American Gods Recap: The Slaughterhouse

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Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday, Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya. Photo: Jan Thijs/Starz Entertainment, LLC
American Gods

American Gods

The Secret of Spoons Season 1 Episode 2
Editor's Rating 4 stars

Shadow Moon is at a crossroads after surviving a lynching and having his concept of reality ripped out from under him. Should he follow the strange old man who put him in the middle of a dangerous conflict, or should he try to rebuild a life that’s been completely obliterated? After realizing there’s nothing left for him in Eagle Point, Shadow gets in the car with Mr. Wednesday and starts driving.

The first half of “The Secret of Spoons” primarily deals with Shadow’s decision to stay in the employ of Wednesday, both why he does it and what it entails once they hit the road. As the duo make their way to Chicago, Shadow learns about his new boss’s quirks and meets another new god, so by the time they do reach their destination, he’s fully immersed in this new status quo.

Like the premiere, “The Secret of Spoons” begins with a “Coming to America” segment, this one set in 1697 and showing a very different experience than the Vikings’ journey. We see a shipful of African men in chains, stolen from their homes to be sold into slavery. When one of these men prays to Anansi (Orlando Jones), the trickster god of knowledge appears in a dapper purple suit, a stark visual contrast to the half-naked men shackled to him. The scene becomes a thunderous monologue from Anansi, telling these men the history of black people in America by way of a devastatingly succinct story: “Once upon a time, a man got fucked.”

Jones does outstanding work during this intense speech, as Anansi builds to a raging crescendo that overwhelmed these men, convincing them to sacrifice themselves and the slavers to the god. After last week’s episode, I worried if American Gods would be able to handle racial content with any sort of nuance, and while this opening speech definitely lacks subtlety, there’s value in hitting the topic with a sledgehammer. Anansi’s monologue is blunt, cynical, and wrathful, and Jones effectively distills the rage and pain of centuries of subjugation in his furious, frightening performance.

The chained men look at Anansi with a mix of confusion and terror, but it’s not just his words that horrify them. The shot of Anansi with a spider head suggests that the men have seen him as a besuited man with a spider head the entire time, and given how unsettling that quick glimpse is, it’s easy to understand why the men would be shaken so completely that they give Anansi the sacrifice he desires. After the ship burns and Anansi crawls away from the wreckage, the very next shot is of Shadow hanging from the tree. I still take issue with the execution of the lynching, but that image of Shadow hanging while a wave of blood rushes up in the foreground serves as a brutal exclamation point at the end of this prologue.

Jones is one of the show’s few actors playing a god who doesn’t have significant stage experience, which surprised me, given how well he nails that opening monologue. For the others, it’s easy to see why a theater background can be such an effective foundation: Onstage, actors have to amplify their performances so they can be read at the back of the house, but they also need to have a deep understanding of their characters’ motivation and emotional life so that they don’t read as overly artificial. You get that sense of grandiosity from many of the actors playing gods in this show, if only because they keep their characters from becoming flat caricatures. With characters like Czernobog (Peter Stormare), Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), and Wednesday (Ian McShane), you get the impression that these mythical figures are begrudgingly grounded by masquerading as ordinary humans. Each performance is heightened, but with the texture needed to make the characters that much richer.

I had the pleasure of seeing Ian McShane in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming a decade ago, and in the very last row of the theater, I could still feel the awesome force of his stage presence. There’s a shot in this episode that has Shadow and Wednesday in the same frame as they stand in front of Shadow’s old house, and even though Ricky Whittle towers over McShane, Wednesday is the character who pulls focus because McShane exudes so much raw charisma. He’s perfect casting for a character defined by a sinister charm. While everyone seems to know that Wednesday is bad news, they still can’t resist him when he comes calling.

Two of the best sequences in “The Secret of Spoons” feature no dialogue, relying entirely on visuals and music to carry the story. Shadow’s return to his home with Laura is the best depiction of his grief thus far, capturing the loneliness, frustration, and anger that have consumed him. The scene begins with gentle piano as Shadow fondly remembers what Laura looked like staring out the kitchen window or lying in bed, but as he begins to pack up her things, a low rumble of percussion indicates his growing sense of unease. The editing quickly cuts together shots of Shadow filling up boxes and taping them up, a desperate attempt to keep himself busy so he doesn’t open the box from the coroner. He can’t ignore the temptation, though, and when he finally digs into it, discordant strings take over the score to indicate that he’s not going to find anything he likes in there.

The technical elements work with Whittle’s performance to amplify the emotion in this scene, and it’s the same situation for the sequence featuring Bilquis’s return. The story transitions into Bilquis’s thread by traveling through the cosmos and out through her vagina, and it’s a stunning way of revealing where Bilquis’s victims go when she devours them. What follows is a steamy montage of Bilquis taking people to her bedroom for their sexual sacrifice: It’s a sequence all about heat, from the deep red of her bedroom to the recurring visual of candle flames being snuffed out after she finishes her ritual. The colors dull as Bilquis enters a museum containing a statue of her ancient self and the ornate jewelry she used to wear, and that shift in the palette emphasizes Bilquis’s age, informing her need to be the young goddess she once was.

Meanwhile in Chicago, we get Gillian Anderson’s first appearance as Media, the god who appears before Shadow while he’s running errands in a superstore for Wednesday. Communicating as Lucy Ricardo via the store’s walls of TV screens, Media tries to tempt Shadow into leaving Wednesday behind and joining her instead, and Anderson gives Lucy a seductive energy that makes her very compelling, mixing allure with a sense of humor and a subtle undercurrent of menace. (Also, Anderson was done up as Lucy for a ’90s photo shoot, so I was thrilled to see her embody the icon more fully here.) Media may not be able to win over Shadow, but she definitely has me enthralled.

Media appears earlier in the show than she does in the book, and it’s part of a push to make these newer gods more aggressive players at the start. Technical Boy is a terribly threatening figure after Shadow’s lynching, and having Media come for him so soon afterward heightens the stakes. That’s one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the back half of this episode, which slams on the brakes and spends the rest of the running time in the home of Czernobog (Peter Stormare), Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), and her two sisters. These scenes have a theatricality you don’t often see in prestige dramas, taking place in one location with a small group of characters and a whole lot of speechifying from Czernobog.

The scenes in Chicago slow down the pace, but they also put the viewer deep in this new setting and create familiarity with the show’s growing cast of characters. Shadow is now firmly entrenched in Wednesday’s world, and “The Secret of Spoons” takes the time to make that immersion very clear. Czernobog dominates the episode’s last 15 minutes as Stormare creates an imposing, unhinged character who manages to be hostile and jovial at the same time. Czernobog thinks he’s being friendly when he’s extremely off-putting, which makes the final line of this episode all the funnier. After beating Shadow in a game of checkers where the wager is Shadow’s head, Czernobog now has to kill the man he’s been so chummy with all night. “A shame. You’re my only black friend,” he says in a moment loaded with deadly irony. Czernobog might have an amiable side, but he’s still a man who tells stories during dinner about smashing cow skulls. When given the opportunity to feed his hammer, he’ll grasp it tightly with both hands.

American Gods Recap: The Slaughterhouse