If you’re reading this on a phone or have seen our spoiler-free preview of the first episode on a computer screen, then I have some news for you: you’re already deep under the spell of American Gods. You might not know it, but you’re worshipping at the altar of Technical Boy, god of (you guessed it) technology, while the old gods grumble in the background. American Gods tells the tale of the long since forgotten old gods and their preparation to battle the new gods who have emerged in the 21st Century, threatening their position at the top of the food chain. Those who were last worshipped in stone temples or by Vikings with grizzled beards will be squaring up to the deities who embody media, technology, and other concepts you’ll be unnervingly familiar with.
But the first episode of American Gods, The Bone Orchard, doesn’t start with these almighty deities. It starts with a prisoner named Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle, who’s just been released early. Good news, you’re thinking. Nope. His wife has been killed in a car accident, so to get to her funeral Shadow has been booted out a whole five days early. On the tumultuous journey to her funeral he runs into Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane), who bluffs his way onto the same first class flight. This odd chatterbox offers Shadow a job out of the blue. He - unsurprisingly - says no, but as you might have guessed, it’s not the last he sees of him.
Ian Mcshane’s Mr Wednesday isn’t in-your-face magical. Buttoned up in an unassuming sand-coloured suit, he’s so nonchalant that I’m left wondering what he has up his sleeve. This confident, arrogant conman doesn’t initially appear as dangerous as Technical Boy or Bilquis (more on them later), but McShane’s performance shows you that scaring people isn’t the only way to be intimidating. A fact which Shadow becomes aware of after (finally) accepting his job offer after running into him in a seedy bar. Before he beats up a 6-foot-tall leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber). No, I’m not kidding. The scene in which Wednesday tells Shadow that his wife’s funeral is his one opportunity to take all the time he needs… wow. The way his voice dips into a deep baritone gives me shivers. Such unwavering confidence gets across that half of Mr Wednesday’s power comes from knowing how to get people to do what he wants. Shudder.
The funeral went about as well as can be expected: crying, black suits, a technical fault that gets the coffin stuck in the hole. At the end, Shadow begins a moving monologue to his wife (who died with another man’s cock in her mouth. Lovely). Then Betty Gilpin’s mourning, manic widow Audrey storms in. Audrey seems like an inconsequential character at first but her performance is one of the most impressive of the episode. She whirls through scenes with astonishingly quick jumps between fury, honesty, and the heartfelt realisation of what Shadow must be going through. The switches between each intense emotion aren’t gradual by any means, but in this case, it’s a good thing. Showing how fucked up Audrey’s grieving process is, Gilpin completely gets across how out-of-control and furiously devastated her character is, contrasting nicely against Shadow’s measured mourning.
Equally in tune with uncontrollable human urges is Yetide Badaki’s intriguing Bilquis. Appearing after the funeral scene, pity gently prods me when she turns up in a seedy bar. Her self-doubt is palpable, initially avoiding eye contact. Matching the saturated colour palette of the entire episode and just like the weird magical visions of Shadow’s dead wife, her hunger is unfiltered. The later bedroom performance as the all-consuming goddess rather than an online dater makes you wonder whether that was all an act, or whether she really does mourn her lost following. Spare a thought for the poor man she sleeps with, who - are you ready for this? - gets sucked into her vagina. He swings between playing a well-meaning internet dater and half-manic worshipper spitting out words to his goddess. It’s a disturbing reminder of how quickly these gods will overwhelm you, turning you into whatever they want.
Moving swiftly on from this climactic scene, we’re brought back to Shadow, strolling down a moodily-lit road. The streetlamps start to flicker off. A distant hum draws Shadow to a headset glowing in the roadside undergrowth. Then bam - it clasps onto Shadow’s face, sucking him into the white hyper-modern limo of Technical boy. Dear lord, this god is dangerously unstable. But depicting instability is tricky. Yet Bruce Langley’s performance is masterful. An undercurrent of jittery tension bubbles through each of his lines, so oddly enough you believe that he’s being equally sincere when he warns Shadow “don’t fuck with me”, as well as when he commiserates about the death of Shadow’s wife. Flicking in between each line is a pixelated version of Technical Boy, making me hyper-aware that he isn’t human and is as complicated as the lines of code that have built the very screen you’re reading this on.
Technical Boy and Shadow don’t hit it off, though. After refusing to give up Mr Wednesday to the god, Shadow gets the shit beat out of him by Technical Boy’s lackeys. It looks very painful. In a TV show about gods it would be easy to make mortals appear simpler, inferior to the all-powerful deities they walk alongside. Not in this case. Ricky Whittle’s Shadow is a touch too brooding every now and again, but overall he manages to portray a conflicted ex-con who has nowhere else to go incredibly well, neither appearing too damaged by his time in prison nor too self-pitying, considering he’s just found out his dead wife was unfaithful. Dealing with the weirdness of his situation fairly well, Whittle shows that Shadow is focused on getting his act together and learns Mr Wednesday’s influence can’t be fought, though it’s looking like he’s going to be questioning it later on if his let’s-get-one-thing-straight speech in the bar was anything to go by.
What’s clear is that Whittle is playing a man who has a code, who’s not allowing himself to become overwhelmed by the oddness around him, even if it might bother him deep down. You really can’t blame him for seizing the chance to smack down the infuriatingly brattish Technical Boy. Their feud is only going to grow, too, as Shadow was saved by being beaten to death by some mysterious force. Slashing Technical Boy’s goons to bloody bits, I hope next episode there’s a glimpse of who has come to Shadow’s rescue...
A fast-paced, artfully stylish first episode, American Gods doesn’t shy away from showing you the fantastical side of its gods. Shoving realism aside in favour of saturated colour palettes, it’s filled with elaborate set pieces (want to go to its crocodile-mouth bar, anyone?) and don’t-fuck-with-me characters. I can’t wait to see what other gods are on offer - but I’m glad we’re not in Shadow’s shoes.