It’s a near miracle that American Gods Season 2 is here at all – the kind of miracle that just might have required blood sacrifices. Now that the show is finally ready to air, one can almost imagine television executives toasting themselves with mead in the halls of Valhalla. In short, bringing about the new series of this adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s epic fantasy novel appears to have been a constant battle, one with its fair share of casualties, most notably season one show-runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, although their replacement was also side-lined before production was complete. It’s been almost two years since the first season of American Gods aired, so what’s changed, what’s the same and do the cracks show?
Picking up directly where season one left off, we find Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane), Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), his dead wife walking, Laura Moon (Emily Browning), and the strapping leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) making their way to the House on the Rock – a sprawling castle of curios teeming with magic. There they are joined by a host of other Gods who discuss just what to do about the new Gods, whose power derives from those who worship technology. Meanwhile, a shaken Mr World (Crispin Glover) abandons his moderate stance as leader of the new Gods and exacts ruthless revenge on Wednesday and his crew of old fashioned deities.
Perhaps one of the shortcomings of the rightfully acclaimed first season was its tendency to deal in sumptuous surface pleasures, while not providing quite enough narrative propulsion. It’s with a gasp of relief then that season two bursts into being, with characters who had been left to gorgeously circle each other brought suddenly into collision, creating fascinatingly strange relationship dynamics and quickly delivering on much of season one’s promise. It seems evident that the new creative team (episode one was co-written by Neil Gaiman himself) made a conscious decision to get the story up and moving, and move it most certainly does. However, despite a change of pace, season two feels very much of a piece with what came before. The distinctive style and atmosphere are still present, but layered just a shade less thickly to give the gleefully entertaining story enough room to spread its wildly imaginative wings and take flight.
No sooner have the characters met, they are once again divided, set upon separate but connected adventures, each with a task that’s essential if the looming war is to be won by the old Gods. Fittingly for a story about the soul of America, these tasks can only be accomplished by the characters going on road trips, buddied up in perfect comic pairings. Building on their already well developed comic-rapport, Mad Sweeney and Laura continue to exchange macabre insults from within their stolen vehicle, although gratifyingly they also soften towards each other, and work as a team. While Mr Nancy, played with electrifying comic verve by Orlando Jones, is set opposite Wednesday himself, the two forming a classic odd couple routine. It’s also satisfying to note that the imperious Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) gets to do more than hoover unsuspecting (but happy!) men into her vagina, and is given a specific function in the plot, as she’s caught between the warring factions. The deeply erotic ancient Goddess is only one of the peripheral characters who have been moved front and centre and given much needed depth.
Speaking of added depth, the second season eloquently tells the back-story of Shadow Moon, revealing aspects of his childhood that explain his rough-hewn decency and what it is that makes him so special that light literally emanates from him. This is in contrast to the seemingly disconnected, if delightful, detours through American history of series one, and like everything in the two episodes of this new season made available to critics, focuses the narrative on the character details that matter and forwards the plot in a compelling way. The connective tissue of season two is just that much more taut.
If all that wasn’t enough, it’s worth saying that the second season ups the ante in terms of action as well. There’s tons of it. Face-stomping, neck-snapping, brain-splattering action. There are also impressive fantasy set-pieces and dark hints at science-fiction.
Aside from increasing the pure entertainment value, the show runners also seem to have made a decision to bring clarity to the previously established narrative. At one stage Mr Wednesday explicitly states his reasons for wanting to destroy the New Gods, a key point previously left a little hazy. While Mr World, a decidedly ambiguous figure in the first series who preached peace, unity and common ground, is now clearly defined as the aggressive opposition. A little nuance may have been lost, but as an audience member its far more satisfying to have someone to root for and someone to hiss at. Among a fine cast, Crispin Glover’s casting as Mr World is a stroke of genius. His surprisingly imposing physique, his odd mannerisms, the quiet intensity of his speech all add up to give the impression of a being struggling to appear reasonable while repressing the urge to commit unspeakable acts of violence. It’s great to see him go full bad guy.
American Gods Season 2 might not quite match the previous series for sheer sumptuous texture, but it more than surpasses it in terms of storytelling, character development, action, comedy and adventure. By giving up any pretentions towards making a great work of art, American Gods has become a fantastic piece of television.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 8/10
Season 2 of American Gods debuts on Starz and Amazon Prime, March 10th 2019.