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American Gods: Tears of the Wrath-Bearing Tree

"One shock at a time."

American Gods comes to the end of its third season. And possibly to the end of its everything.

It's hard to know what to say about this one, as the story in the show and the story of the show have now come into alignment. Shortly after broadcast, the Starz network announced that the series wasn't being picked up for a fourth season. While we didn't technically know that when it aired, lets be honest; we all pretty much knew it was coming.

So, both Mr. Wednesday and the show American Gods are dead. And we gather around their respective corpses to try to make sense of where that leaves us.

It would be interesting to know what the production team was aware of or was thinking regarding the possibility of not getting a season four, because a whole hell of a lot of this episode seems completely focused on setting up new character dynamics for later. Which, now that we know there isn't a 'later,' makes about half of this episode feel like a colossal waste of time. Which, when you look at it and trace those storylines back, makes a lot of this entire last season feel like a waste of time. Which is too bad, because lots of it was potentially interesting at the time and just never got to come to fruition in terms of storytelling.

Witness, for example, Bilquis' journey through season three. All the stuff with the Orishas. The revelation that she actually predates her identity as a Babylonian sex goddess. Her prolonged journey to find the woman making omelets out of double yolked eggs, with coins in her eyes and a randy boxer passing through her kitchen. All to set her on a quest to find 'The other one,' whom we've heard referenced a few times. Who is the other one? Well, in that opening vision it looks like either Laura, or Wednesday, or Technical Boy; we see all three of them in the vision. Then Bilquis swings by Lakeside, gazes meaningfully at a peacock, and ultimately arrives at the door to Laura Moon's motel room in time to say something along the lines of 'Thank God I've found you.' That happens at around the halfway mark of this, the last ever episode of American Gods.

And then we never see either of them again.

What were they thinking? I get not giving any concession to the possibility of not getting another season as far as not wanting that possibility to stop you from telling the complete story you want to tell in this one. The third and final season of Bryan Fuller's Hannibal springs to mind as an example. There they left a lot of possibilities open, but they still told a complete and satisfying story with a resolution, even as open ended a resolution as it was. Here they've literally spent the entire season building up to Bilquis showing up at Laura's door to tell her something important and then don't bother to actually have her say anything. It just cuts off. Given the amount of episode time left you expect they're going to come back to it, but they don't. It's just dropped.

In a bit of a mirror of that, we have Technical Boy's storyline. Technical Boy has done virtually nothing this season except complain about being glitchy since Bilquis did something to him at the beginning of the year. He's spent a couple episodes now laying on a table waiting more or less politely to get to be part of the storyline again. We don't get even a glimpse of him this episode until, past the halfway point – that's right, Technical Boy doesn't appear on screen until after Bilquis and her plotline have been unceremoniously forgotten about. He eats a bunch of raw data and gets conned into going to the basement where he finally finds the mysterious 'artifact one' that we've been hearing about for most of the year.

And the answer actually turns out to be pretty interesting. Artifact One, the first innovation in human history, is the flint stone used to make the first fire. And more, Technical Boy isn't a new god of technology, he's been around since the beginning and is more accurately described as an anthropomorphic personification of innovation. Every time technology has ever taken a step forward in history, TB has been reborn as a new version of himself, memory completely wiped clean of who he used to be before. They give a bit of a fig leaf explanation that he loses his memory each time because he doesn't have his 'totem' i.e. the stone that made the first fire, to tie him to his past and remind him of who he used to be.

That's fascinating. And retroactively makes a ton of sense regarding the glimpses we've seen of him in the past and his bizarro resurrection toward the end of season two. It enriches what we thought we knew about him before and drastically recontextualizes our understanding of how he's been interacting with the story. Plus, this information is revealed in conjunction with the reveal of Mister World's betrayal of him and how he's really on hand to be trapped in a cage and used to power that SHARD thing that nobody cares about. That's a nice bit of plotting, tying character revelation into plot revelation into a shifting of what we understand about the situation. That's exciting and I can't wait to see where it's goi... oh. Right.

So. Another huge chink of this season's screen time, ultimately rendered a complete waste of time because they never actually get to the 'story' part of the storyline they're setting up. Which leaves us with Shadow's storyline, which is clearly where they were trying to make this season land.

We've come to Yggdrasill, the world tree, and more importantly, the bit of the book where Shadow is tied to it for nine days and nine nights in vigil for the now-murdered Odin. There he receives revelations, the entire story moves into its final phase, and the pieces are all set for the final, epic confrontation. It's the realization of a promise that Shadow made to Wednesday in the very first episode. If Wednesday dies, Shadow is responsible for holding his vigil. Done. Except that don't just rely on that, and instead spend a lot of time waffling about whether the other gods will let him do it, and everybody tries to talk him out of it, and then there's all the prep work, and so by the time we actually get him on the tree, all we have time for is about five minutes of (admittedly beautiful) psychedelic fantasy, followed by him being consumed by the tree, Odin's body disappearing, the shroud blowing away, and blackout. Czernobog barely has time to deliver a confused look to the middle distance before the series is gone forever. The end.

