American Gods: A Winter's Tale

"I don’t do your bidding anymore. I’m not your man."

Well, American Gods season three is finally here. I guess. Kinda.

I should start by apologizing for not having this review up earlier. The reason for the delay is because after watching this episode I realized that I was filled with emptiness, and the thought of writing about it wasn't nearly as appealing as the thought of drinking. Alone. In the dark. In the basement. While thinking about times in my life when I could have made better choices.

Sigh.

Ok, let's get into this.

Let's start with the positive about this episode. The direction is frequently stunning and gorgeous. I can think of three separate examples off of the top of my head where the directorial flourishes elevated the material way, way beyond what it deserved:

1. The composition of shots used in the opening ballet montage, and the way lighting and sound design were used to make the images both beautiful and alien was as good as anything the show has done since the first season.

2. In the sequence where we're suddenly treated to a war flashback, which we'll touch on more later, the aspect ratio switches subtly to letterbox format (e.g. the black bar across the top and the bottom of the screen because films were traditionally wider than TV shows, and that's the only way to show the entire picture on a traditional TV screen). It's used as part of the language of television to make the viewer associate what they're seeing with big budget cinema, particularly war movies of the 70s. This is in itself a nice touch, but then the soldier we're watching gets shot and the blood spray flies past the boundaries of the letterbox and into the black space that we've trained ourselves to not even see. This is a really clever trick to make the violence feel invasive, and I don't think I've ever seen it before.

3. The way Mad Sweeney's body is shot flying over the burial vault was really beautifully shot and presented.

I wanted to start out with these positives, because pretty much the rest of this discussion is going to be less so. This episode was directed by Jon Amiel, who did a great job with what he was given. It looks like this is currently the only episode of AG he's credited with, but I hope they have him back.

I make an effort to avoid theorizing, talking, or knowing about behind the scenes production issues, because at the end of the day I don't think they should matter. Unfortunately, it's not possible to talk about American Gods season three in general and this episode in particular without touching on what appears to be complete chaos going on off screen. I'll keep it to the broad strokes.

You may remember that after series one, both showrunners/creators 'left the show.' Now, where exactly on the 'fired/quit' spectrum this came down, the bare facts are that following their departure four main characters chose to leave with them. Season two was then left with the challenge of either replacing the actors or explaining why their characters were no longer around.

So with that challenge ahead, a new showrunner was hired for season two, then fired/left the project before filming began, and everyone involved just kind of chipped in to get the series made in the time they had. My understanding is that Orlando Jones, then playing Mr. Nancy, was particularly involved in getting the show made. He certainly was involved enough to receive a credit from the writer's guild and – I believe – an associate producer credit. This is important going forward.

A new showrunner was then appointed for season three, and one of his first decisions was to remove Orlando Jones from the show. Mr. Jones did not take this well, and his Twitter video response is blistering. Now, I don't know the new showrunner, I don't know what's in his heart or mind, but I do know I've heard some very ugly rationale for his decision. It's also true that after this point, Crispin Glover, a.k.a. the show's main antagonist, left the show, as did Kahyun Kim, a.k.a. the actress brought in to replace Gillian Anderson after she quit following the previous upheaval.

This leaves the show with only one antagonist left, Bruce Langey's Technical Boy. Who had just been killed off and rebooted at the end of season two.

I promise, it's important to understand all this background before I talk about how it tanked this episode good and hard. We're almost there.

Neil Gaiman, writer of the original book and executive producer of the show went at this point into a bit of damage control, and explained on Twitter that a number of the actors interpreted that they had been fired, when really they just weren't asked back for season three since this season covers the 'Lakeside' portion of the novel and those characters don't appear in that part of the book.

Which is valid. They're not. And for what it's worth, I don't think Neil Gaiman has had anything to do with any of the bad blood revolving around the production company – it seems to extend well beyond this particular show.

So, here we are – the Lakeside portion of the book. In which Shadow is basically taken off the board by Mr. Wednesday and plopped down in a small Wisconsin town where the New Gods won't be able to find him. Some stuff happens to him there. We'll probably see it this season.

And if they'd started with Shadow getting there, made a clean slate of what happens to him there, and brought the show back into line with the events of the book – which has been their stated goal – they might have pulled it off. But the show is so clearly aware of the damage that the behind the scenes drama has done that they're desperate to bring the new gods back into the picture as much as possible, as if to say 'Look! The bad guys are still here, don't worry!'

