A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
*Note: There is/will be a heavy dosage of analysis on rationality, irrationality, & faith. There is no intent to offend.
*Second Note: I have read the source material but will keep references to the novel at a minimum.
In Norse mythology, there is a famed tree known as Yggdrasil that ties together the nine realms of the universe in a divine, cosmic convergence. According to Norse folklore, Odin himself hung wounded from Yggdrasil for nine days and nights in order to gain knowledge on how to see the future as his enemies had used such foresight to defeat him in battle. Yet the knowledge remained perfunctory as Odin did not have the sufficient wisdom to use that knowledge. So Odin decided what any being of his limited rationality would do and stabbed himself in one of his eyes so he could drink from the famed well of memory. The world of American Gods is a world of the irrational subverting what the rational is and is perceived to be, and the overtly stylized opening sequence is indicative of what Bryan Fuller’s (Hannibal) and Michael Green’s (Logan) adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s famed novel brings to the small screen. Vikings land on what they consider to be a godforsaken shore after a tumultuous seafaring journey, but the land was anything but the savior they had prayed for. There was no food, no proper shelter-building capacity, and inevitably the Vikings began to espouse the irrational methods made infamous by Odin. They stab each other in one of their eyes, hoping they would gain the wisdom Odin had been granted by the well of memory. They do not. They commit human sacrifices, burning their fellow warriors alive on a funeral pyre in the hopes that the winds would be returned via divine intervention. They are not. Losing all thread of possible hope, the Vikings divide into groups of two and start battling one another, hoping that that bloodletting would please Odin enough to allow the winds to reach the accursed land they were stuck upon. The winds returned, the Vikings never spoke of that ordeal again, but the nature of the wind’s return remains a massive question mark.
The gods in Gaiman’s novel derive their power from how strongly people believe in them, how strongly their connection is formed, strengthened, and maintained in spite of constant struggle. “Why, how, and where from did the wind arrive?” all seem to be irrelevant questions next to the seeming reality that the wind did arrive and that serves as a latch to continue the cyclical nature of worship. The gods were pleased after what any reasonable individual would consider overkill (pun intended) by the Vikings and that was that. Questions thereafter became unnecessary. The deed was done. The power of faith within that context and beyond is a powerful one because it transcends the necessity of beholding one’s self to a concrete rationality, be it emotional or otherwise. That is not to inherently endorse the idea that all religion is irrational (my personal opinions are not supremely relevant here in that regard) or to even tie irrationality to its inherently negative connotation. A crux of American Gods is to ask the audience to look upon the construct of believing in something(s) or someone(s) without the requirement of there being a causation and correlation and what the consequences of that construct are. For the Vikings, the consequences of literal death and destruction are acutely felt and known, but they are far less significant than the consequence of the winds returning and their return home being granted. In this excellent interview for IGN, actress Yetidi Badaki (Sequestered) accurately points out that in those mythological and ancient historical religious traditions, there was a strong foundational concept of a quid pro quo. What exactly the mechanism was for those quid pro quos remained relatively undefined, but the simple exchange between the gods and humans provided enough rationality perhaps for the technicalities of the exchange to remain unnecessary. In the modern-day world of American Gods, that is longer the necessary case.
The new gods are enveloped within a relationship that is the same quid pro quo but nevertheless operates in a fashion where that realization operates in a completely different paradigm. Compare Bilquis (the excellent Yetidi Badaki) and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley, Title). Bilquis, the goddess of love, meets a man named Paunch (a brief, terrific appearance by Joel Murray, Mad Men) over an online date. She’s calm, graceful, and content while he counts his lucky stars. Bilquis leads him towards her chambers and it’s the last act he ever commits. It’s a sequence taken straight out of Gaiman’s novel but one that could have easily tipped into the overtly macabre or titillatingly pastiche. It works here not just due to the tremendous performances on display, but also the continued exploration of what the relationship is between the gods and us mere mortals. As the graphic sequence continues, Bilquis demands that Paunch worship her. He does so, his chant escalating in ecstasy as the stage of orgasm approaches. The chanting grows louder and louder until he is literally consumed by Bilquis’s body. It’s a sharp contrast to Tech Boy, the god of technology, who appears to be the personification of a high tech-worshipping frat boy from Palo Alto. “Don’t fuck with me,” is his motto as anything resembling clever verbiage seems to be beyond his grasp. He’s agitated, wondering what was happening to a man named Wednesday (a terrific, Emmy-worthy Ian McShane, Deadwood), a seemingly dangerous conman who recruits our bereaved protagonist Shadow Moon (a fantastic Ricky Whittle, The 100) to work for him. Shadow, lost in the depths of grief and anger over his wife Laura’s (Emily Browning, God Help the Girl) death and betrayal, literally has no idea as to what is occurring. Tech Boy demands the obedience and loyalty demanded by Odin and Bilquis, but here the worshipper does not have a concrete grasp of what is being asked of him. It’s an ask, a demand even, uttered without the distinction of even a nascent explanation of context and circumstance. In other words, there is a taking but what is being given remains opaque at best. In the context of the worshipping of modern-day consumption, American Gods seems to be asking about what, if anything, is being given to the mortal while the conscious or unconscious worshipper is being asked to give up so much.
The symbolism of the noose in the history of America is a sobering one. In “The Bone Orchard,” the noose first appears when the Vikings recreate Odin’s sacrifice in the hopes that would act as a harbinger of fortune. Yet American Gods cannot escape what the noose means when its protagonist is a Black and Native man in modern-day America. There is no eschewing the somber symbolism and to its credit, Gods embraces that somber history. “The Bone Orchard” creates a series of visual motifs that suggests that the writers at least have a nascent grasp of the noose and have the ability to create a distinction between a symbol related to a story of hope and one that was used as a weapon of racial injustice. A group of white supremacists threaten Shadow in the prison yard with a noose. Director David Slade’s framing shows Shadow looking distinctly through the hazy outline of the noose, an air of determination and resignation etched upon his visage. In the magical realm of the orchards surrounding Yggdrasil, Shadow encounters the noose once more. It’s a stroke of visual brilliance, creating a sharp distinction that serves as a critical reminder of the two distinct worlds that lie at the heart of Gaiman’s novel and the series itself. One of the worlds is one that seemingly belongs to Wednesday, a world of magic and fantasy where a spear and a noose bring forth wisdom and the ability to garner the knowledge Odin had suffered for. The other world is one in which men like Shadow suffer with pain with the knowledge that some form of that pain is simply inescapable because of the color of their skin. Techno Boy, annoyed at Shadow’s intransigence, simply does what every bully does. He has his minions proceed to bloody Shadow before lynching him. It’s disquieting to see another black man be strung up on a tree by a band of white, faceless goons and even though the rope is cut, presumably by a god, the disquiet still rings loudly throughout the air. If one believes that human beings were created by God or gods, there’s a searing sense of injustice that is not mitigated by the blood of the goons lying around Shadow as he gasps for air in the darkened night sky.
+The shot of the Viking being impaled by seemingly hundreds of arrows was unintentionally hilarious
+“That is one improbable name.”
+“Sex rushed into tends to work out for all involved.”
+“Target would be more interesting than here.”
+Bryan Fuller has promised equal opportunity for titillation, a critical note as the premiere was heavy on male storylines and female sexuality
Episode Title: The Bone Orchard
Teleplay by: Bryan Fuller & Michael Green
Directed by: David Slade
Image Courtesy: SciFi Now
Source: Wight of the Nine Worlds
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