The fourth episode of Starz’s Neil Gaiman adaptation American Gods is presented in a different aspect ratio than the first three: in layman’s terms, the picture is, from a horizontal perspective, slightly narrower than it has been. Yes, okay, that sounds like a purely academic distinction, one only of interest to hardcore video nuts. But in reality, it possesses a significant stylistic weight. Narrower aspect ratios are typically associated with movies, whereas TV shows nearly always go wider. By picking the cinematic ratio, the creators of American Gods are — advertently or not — signaling a truth about this episode: It is, more or less, a self-contained short film.
And quite a good one at that. The episode, directed by Craig Zobel (who also helmed The Leftovers’ stunning “International Assassin”), and entitled “Git Gone,” largely functions as a gripping, standalone story about depression, regret, marriage, self-esteem, and humankind’s fundamental inability to accept its own mortality. And pooping. And superheroes. And zombies. If you’ve been on the fence about American Gods and heard that the first few episodes were confusing, consider tuning in for this straightforward — though surreal — narrative, because it’s a winner.
Very mild American Gods spoilers below.
Our recommendation holds for those who have read Gaiman’s original novel, as well as those who have not. One complaint occasionally made about the book is that the female characters aren’t nearly as lush in their depiction as the male ones. Indeed, the female lead is someone whose role is largely defined by her relationship to a man: Laura, wife of protagonist Shadow Moon. In the tome, she dies very early on, is revealed to have been unfaithful to him, and visits him from beyond the grave a few times. That’s about all we get of her, and though she’s memorable, she’s hardly fully formed.
If you’re worried that the show might similarly eschew details and contours for Laura, fear not — her depiction is one of those rare cases where a screen adaptation dramatically improves on its printed source material. “Git Gone” is told entirely from the perspective of Emily Browning’s Laura, recounting where she was before she met Shadow, how their relationship evolved, how she dealt with the troubles in both of their lives, and what happened after the action of the main story kicked in. We learn a tremendous amount about the interior of her mind and heart, all without being bludgeoned over the head with on-the-nose dialogue.
“Git Gone” is a master class in how to build a character without overtly saying too much about her. In the novel, we just hear that Shadow and Laura met at a party and hit it off. Here, their relationship’s origin is far more interesting and grants her a remarkable degree of agency. She’s working as a dealer at a casino, living a life of aimless ennui in which she wakes, plays her cards, returns home to her cat, and casually flirts with suicide. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Then she meets Shadow, a con man looking to skim from the games, and opts to sleep with him. Everything changes. Just kidding — as is all too often true of romantic relationships, the shifts are cosmetic, at best. Her quiet despair lingers, Shadow is oblivious to it, and one day, she concocts a plan to turn things around. But even as Laura’s circumstances shift, she, herself, is a bit of a rock. Can anything really snap a person out of mental illness? “Git Gone” doesn’t conclusively answer that question, but it engages with it in a way that television rarely does.
Her milieu shifts even more drastically as the episode goes on, and she soon makes the most monumental decision of her existence. (I would say “of her life,” but, as you’ll see, that’s not exactly the best way to describe her state.) After that, the tale blossoms into the kind of gorgeous strangeness that makes American Gods special. That doesn’t mean the story gets baffling, per se, and the titular gods are barely present. As long as you’re willing to suspend your disbelief about how life and death work, it’s quite easy to follow Laura’s path to a new stage of thought and self-regard, and along the way, you get aesthetically searing depictions of everything from the afterlife to a foul session on the toilet that makes Bridesmaids seem downright ladylike.
Of course, none of this would work if you didn’t find Laura engaging. Browning crackles in the role, alternately drawing your pity, sympathy, and disgust. By the end of the episode, you’ll feel as though you’ve been friends with Laura for all the years that the episode chronicles. That doesn’t mean she’s your easiest friend to deal with, and thank goodness for that, as American Gods isn’t interested in comforting you. It’s interested in pushing your buttons, dazzling your eyes, and seducing you with its performances. The show has never done that better than it does in “Git Gone,” and skeptics would do well to take a risk and sacrifice an hour at its altar.