The end result is that everything but the last eleven or so minutes of this episode feel like a complete waste of time. We're shown somebody who's probably not Crispin Glover from behind, taking off his hat and selecting a pair of (admittedly fabulous) heels, which then transform him from Mister World played by Crispin Glover into Miss World played by Dominique Jackson. I don't know Ms. Jackson from anything, but I just looked her up and apparently she was on Pose, which I've never watched.

And she's... fine. I guess. The episode is desperate to find ways to make her as threatening a presence as Crispin Glover, which is a hard ask as Crispin Glover is just intrinsically frightening. No more Media means we're introduced to a (literally) faceless group of tech lackeys doing what one might have assumed would be Technical Boy's job, so that Miss World can beat one of them to death with a baseball bat in an attempt to make her feel more threatening.

We get some new kernels of information about her plan, which seems to be something vague about virtual reality, and some fairly ham-fisted 'tension' between her and Technical Boy. It seems she's mad at Technical Boy for not getting Bilquis on their side, even though Bilquis was already on their side for at least a season now, and why have a god specifically for technology and just use him for HR outreach?

And why can Bilquis suddenly project images into people of what it was like in 'Nam? Where the hell did that come from? Her being anti-war makes sense what with her personal history, but that was just a weird new power to show from a goddess previously mostly known for eating people with her hoo-ha.

Sigh. Ok, this is already way too long, so I'll just sum up. The decimation of the cast between seasons forced them to spend most of this episode in damage control. They're trying to simultaneously introduce new versions of the bad guys, sow seeds of plans that don't really make sense, and introduce a bunch of new bad guys' minions, just to reassure the viewer that there's still a point to Mr. Wednesday rallying his troops for a war. Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney both appear to die pointlessly after spending way too much screen time teasing the possibility of Sweeney not really dying. Viking death metal is shown to be a thing, kind of undercutting Wednesday's entire 'no one worships us anymore' sales pitch.

Everything before Whiskey Jack feels like perfunctory bookkeeping and audience reassurance. Because it mostly is.



Quotes:

Maman Brigitte: "I am the lord of the dead’s fuck buddy, not his appointment secretary."

Wednesday: "Punctuality? Virtue of the bored."

Shadow: "Do you know anything about Lakeside?"
Ticket Seller: "I’m guessing it probably has a lake?"



Bits and Pieces:

-- The trailer of the rest of the season was trying as hard as it could to make sure we knew that Laura Moon and Crispin Glover are both in the rest of the season. My understanding is that they got Mr. Glover to agree to come back for one episode as a guest star. I'll be interested to see how they bring Laura back since she's dust now.

-- Pablo Schreiber is in the new Halo show, so I suspect we've seen the last of him. But hey, somebody has to get that spear back out of the Hoard, we see Laura with it in the trailer.

-- If it matters to you from the book, they appear to have gender swapped Hinzelmann, which I personally am down for.

-- I couldn't be less interested in Cordelia, the suddenly existing 'fiancee' of Mr. Wednesday.

-- I'm not sure if Whiskey Jack is a violation of Billie's Fifth Rule of Television.

-- They even mentioned that Betty the Car had been replaced by a different version of herself. Was that lampshading the constant need to replace actors? Was that supposed to be cute?

-- The song 'In Hell I'll Be In Good Company' by The Dead South has certainly become fashionable for TV soundtracks. It's basically now what 'Red Right Hand' by Nick Cave was in the 90s.

-- I personally created a celebrity threat index a while back which I call the 'Harmon/Voight' scale. It assesses how much of a personal threat to your safety a celebrity poses from -7 (Mark Harmon) to +7 (John Voight). I'll link it in the comments if you're interested. Crispin Glover's a +9.

-- I really hope they settle down and just settle into the Lakeside material for the rest of the season. But they announced that a different version of Mister World would show up played by Danny Trejo, so I doubt 'settle down' is part of the season plan.

Chad Mulligan of Lakeside.
Is it weird to admit to a crush on a character from a book?

Kind of a bookkeeping mess of an episode, with the exception of the last eleven minutes or so when they finally got around to storytelling. Also, the directorial choices were, as previously mentioned, really wonderful.

One out of four recasting notices. And that's mostly for that 'blood breaking the perceived fourth wall' moment.