Part of the issue is that they spend a ridiculous amount of screen time trying to sell us the 'Shadow has been corrupted by the temptation of Wednesday's power' theme that's both completely unnecessary and fairly out of character for him. Wednesday in the vision spells it out, that he originally was trying to get Shadow to love him so that he'd do the vigil on the tree, but that wasn't working fast enough and so instead he opted for 'tempt him with power.' And so for most of this episode we get Shadow declaring that he owns the ravens now, and that he's the head of the gods now, and blah blah blah. And neither that, not the 'tricked into loving Daddy' plotlines are needed to justify getting him on the tree. He'll get on the tree because he gave his word that that's what he would do, way back in episode one. That's literally all they needed. Loyalty to his word is one of Shadow's defining characteristics. Going that way would not only have made more sense for his character, it would have saved so much time.

I can't say how much my perception of this was affected by the understanding that this was the last episode ever. If I thought there was going to be a season four, would the extreme cliff hanging of this one have bothered me as much? It certainly would still have felt unfinished, but it's possible I would have forgiven it more. Who can say.

Right now, all I can think is that American Gods feels very much like a loved one with severe alcoholism. Things used to be great. Then things got pretty bad. Than, when you'd given up hope, they got clean and things started to get really great again. And then they had a massive stroke and died, leaving you torn between being grateful that things had gotten good again while there was still time and absolutely furious at all the time you lost while things were bad.


Quotes:


Cordelia: "He could be a bastard, but he was a good boss."
Shadow: "He was a selfish dick."

Cordelia: "He cared about you too, you know."
Shadow: "He showed it by murdering my wife?"
Cordelia: "That puta with the spear? She seemed pretty goddamn alive to me."
Shadow: "Yeah. She’s the stubborn type."

Norns: "We must prepare."
Cordelia: "Please tell me there’s not a gimp involved."
Mr. Ibis: "I don’t want to stipulate to that. This is my first vigil."



Bits and Pieces:

-- OK, so Neil Gaiman has made it clear that the production company is committed to finishing telling this story in some fashion. One suspects he means 'contractually' committed. So it won't surprise me if we see a three to four hour movie on Hulu or one of those finishing off the rest of the story. I'll watch and review it if and when it happens. I'd give it a 70/30 chance in favor of happening.

-- So, spoiler, but Mister World is Loki and he and Wednesday have been working a two man con together this entire time to start a war between the gods that can be dedicated to Odin, and therefore all the deaths involved go directly to his metaphorical power bank. They sort of reveal it in this episode when Loki whistles that tune, but in order to really track it you'd have to remember that that tune is 'Requiem for Baldur,' be on board that Shadow is Baldur, remember what happened to Baldur in Norse mythology that led to him needing a requiem, and who caused it. That might be a little oblique.

-- I'm pretty sure we've seen Laura make out with Bilquis more than we've seen her make out with Shadow at this point.

-- There was a potentially interesting 'Now Shadow is magically obligated to take vengeance on his father's killer, i.e. Laura, plotline that they toy with for a little while before just discarding it unceremoniously. Too bad, that was an interesting thought.

-- Now we'll never know if Liam Doyle the Substitute Leprechaun is all right.

-- The wax from the knocked over candle forming the image of the continental US was a nice visual, and really helped explain the concept of 'The Center of America'.

-- Crispin Glover is back as Mister World. I thought he was only going to be in one episode this season, but he ended up in several. I wonder what was happening behind the scenes there.

-- The business about World wanting it to seem like he was betraying Laura by handing her over to the old gods so that she could 'reveal' to them that World was behind Wednesday's murder so that the war would be certain to happen while maintaining the illusion that World was trying to prevent it while really doing everything he could to get it started was very well handled. It was explained just enough to lead the viewer to the right conclusion, but not so overt that you couldn't believe the old gods fell for it.



There was a lot of good stuff in season three. And there was a lot of stuff that didn't go anywhere. Some of the stuff that didn't go anywhere was good, some of it was bad. In that sense, this finale might be the most perfect summation of the series it was closing out as we've ever seen.

So, Goodbye, American Gods. You've brought me a lot of enjoyment, and sometimes you've made me so frustrated I could have punched a nun. I'll miss you.

Two out of four unfulfilled opportunities.

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.

1 comment:

Billie Doux said...

Mikey, congratulations on finishing the series, unsatisfying as it was. I'm really sorry it didn't fulfill its promise. Let's hope for a really good TV movie or short run of extra episodes to make it better.