The most vital thing the first episode of American Gods establishes is the importance of sacrifice. Deities need you to give up a part of yourself if you’re going to get anything out of them. Miracles don’t happen for free.
Fittingly, American Gods opens in the past, with a story that shows an ill-fated Viking longboat making landfall on the North American continent (a different sequence from the book, which opens with main character Shadow Moon. Here, the Viking flashback narrated by Egyptian god Mr. Ibis does the crucial work of establishing a cosmologically wide view right away. The Norse warriors who were all set to plunder and pillage get fatally rebuffed by volleys of arrows loosed by the land’s native people. They want to go home, but the lack of wind means that they can’t.
So it’s sacrifice time. After they carve an idol of Odin, things start to get bloody. First, the Vikings put out their right eyes as tribute to their one-eyed god-king. Then, a still-living man meets his end on a flaming pyre, resulting in enough gusty evidence to prove their god is listening. Finally, a full-on bloodbath ensues and the winds blow hard enough to send the Norsemen away from these shores. Blood was the price they needed to pay to get back home.
When we first see Shadow Moon in this episode, he’s out in the yard of the prison where he’s finishing up a jail sentence. Cellmate Low Key Lyesmith is schooling him on how America started going downhill when hangings stopped being a regular occurrence. It’s yet another hint of the celestial machinery that undergirds the show and the country it’s commenting on. Shadow only pays Low Key so much attention, yet he senses something wrong on the fringes of his awareness, a bad vibe he can’t put a name to. He mentions that feeling during a phone call to his wife Laura, saying that the sky feels constipated with a storm it can’t push out. Shadow doesn’t know about those Vikings, which is a damn shame because such knowledge would prepare him for the winds and sacrifices that are coming.
A storm does come later that night as Shadow does coin tricks and falls asleep, bringing with it dreams of Laura and the Bone Orchard, the hellish dreamscape that this pilot episode is named after. A living branch slashes his face and others part for him in creepy fashion, revealing a giant tree at the heart of the orchard. When Shadow wakes up, he’s told by the warden that he’s getting released early because his wife has just died.
A guard asks him, “It’s like one of those good news, bad news jokes, isn’t it? Good news, we’re letting you out early; bad news, your wife’s dead.” Again, the specter of sacrifice hovers over Shadow and the viewer, raising questions that don’t show their faces until later. Is there a deeper meaning to the causality that sees Shadow freed early because of Laura’s death? Throughout the whole episode, her passing is used to goad Shadow and it seems to mean something in the larger scheme of things but all Shadow can grasp is grief.
Shadow sleepwalks through his release, getting on a bus and finding himself in an airport where a confrontation with a snippy attendant reminds him of more words of wisdom from Low Key Lyesmith. It seems like his old cellmate is right there in the airport with him, which is a clue that something else may be up with Low Key. Shadow then sees a confused old man trying to board the same flight as he is. That man turns out to be Mr. Wednesday, who’ll be playing an extremely important role in Shadow’s life moving forward.
Shadow and Wednesday’s first scenes together are when this pilot episode really starts to reel viewers in. Shadow looks on incredulously as Wednesday scams his way into first class and the two men chit-chat when it turns out that they’re sitting across from each other. Their conversation is filled with more portents and weirdness, as Wednesday offers up details about Shadow that he couldn’t possibly know at first glance. Wednesday dominates their chat with a monologue about the importance of belief, opining about how lending energy to the idea that the plane isn’t going to crash is more important than the laws of physics that get it into the air. That mental energy is yet a smaller sacrifice, a tithing where you give up fear, doubt, or factual science to let something fantastical manifest. Their talk ends with Wednesday offering Shadow work as a body man, but the younger man balks. Shadow’s next dream features a giant white flaming buffalo with flaming eyes telling him to believe. But believe in what? Himself? Wednesday? Anything? Everything?
Shadow’s journey home hits a detour when the plane is forced to land. He gets a rental car and drives onward, stopping on a hillside to let out a primal scream of frustration at what his life’s become. The scene then shifts to Los Angeles where an awkward first date is under way. The man and woman go back to her room where things get x-rated very quickly. During the steamy, religiously inflected sex scene that follows, we learn that this is Bilquis, a love goddess. The sacrifice she requires is nothing less than total emotional and physical devotion. As she rides the lucky/unlucky suitor, he gradually gets absorbed into her body and the needle for weird on American Gods flicks frantically into the red zone.
It’s gonna stay there, too, as the mise-en-scene moves to a cheesy, crocodile-themed bar where Shadow’s grabbing food and booze. His piss break gets interrupted by a familiar gravelly voice as Wednesday emerges from a stall, picking up his philosophical blather right where he left off. When he apologizes for talking about marriage so soon after the death of Laura Moon—which, again, he shouldn’t know about—Shadow threatens violence. The threat is waylaid by yet another revelation, that Shadow’s friend Robby is dead.
