American Gods: Conscience of the King

"Not a lot surprises me any more, but I gotta tell ya..."

In which a visiting Captain James T. Kirk attends the Lakeside Community Playhouse production of Hamlet and recognizes one Shadow Moon as Kodos, escaped intergalactic war criminal!

No?

No. OK then.

Honestly, I'm mostly just self satisfied at knowing enough to make that joke. For those who, like me as recently as two months ago, don't follow the reference, 'The Conscience of the King' was also the name of one of the early episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series, featuring the second and final appearance of my personal favorite crew member, Kevin T. Riley. Go proudly into that great goodnight, brave sailor.

Ahem. Meanwhile, in American Gods.

Given the name of the episode, we all knew that there was going to be a play within a play at some point in the episode. What I didn't expect was that the conscience in question would turn out to be Wednesday's. Mostly because it had never occurred to me that he had one.

There's quite a Shakespearean patina to that entire plotline this week, in point of fact. In the present day we have Wednesday and Demeter attempting to outmaneuver one another in a very Shakespearean way in order to win their bet, while we also are presented with a shadow play retelling the events of their past relationship.

I have to say, the script here is really making great use of its structure. We open with Wednesday writing the play, during which we get the first part of the story, and we finish with the performance of the play, during which we get the rest of the story and the context for Wednesday and Demeter's actions all season. Then, once we understand the entire emotional arc of their relationship, it's resolved in a supremely satisfying way. Extremely well handled.

And what a Shakespearean tale it is. Tyr and Odin, two war gods on the prowl with time to kill following their participation in the American revolution. One, Tyr, has fallen in love with a beautiful Goddess, Demeter, and so the two friends go to her so that he might win her heart. But alas, on arriving she sees Odin and the two fall immediately in love with one another, leaving Tyr heartbroken. Tyr acts with honor however, and leaves the new couple to be happy together, a child on the way. But alas, cruel fate intervenes and the couple's beautiful (one assumes) daughter dies tragically and Odin, unable to handle the loss, abandons his bride who in her turn abandons her grief in favor of her hate of him. Exuant all.

Hell, Shakespeare could have wrung five acts out of that storyline without missing his afternoon nap.

What makes it work is exactly what makes the player king work in Hamlet. Because it works on its intended target. Seeing the tragedy retold, by the man who caused her so much pain, forces/allows Demeter to deal with both her grief and her anger. And just for one last bard-like twist, the expected happy ending of the two of them reconnecting is dashed at the last minute by Wednesday's inability to let go of his own agenda, even as he's giving her the long, long overdue apology that she's been desperately needing.

And let's just take a moment to appreciate the marvel that is Blythe Danner. She's never less than radiant, and the resignation with which she recognizes that Odin still hasn't really changed is a masterclass in communicating an entire worldview in a single sigh. The real irony of that moment of course is that he has changed. He genuinely meant the apology and is genuinely remorseful at what he's done, or at least appears to be when there's no one else around and no reason for him to pretend. But he hasn't changed enough.

Honestly, the whole sequence of Wednesday seeing Demeter out the window, already leaving him behind even before she dissipates into an absolutely stunning whirlwind of flowers and birds. Just amazing. That's why you hire actors of the caliber of Blythe Danner and Ian McShane, should anyone ever wonder.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the episode. Laura shows up to re-establish where her and Shadow's relative plotlines are at the moment. 'I'm totes going to kill Wednsday, you in?' 'Can't. Turns out he's my dad.' 'Wow. OK. See you next season then.' 'OK, cool.'

From there, Marguerite's sister and additional dinner guest turns out to be Sam Blackcrow from last season, but don't worry, she's totally chill about not blowing Shadow's cover as not really being 'Mike Ainsel.' In fact, she's super level headed, gives him some pretty good advice, and drives off empowered AF, as the kids say. So good on her. Doesn't feel like a lot of plot progress, but it was all pleasant enough.

Laura then heads off on a road trip with Salim, and I like the two of them as a double act more and more. Laura advising Salim to give up on the Jinn while simultaneously protecting Sweeney's ashes was a nice touch and could easily have been heavy handed but wasn't. Unfortunately for their plotline, Marilyn Manson got kicked off the show so their road trip to Ohio was kind of for nothing.

