Entertainment

What The Hell Is Actually Happening on 'American Gods'?

American Gods Mad Sweeney
Starz

The creators of American Gods delight in chaos, judging from the first episode of Starz's highly anticipated adaptation of writer Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel. You may not know exactly what's going on at a given moment -- a band of merry Vikings might bathe in an ocean of blood, a sex goddess may devour a man mid-coitus, or a leprechaun might play coin tricks -- but that's OK. The point isn't to understand everything. The point is to simply accept it as sacrament. 

There was so much to take in during the premiere, "The Bone Orchard," which imagined a vision of America where war brews between the fading gods of old and the new gods. With only minor adjustments to the source material, showrunners Michael Green (Logan) and Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) have captured Gaiman's mix of folklore, mythology, and old fashioned American vulgarity, bathing it all in hyper-stylized violence and premium cable nudity.

Confused? Don't worry: we've got some non-spoiler-ey explanations for some of the episode's most bewildering moments below.

American Gods Vikings
Starz

What was up with those Vikings from the beginning?

Gaiman's novel follows Shadow Moon, a soulful ex-convict (played by The 100's Ricky Whittle) who embarks on a road trip with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, brought to life by the roguish Ian McShane (Deadwood). But the writer also makes time for countless digressions, tangents, and cutaway scenes that plumb the depths of his fictional universe. It's the type of material that a more streamlined two-hour movie version of the story would inevitably cut. Green and Fuller bring it center stage.

The opening of the pilot introduces to a group of scraggly-looking Vikings sailing to America in 813 CE. (The story is actually presented with its own framing device: We first see actor Demore Barnes's character, Ibis, an ancient Egyptian god, penning the history in an old book in his study.) The Vikings, who worship the Norse god Odin, arrive on the sandy shores of America and immediately get struck by arrows, bugs, and a lack of wind. They deal with the situation by building statues, stabbing their eyes out with hot pokers, burning one another, and, in a limb-flailing bloodbath, killing each other with swords.

As the voice-over narration from Ibis notes, despite returning home for good these Vikings left their god behind for the explorer Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, to re-discover when he landed in America over a 100 years later. But, more important than any plot point, this sequence establishes the show's tone: a heightened and absurd intensity that's unlike anything else you'll see on TV. Game of Thrones looks like dinner theater when compared to the frenzied, wild-eyed direction of filmmaker David Slade, who previously worked with Fuller on the surreal visual feast of Hannibal. It's the type of opening that says, "Climb aboard -- or abandon ship if you're going to puke."

American Gods Mr. Wednesday
Starz

What's the deal with Ian McShane's Mr. Wednesday?

After the carnage of the opening, the show settles into a groove by introducing us to the protagonist Shadow Moon, who gets released from prison and finds out that his beloved wife (Emily Browning) has died in the same day. On his way home to Michigan, he meets Mr. Wednesday at an airport where he's imitating a feeble old man to con the airline into upgrading him to first class. While extolling the value of cashews, Mr. Wednesday talks Shadow through a boozy flight.

Book readers know Mr. Wednesday's true identity and godly lineage -- he's much more than a playful drifter and has an important connection to the Vikings we met at the beginning -- but Fuller and Green aren't in any hurry to rush to introduce important plot points in the first episode. They want you to delight in the con artist lingo, historical references, and playful menace of Mr. Wednesday's persona. And it's easy to do with an actor like McShane luxuriating in each ornate monologue with so much eye-twinkling glee.

American Gods Bilquis
Starz

What was that sex scene with Bilquis all about?

Like any road trip, American Gods is more about the detours than the destination. Midway through the first episode, we move from Shadow Moon's story to a sex scene bathed in red light. But this is no ordinary Tinder hook-up: the woman is Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), also known as Queen of Sheba, and she's hungry for a man. So hungry, in fact, that she absorbs that sweaty dude from Mad Men, shrinking him down and pushing him inside herself while demanding, "Worship me."

In the same way the violent opening might alienate squeamish viewers, this steamy sequence feels designed to drive away any prudes who thought this was a Touched by an Angel spin-off. Bilquis makes no apologies for her carnal desires and how she pursues them, and the show makes few attempts to guide you into these seemingly disconnected scenes. Instead, we get this random sex scene and just have to trust that there will be a more conventional pay-off down the line. Like the gods, Green and Fuller are demanding your faith.

American Gods
Starz

Wait, does this show really have a leprechaun in it?

Yes. Yes, it does. His name is Mad Sweeney and he's played by Pablo Schreiber, who you may remember as the guard Pornstache on Orange is the New Black. As Shadow notes, he's a little tall for a leprechaun, but he does have a bright orange beard, a gift for making gold coins appear out of thin air, and a short temper. He's also a god: Buile Suibhne, a character drawn from an old Irish tale, now a guy who wears suspenders and loves to brawl. (Though acclaimed and widely read, Gaiman's book isn't exactly known for its cultural sensitivity.)

We meet Mad Sweeney at the bar where Shadow and Mr. Wednesday strike up their employment agreement. After impressing Shadow with some slight of hand, Sweeney makes some crude comments about Shadow's wife and challenges him to a fight. Shadow gives him one and gets one of those gold coins in the process. Savvy viewers would be right to guess that this won't be the last we'll see of Sweeney and his lucky charms.

American Gods Technical Boy
Starz

Who was the teenager in the back of the car at the end of the episode?

Just when you think this show can't get any weirder, it introduces a little glowing robot that jumps on Shadow's face. (It's OK if you're initial reaction was to shout, "This show has robots too??") After having a rather awkward, sexual-ish encounter with his dead wife's best friend (and over his wife's grave, no less), our hero sees a light shining from a device straight out of Wall-E and quickly gets transported to the backseat of a limo where he meets a god who goes by the name Technical Boy.

"Don't fuck with me," says Technical Boy at the beginning of his showdown with Shadow. One of the core driving concepts of Gaiman's book is that there's an ongoing conflict growing between the foundational religious figureheads of American life and the shiny new forces that citizens worship like technology and the media. Of all the gods we meet in this episode, Technical Boy is clearly the youngest: he's a sniveling hype-beast with gelled hair and a love for vape pens. He looks like an extra from Silicon Valley. You want Shadow to punch him. 

Then again, he's also the only god in the whole show who asks the same questions the audience shares.  "What the fuck is Wednesday after?" he asks. "There's gotta be a plan. What's the gameplan, man?" You'll be equally confused when Shadow ends up hanging by a tree at the end of the episode. The gambit that Fuller and Green are making is that enough viewers will be intrigued enough by the mysteries, questions, and tantalizing sights to keep digging. Or, they're hoping you'll embrace the chaos.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.