As the two men argue ver whether Shadow will work for Wednesday, they’re interrupted by a tall, strapping, drunk Irishman named Mad Sweeney who says he’s a leprechaun and asks if Wednesday’s told him who he really is. As Shadow reluctantly agrees to work for Wednesday, the ol’ ginger-haired imp starts picking a fight with Shadow, for something visceral, just to feel alive. It’s talk of his dead wife that gets Shadow to throw the punch Sweeney so desperately wants. The fight ends up with Shadow getting a gold coin from the leprechaun
Wednesday and Shadow get set up in a hotel outside the younger man’s hometown and Shadow heads to the church where his wife’s funeral service is happening. After gazing at her lifeless body, he sits next to Audrey, the wife of his best friend Robbie. A tearful Audrey tells him that “she died with my husband’s cock in her mouth.” Later, after the coffin’s been covered with dirt, Shadow stands over Laura’s grave and rants about the betrayal he just learned about. He mournfully flips the gold coin won from Mad Sweeney onto the freshly dug grave. Audrey finds him there and tries to come onto the widowed ex-con for some high-off-her-ass, depressing revenge sex but it all dissolves into tears. The dirt on Laura’s grave dissolves, too, as the gold coin Shadow left there burns through the soil and slides downward.
Shadow’s lonesome amble home gets interrupted by a glowing gadget on the roadside. The sparkling shape transforms into an open configuration and latches itself onto Shadow’s face, transporting him into a massive virtual limo. Inside, he meets a whiny-voiced Justin Bieber-alike trying to find out, like Sweeney earlier, what Wednesday is up to. This is Technical Boy, the latter-day deity of technology. Shadow’s snarky attempts at avoidance earn him a punch in the face from the Children, Technical Boy’s creepy no-face henchmen, and he also gets an earful of the god breaking down the cosmological changes that have rendered Wednesday obsolete.
Technical Boy presses Shadow more, eventually hearing the new widower say that wouldn’t talk about Wednesday’s plans even if he did know them, because he’s loyal like that. Technical Boy then commands the Children to kill Shadow and a beatdown ensues, with the added insult of Technical Boy saying that “‘we’ are going to delete you… undelete, that is not an option.” Shadow gets catapulted back into the real world, where the attack on him continues. It all culminates with Shadow being strung up by a rope and left to hang to death. As he edges closer to dying, gouts of blood explode beneath him and the rope breaks. Shadow falls to his knees and slowly regains consciousness to see one last body explode into pieces in front of him, dousing his head with even more blood. The camera pans back, revealing the viscera and limbs of the Children who were assaulting him as Shadow scrambles away in shock and horror. The episode ends on that scene, a bloody sacrifice on a massive scale with no hint as to exactly who it’s being offered to or what it’s being offered for.
Though the show’s creators aren’t being coy in the real world about some of the broader plot points, Shadow doesn’t yet know that he’s been hired by a god or that he’s going to be meeting more of them. So there’s a part of him that’s chalking up all the weird misfortune in his life to terrible luck. His naivete is one of the best parts of this episode, because it makes him a great foil for a con man like Wednesday, as well as a stand-in for the audience.
The sacrifices that gods require aren’t always blood. Sometimes it’s time, money, or mental energy that they need as proof of faith. These sacrifices are things that we keep for ourselves by default, so much so that the very thought of breaking with them gives us pause. Right now, Shadow’s still clinging to what he knows to be reality, even though he’s brought to the edge of death by a stranger, more potent reality. The path of the series seems to be setting Shadow up to make a leap of faith from one plane of belief to another.
• The above image is Technical Boy in what the show’s creators call “godflesh.” It’s meant to convey the gods in their true forms as composite beings made up of thoughts and ideas. Creepy and cool at the same time, just like these deities themselves.
• I think Yetide Bataki’s going to be one of the breakout stars of American Gods. Her role as Bilquis requires her to not just be a supernaturally powerful seductress but to also express doubt as to her own potency and the shape of the world she’s found herself in. Badaki manages to do both, coming across as nervous at before shifting into a primal persona that’s fearsome to behold.
• If you know the book well, several major plot points get heavily teased right here in the pilot. Almost everything Mr. Wednesday says to Shadow has a double meaning, and this foreshadowing is a great way of rewarding folks who know the source material.
• The noose imagery—an unspoken threat in the hands of prison yard skinheads early on, again during a dream sequence, and finally with Shadow’s hanging at the end—made for some of the most unpleasant parts of this episode. It rubbed me the wrong way because of the long history of murderous, extrajudicial lynchings that killed black people in America. I don’t necessarily feel like the show’s creators don’t know that they’re juggling cultural dynamite by having a black character hanging from a tree. Instead, what bothered me most was the lack of an explicit gesture to show that they understand that lynchings were awful blood sacrifices America made to its vision of itself. To be fair, next week’s episode has an amazing scene that shows that kind of understanding in spades. But that doesn’t lessen the sting in the moment.