Which leaves us with the big gaping flaw of the season. Mister/Miss/Mister World morphs into Danny Trejo for no particular reason, which is fine if a little pointless, but then they spend all their time talking about how important SHARD is going to be, and honestly I just glaze over every time they bring SHARD up. I can't bring myself to care about it and they haven't given me any reason to.

I am moderately interested in what's going on with Technical Boy and what Artifact One might turn out to be, but if they never got around to telling us I probably wouldn't lose any sleep over it. I think the only reason I'm moderately interested is that Bruce Langley continues to be extremely compelling and watchable, even when they aren't giving him much to do. Having his breakdown tie into Mister World tracking down Laura in order to side with her vis a vis Wednesday was a nice way to tie the plotlines together. I'm interested to see where that side of things goes.

Mostly I just wish they had focused exclusively on Wednesday and Demeter in this one and left everything else out.

I'm a huge fan of characters behaving like adults.
So well handled.

Quotes:

Tyr: "A nation in love with war and money. You are indeed home, my brother."

Wednesday: "Elsa, I’ve just been looking at your watercolors in the art room. Exquisite technique. They remind me of a young Georgia O’Keeffe. Except your pictures, they look more like flowers."

Wednesday: "I don’t need drugs. I am drugs."

Shadow: "Marguerite, this is Laura, my... my late wife."
Laura: "Ex wife"
Shadow: "Ex wife."

Hanks: "So I get that the brave warrior Tyr is you, and Miss Wells is the goddess Demeter, but who’s this Odin? He’s like a colossal asshole."
Wednesday "Everybody’s a critic."

Demeter: "Well… It was easier for me to hate you than to mourn our child."

"I wish I was in the good plotline."

Bits and Pieces:

-- So glad they didn't do the Shadow/Laura/Marguerite triangle thing. In fact, they totally nailed the Shadow/Laura vibe of 'used to love each other, but we're way past that now.' Laura talking his good points up to Marguerite was particularly sweet, even if she did go about it in a mischievous 'might spill your true identity' kind of way just to amuse herself.

-- Ricky Whittle can swing by and paint my house any time he likes. Wow. Just... wow.

-- They're doing a nice job gradually making it clear just how much influence Hinzelmann has over the town. Julia Sweeney is doing a great job.

-- I just found out this moment that Blythe Danner is Gwyneth Paltrow's mother. Did everybody else know that? Am I the last to know that?

-- Tyr really does seem to have been a stand up guy all the way through. There isn't any indication that he was ever anything but supportive of Demeter after she made her choice. Not a hint of 'nice guy.' That was nice to see.

-- They made a nice parallel of Demeter leaving Odin just like Odin left Demeter.

-- It was nice that they gave Hank a little moment of agency when he understood what part Mr. Wednesday really played in the story.

-- And the big last minute reveal is... apparently Derek, the 'with it' kid from the diner, is the Lakeside Panty Thief. Please settle all wagers at the window.

-- Had I a time machine, I'd probably go back to my younger self and say, 'Just FYI – Bel Biv Devoe is going to come up a LOT more than you expect later on.

Oh.. Oh my.

A mixture of stuff that's really good, with notes of stuff that feels unimportant and a healthy side of stuff that's just not working. What do we call that, a two and a half? A three?

Three out of four Bel Biv Devoe cassettes. After all, Demeter and Wednesday were awfully good.

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.

6 comments:

Mikey Heinrich said...

Hey all, just wanted to apologize for running a little behind schedule on this one. I've got some real world stuff going on right now that's less awesome.

I hope to have this last Sunday's ep reviewed in the next day or two. In the meantime, just know how much I enjoyed making all the Star Trek references.

See you soon!

Billie Doux said...

Yay for Star Trek references! Yes, I knew Blythe Danner was Gwyneth Paltrow's mom. I don't remember how I found out, though. :)

Mikey Heinrich said...

I don't know why I'm so surprised. Once you know they look SO much alike.

Billie Doux said...

Blythe Danner can sing, too. She was in 1776.

tucsonbarbara said...

And Gwyneth's father was the late Bruce Paltrow; producer, writer, director, creator - St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow, etc.

Mikey Heinrich said...

I have the biggest lady crush on Blythe Danner right now.

I'm off to see if her 1776 is on spotify