her portion of this episode?

When we first see Laura in this one she's on a subway to the afterlife, jam packed full of screaming strangers. The visuals are more than a little Bill and Ted inspired, and once she gets to purgatory it's got enough overt Beetlejuice inspiration that Tim Burton might want to have a quiet word with somebody. Still, visualizing the afterlife as a bureaucracy wasn't an entirely new idea even when Tim did it, so it's a fair enough angle to take. Particularly for capital 'P' Purgatory, which this is clearly established to be.

After leaning as far into the 'waiting for your number to be called/trapped in the red tape' vibe as they possibly can, Laura steals somebody else's number and gets processed. And here we hit something indicative of a larger problem with the episode as a whole. It's a cute enough moment, and sure, it's in character for her to do, but why are they spending screen time showing it? She doesn't end up getting somebody else's purgatory experience as a result. She doesn't get any kind of consequence for doing it. It just sort of happens and then we move on. Theoretically it tells us something about her character, but it's not anything we didn't already know, and it doesn't have any particular resonance with all the other, far more interesting, discussion of her character that she finally gets to once we get to Purgatory's screening room. It feels like empty calories.

Which is a shame, because once we get to the 'This was Laura Moon's life' discussion we get some really interesting discussion. Laura remembers maneuvering her father into having sex with other women because she was mad at her mother not coming with on a trip. According to her she did it deliberately, and that led to more adultery, which led to her mother doing the same, which led to Laura adopting those patterns for her own life. In her retelling of the incident, she appears as an adult and is pulling all the strings.

But when she's made to re-watch without interrupting, she appears as a young child, and clearly bears no responsibility at all. Her dad was just a bad father who ditched his daughter to go screw other women. She was both helpless and blameless. This is an incredibly common coping mechanism for survivors of trauma. If you're unable to change what actually happened, you can at least take ownership and claim responsibility for it. If you had to have gotten hurt, you can at least have been in control of the fact that you got hurt. That's a grotesque oversimplification, obviously. That's new and interesting information for Laura to come to understand about herself.

It probably bears mentioning that by this point in the book Laura has long since ceased to serve any actual purpose and has more or less disappeared, only to pop back up a couple of times for wry commentary on what's going on with Shadow. I have to wonder why, at this stage, Laura is even still on the show. I was OK with it while she had Sweeney to bounce off of because they had great chemistry and it felt like it was going somewhere, but now that he's gone I think the answer might just be, 'Because Emily Browning is awesome and her character is a lot of fun. Plus we've already lost too many characters from season one than is comfortable.' And that's just not a good enough reason to keep her around.

I really hope they find a way to make her relevant to the plot soon, because right now she feels unnecessary, however interesting the revelations about her character are.

Also gone by this point in the book – Bilquis. And just to pre-emptively head off the obvious retort to my pointing that out, no, they're not obligated to follow the book on any particular point if they have a good reason not to do so. Look at Mad Sweeney and Laura. They weren't a thing in the book and they were the best thing ever on the show. I'm just saying that, as Bilquis was dead by this point in the book, she doesn't actually have a plot function already established for her, and so if we want to keep her around on the program it would be nice if they found one.

Possibly they're heading in that direction. She seems to still be moping about eating Gil Bellows, as one does. We get an extra sad close up of her reading text messages from his granddaughter on his abandoned cell phone, so maybe we're going to take a look at the fact that she's never considered the consequences of her victims/sacrifices. I'd add that it looks like she might be dead at the hands of Technical Boy, except that they literally waited a mere ten seconds after that reveal before airing next week's preview showing her perfectly well and alive. I really hate when they do that, just as an aside.

And I haven't even gotten to Mr. Wednesday or Shadow yet. Which is probably telling.

Wednesday spends this week attempting to reconnect with Demeter, Greek Goddess of the harvest. This is hampered by her currently being committed in a mental institution for walking around naked claiming to be a Goddess, which I will admit is very amusing. I really like the fact that it sort of worked out for her and that the other mental patients just accept her as a Goddess and worship her, which is all she really wants. Plus Blythe Danner is wonderful and always welcome. She also has good chemistry with Ian McShane, although I have yet to see anyone that doesn't. The only real problem is that it's very hard to read Demeter's introduction into the narrative as anything other than, 'Well, Kristin Chenoweth isn't going to come back and Easter still has a couple important plot functions down the line. What other grow-y Goddesses do we have on hand?'

Probably best to just see where that goes and try not to be too cynical about it.

Shadow, meanwhile, helps look for poor missing Alison without success, tries to use his powers to locate Alison without success, and has a gorgeously shot dream in the Buffalo haunted convenience store, where a magazine display of Important Black Women of American History urge him to get a move on with... something. I'm not sure who the dancing women in the freezer case are exactly, beyond the guess that they might be the prophet women that Whiskey Jack referenced in Winter's Tale? For some reason this makes him want to talk to Bilquis. To be fair, that exact sequences of images probably would be something you'd want to discuss with literally the only African Goddess that you happen to know personally.