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.

12 comments:

Mikey Heinrich said...

https://the42ndvizsla.blogspot.com/2013/09/im-not-kidding-about-jon-voight.html

sunbunny said...

So glad I haven't stuck around for this show. What's going on sounds like a major league mess. Firing Orlando Jones was the worst decision in a series of bad decisions. Also, I find Mark Harmon threatening. And why does your scale go from -7,+7, do you have something against the number 10?

Curious as to where Armie Hammer falls on the scale.

magritte said...

Well, I watched it because it was there. Although it contained a bunch of familiar material from the book (Whisakedjak, Marguerite Olson, Shadow wandering around a frigid Lakeside underdressed) it felt disjointed and completely disconnected from the events of season 2.

On the subject of casting changes, Ricky Whittle looked so different to me I wasn't sure it was him until he spoke. Is it just the beard and hair? Suddenly he looks more South Asian than black to me.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Sunbunny - because that's what the pH scale uses and it was funny to me at the time to reference it. Some jokes are really just for me :) At one point there was a documented case of a guy having a car crash in front of Mark Harmon and Pam Dawber's house and they like totally pulled him from the wreckage and tended to his injuries. Can you imagine how surreal that would be? That's what earned him the titular spot ;)

Until we have more evidence, I'd put Armie in a 'treat with caution' status. Seriously, that whole situation is just so bizarre I don't know what to think. Maybe don't accept bbq invitations just at the moment?

Magritte - Disconnected is exactly the word. Like, Shadow you just earned you had the power to literally reconfigure reality and suddenly we're back at 'I'm not sure if you're my daddy'? I thought the same about Ricky Whittle's appearance. It's always a little irritating when guys who shave their head as a habit suddenly grow this thick beautiful head of hair (he said jealously) btw - did you get the read that Mr. World's transformation scene was a whole lot of Rene Magritte imagery on purpose? I kind of did

Diogo said...

I didn't even know the show was back... and honestly, I have no intention of continuing to watch this trainwreck.

They should have let the Season 1 cast and crew do their thing (let alone the season 2 one, which wasn't as good as season 1 but had its highlights). No, it wasn't 100% faithful to the book and it was more anthological than plot driven... but it was interesting, compeling and it was working. I like the book but railroading a show to fit it in a way that doesn't work doesn't makes sense. And neither does a lot of the other stuff that happened behind the scenes, SPECIALLY how they treated Orlando Jones. Nope, I'm out. Maybe if the show was at least compelling I'd be tempted to ignore my own ethics and watch it, but it's not even that.

sunbunny said...

Mikey, I do seem to remember that now that you've mentioned it. But...Pauley Perrette left NCIS for a reason and I'm not saying that reason was Harmon, but I think that Harmon, as an exec producer, must have at least been complicit in whatever happened. NB: I don't watch NCIS but my mom is a devotee.

Mikey Heinrich said...

See, now this is the problem with the safe end of the scale. Seemingly nice people keep turning out to be jerks. Or possibly cannibals.

Maybe I should rename it for keanu

sunbunny said...

Keanu is such a contradiction because he plays this like super super violent dude and yet irl he seems like the sweetest blueberry in the patch.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Oh, I am so stealing that expression.

Anonymous said...

Fuller seems to have left because he demanded more money than Amazon wanted to give him. With hindsight maybe they should have given in to that.
I've read Jones's statements and that shit is not right. He worked like a champ and this is how they reward him?
This show is a mess, and i doubt it will get a fourth season. Sad.

Mikey Heinrich said...

To be fair to the production company, pre-determined budgets are totally a thing, and Fuller did go way over budget on series one.

Whether this is a case of 'left because they wouldn't give him more money' or 'was replaced for overspending' we'll probably never know. It's not in anybody involved's interest to go back and clarify.

Totally agree that what they did to Jones was bullshit. (I always feel like I can be less impartial in the comments, strangely.)

I obviously don't know anything about it specifically, but Neil Gaiman's made a few statements regarding Sandman's production plans that make me think he's super on top of ensuring in advance that an entire novel will reach the screen one way or another. Just a feeling. I'm sure I'll watch and probably review it all the way to the bitter end.

Josie Kafka said...

Is it weird to admit to a crush on a character from a book?

Not here, Mikey. It's never weird here.