American Gods Recap: A Whole New World

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Gillian Anderson as Media. Photo: Jan Thijs/Starz
American Gods

American Gods

Lemon Scented You Season 1 Episode 5
Editor's Rating 4 stars

After taking a detour to explore Laura Moon’s backstory, American Gods charges into the main plot at full force with “Lemon Scented You,” an episode that significantly ups the tension between the Old and New Gods. Taking place over the course of a single eventful night (not counting the prehistoric prelude), the script continues to drift further from Neil Gaiman’s book, but the changes make for a more dynamic TV show. The writers know that they need to hook viewers with a strong conflict and compelling characters, so they’ve introduced the New Gods earlier and made them more aggressive antagonists. Technical Boy and Media are back this week, joined by their impish leader Mr. World (Crispin Glover), who reveals himself to Shadow and Wednesday in hopes of swaying them to his side.

This is the first episode not written by showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and David Graziano has the challenging task of bringing all the show’s separate threads together into one cohesive episode. “Git Gone” felt like the start of a different show, and Graziano successfully integrates that voice into the story of Shadow, Wednesday, and the New Gods. There’s a lot of dark comedy in this episode, most of it involving Laura Moon, and maintaining a sense of humor is important when there’s a war between gods brewing. In general, American Gods has done a good job of including moments of levity in the midst of all the darkness, which makes the epic conflict more inviting and amusing.

Having Laura Moon as a principle character is the smartest change this series has made to the source material, and her interactions with Shadow at the top of “Lemon Scented You” have much more definition because there was an entire episode exploring her life and her perspective. Laura views this opportunity as a second chance for her relationship with Shadow, and she wants to let go of the past while the past is all Shadow can think about, specifically his wife’s affair with his best friend.

There’s a huge contrast between Emily Browning and Ricky Whittle’s performances. Browning is nonchalant and flippant, suggesting that Laura believes her problems can just go away if she acts like they don’t matter. Whittle is projecting an intense mix of fear and anger, and it’s very clear that he can’t let go of the pain Laura’s betrayal and death have caused him. We see another side of Laura later when she’s attacked by Mad Sweeney, and this scene is a delightful showcase of her IDGAF attitude. She’s back from the dead and can send a person flying across the room with the flick of her finger, and this new beginning has restored her confidence and killed her patience for other people’s bullshit.

Meanwhile, Shadow’s evening is one big nightmare. After discovering his undead wife, he’s thrown back into police custody when he and Wednesday are arrested for their bank robbery in Chicago. Shadow’s interrogating officer tries to get him to talk by telling him about the drastic lengths someone went to get the police on their trail, and much of this episode builds up Mr. World’s threat level before he shows up for the first time. Crispin Glover has made a career out of having an awkward, disquieting presence onscreen, and the blurry vibration effect added to his character is almost unnecessary because there’s an inherent jitter in his performance. He’s so untrustworthy that his physical form isn’t even completely solid, and it’s clear from the start that whatever Mr. World offers will have strings attached to ensure he’s the person with all the power.

American Gods has used CGI for nearly all of the supernatural moments, and the digital artifice of the special effects highlights how these moments break from perceived reality. The gods exist in a heightened state of being, and CGI allows the creative team to depict the full scope of this fantasy while also creating a visual contrast with the physical actors, props, and sets. The narration for the “Coming to America” opening says that the lines between people and their gods were thinner back in the prehistoric days, and the visuals are entirely computer animated to reinforce that connection. This was a harder time with harder people, and their flesh actually looks like stone. Or bone. There’s a skeletal quality to the character design, which makes sense because these early, less-developed humans are desperately looking for food in the new world.

The prologue ties into Mr. World’s offer to Wednesday, which would give his brand an upgrade with the Odin missile guiding satellite. If Odin doesn’t want to be forgotten, he can get his name put on the satellite that causes World War III when the U.S. launches missiles at North Korea. It will probably lead to mutually assured destruction, but Odin wants to go back to a time when the gods were more than just a distraction. The prologue with priestess Atsula and the mammoth god Nunyunnini is aspirational, telling of a time when people could not survive without turning to their deities. If Wednesday wants the gods to give human lives meaning again, they need to rewind the clock and put humanity in a desperate position where survival lies in beings created by belief.

Media takes the form of celebrity icons that are directly tied to the message she’s delivering, even when it feels like an excuse to dress Gillian Anderson up in pop-culture drag. It’s not immediately clear why Media presents as Ziggy Stardust when she berates Technical Boy, but it makes sense once she starts talking about fear of the starmen waiting in the sky and how panic feeds belief. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust was a different kind of alien than the Martians of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, but he was still the frightening other, causing a panic about gender identity in a society built on rigid divisions between male and female. When Media helps Mr. World seduce Shadow and Wednesday to the side of the New Gods, she appears as Marilyn Monroe, arguably the quintessential sex symbol of the modern age. It’s a lot of fun seeing Anderson in this playful mode, and there’s a sense of joy in her performance as she takes on these larger-than-life personas.

Back in the first episode, my big gripe with Shadow’s lynching was that the script didn’t adequately justify why its main character was put through such a disturbing act of violence, but that lack of reasoning ends up being a plot point in “Lemon Scented You.” Technical Boy is a brat, but he’s also an immature idiot. All he had to do was deliver a verbal message to Shadow from Mr. World, but he decided to end the conversation with a senseless act of horrific violence that made things way more difficult for his boss. Technical Boy’s half-assed non-apology should sound familiar to anyone who’s heard young, insensitive white people apologize for offensive and destructive behavior. He doesn’t think before he acts, and he doesn’t realize how his actions impact others. Mr. World treats Technical Boy like a fool, and establishing tension within the New Gods adds another layer to the dynamic of the show’s antagonists.

Brian Reitzell’s score plays a major part in setting the tone for American Gods, and this episode shows off his range as it juggles horror, drama, humor, and suspense. Tribal drums and wind instruments give the opening flashback a propulsive intensity, which quickly fades away when the action jumps to Laura in Shadow’s hotel room, waiting for him to walk through the door. A fly gets caught in flypaper, but the score keeps on buzzing, a reminder of the death and rot that Laura has magically put on hold. Laura and Shadow’s interactions are backed by harsh, amelodic strings and piano that keep the atmosphere very unsettling, and when Laura tells her husband she loves him, two hard piano notes make the words land like a gut punch.

Media’s Ziggy scene is underscored by funky synths and a refrain of “oohs” that reinforce the Bowie image, and the New Gods’ presentation of the Odin satellite plays to a big-band track that gives their pitch an old-fashioned feel. (Odin is so old that retro is still new.) Muted horns trill as Shadow and Wednesday discover the carnage Mr. World unleashed on the police station, followed by pulsing strings that add urgency to the scene. This is a terrifying display of power, and if Shadow and Wednesday aren’t going to ally with Mr. World, they need to start running and plan their next move. That’s exactly what they do, but given what we learn about Mr. World and his penchant for surveillance, there aren’t many places they can go where they won’t be seen by their enemy.

American Gods Recap: A Whole New World