Most of this episode can really be summed up by one scene. Specifically, Wednesday's conversation with the receptionist at the mental Hospital. It's cute. A lot of fun. Some really enjoyable banter. But it doesn't tell us anything new or advance the plot at all. It's just sort of sitting there being pleasant.


Quotes:

Wednesday: "You got that address logged into your PMS or whatever?"
Cordelia: "GPS. Yes."

Wednesday: "A favor followed by a lecture is not a favor at all."

Wednesday: "What’s it going to be, pig's entrails or calla lilies?"
Cordelia: "Pig’s entrails. Bet she doesn’t get that every day."

Chad: "You know... uh… I’ve been looking for, um, ah, an opportunity to talk to you about the… the other day… down at the station. I.. I hope you understand, I’m just doing my job... with... you know... Alison missing, and you being a new guy in to... and, you know, what with me being, um, a cop who... happens to be Caucasian and so forth and... so forth... and... You know just.. just the optics. Of you being, you know, somebo... uh... Somebody’s who’s African American. I just don’t want you to get th...the wrong, uh, idea, ... Lakeside isn’t that kind of place."
Shadow: "Lakeside’s still in America, right?"

Laura: "Dad called ‘Marco’, she said ‘Polo’, and that was that."

In hindsight, perhaps I should not have eaten Gil Bellows.

Bits and Pieces:

-- It only just occurred to me how much of a 'legacy of slavery' metaphor this entire show is. The old gods were taken against their will from their homelands and brought to America. It's not really a feature of the novel, as Shadow is written as white, which makes the metaphor less obvious. Or maybe that's just me having my privilege of not noticing it showing.

-- I'm going to make an effort to stop saying this in the future, but in the book Bilquis is in fact murdered by Technical Boy. They're clearly playing on us knowing that in the final shot.

-- We opened with another faux-coming to America sequence, this time to introduce Demeter. It was a cute touch that later on she was teaching others how to make those corn husk poppet dolls during craft time.

-- It seems out of character for Wednesday to invest this much time to get Demeter out through the court system instead of just busting her out. That reeks of burning screen time, honestly.

-- We hear through the TV that everyone who isn't played by Marilyn Manson in that Viking Death Metal band from the premiere was mysteriously killed. Wednesday basically turns to the camera and says, 'We'll come back to that in later episodes' upon hearing the news.

-- Man, they really shoehorned in getting Shadow those town records that are going to be important later on. Not awkward at all.

-- Interestingly, Wednesday kind of implies that he met Demeter at the same farm we see in the intro. And they appear to have actually been married. I wonder if we'll ever get more of that story. I'm kind of curious. Is there some obvious historical event in Pennsylvania in 1779 that would have linked crops and war? They didn't mention it in Hamilton.

-- No Salim, Ibis, or Mister/Miss World this week.

Easter?  Easter who?


I don't want to sound too harsh about this episode, because I really did enjoy it while it was on. It was pleasant. A lot of the visuals were neat. The fact that Laura's Purgatory guide is randomly a 1940s usherette who actually takes the time to mention that it's just random that she's a 1940s usherette is just adorable. But all the pleasant stuff kind of hides the fact that it's mostly spinning its wheels.

Two out of four afterlife advice pamphlets.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

She seems to still be moping about eating Gil Bellows, as one does. lol. I have no idea what this means, but it's hilarious.

magritte said...

Ah, but is it the eating or the post-meal moping that one relates to, Mikey? I quite agree with the general thrust of this episode. It was better than the first, but not sure where it's going. I was very confused by Shadow's sudden desire to see Bilquis. And I also thought of Easter when they brought Demeter on the scene and wondered why they didn't just have Blythe Danner play Easter. What's a new face to a goddess?

On the subject of race, the show is certainly very explicitly about race in a way that the novel is not. Is that what you meant? Because as I recall book-Shadow was presented as a mixed-race person of uncertain ancestry, not white. I always thought he was intended as a stand-in for the mixed ethnicity of America itself.

Mikey Heinrich said...

You're absolutely right, there was that whole conversation with the warden early on, wasn't there. I was totally misremembering it. There's that privilege showing again.

Yeah, I think it's fascinating how the show is currently addressing race in a way the book just didn't seem to have any interest in.

The more I think about it - and I'm sure to talk about this in my review for the next ep - I think Demeter is there this year as much to give Wednesday something to do as anything. At this stage in the book he's pretty much MIA as I recall, and you don't not give Ian McShane something to do if you have him on the payroll

magritte said...

I suspect Gaiman may be to blame at least as white privilege. I was rereading Anansi Boys arecently in which most of the characters are black and it struck me that it was scarcely noticeable. I really like Gaiman's work but I have a suspicion (I'd love for somebody with the right perspective to weight in) that he's not all that convincing at writing non-white characters.

Mikey Heinrich said...

It's certainly possible. I've only listened to Anansi Boys on Audible, where it's read by Lenny Henry, which makes a world of difference on that perception.

If you have the opportunity to listen to that version, I highly recommend it, he's just fantastic.