Forget the challenge between Old Gods and New Gods, the real challenge in the world of American Gods is going to be for the show to hold onto viewers tempted to jump ship after the very rocky season-two premiere. Can it keep them engaged long enough for this show to find its voice again? The departure of co-showrunner Bryan Fuller was naturally going to make for a tough transition period, but stories of scripts being tossed away and new ones being generally ignored by angry cast members leads to less optimism that they can turn this ship around. And yet the ensemble and source material here are so strong that fans continue to hold out hope. The second episode certainly isn’t significantly worse than the premiere — and better in some ways — but still doesn’t allay the fears in a truly notable way, or hold a candle to any chapter of season one.
It’s easy to pick out what’s wrong with this show now if you look carefully at the two biggest sections of “The Beguiling Man”: a series of dialogue-heavy scenes between pairs of actors on the road (Wednesday and Anansi, Mad Sweeney and Laura Moon), and the torture-induced flashbacks to the death of Shadow Moon’s mother. The dialogue of the travelers doesn’t crackle with wit or mystery like it did in season one, feeling too generic and superficial. Having said that, there’s still some joy to be found in choices made by the performers, especially Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber in this particular episode. They’re smart, engaging actors, and one almost wishes Mad and Laura would just drive off into their own spinoff. The Leprechaun and the Zombie! This Fall on Starz!
Far more frustrating, and distinguishing this season from the first more than anything else so far, are the flashbacks to a key event in Shadow’s life: the death of his mother. As he’s being tortured by Mr. Town, who is apparently the enforcer for Mr. World, Shadow thinks back to the arc of his mother’s passing, including her diagnosis and painful good-bye. Let’s put aside the manipulative aspect of the storytelling but consider for a second how Fuller and his team would have handled these flashbacks. It might have been a snippet of remembered dialogue, a blurry shot of a hospital room, a sense of confusion to go with the sense of loss — it just wouldn’t have been so literal. And that’s what’s missing this year, any tone that approaches the dreamy or the hypnotic. The flashbacks here don’t have any true storytelling power because they don’t feel either realistic or artistic; they’re lost in that valley in between in which they just feel manipulative.
While the season premiere featured a great deal of movement and action, the most surprising thing about the followup is how little there really is to talk about. The road trippers eventually meet up with the train, an action scene ensues, and Shadow is saved after watching Laura turn a man’s head into a squishee. There are minor subplot beats before that — including a scene in which Mr. World tries to recruit Bilquis, who could go with either the Old or New Gods, and a scene in which Technical Boy seeks New Goddess Media, who fled after the end of season one (and who will be recast when eventually found, as Gillian Anderson has also fled) — but those are relatively forgettable.
One plot point worth discussing comes in the moment when young Shadow is in the waiting room and meets, who else, Mr. Wednesday. A mysterious man plays with a coin, telling Shadow that “Magic takes years for most people.” He gives Wednesday the coin and then basically disappears, just before his mom comes out with the bad test results. Coincidence? Consider the revelation at the end of season one when we learned that Wednesday/Odin caused the death of Laura Moon. Is it a stretch to reason that perhaps he aided in the development of the cancer that took Shadow’s mother too? Or was he just there at the right moment? All we know is that he really wants Mr. Moon on his side and it’s not just because Shadow can make it snow with his mind. As his mother tells him on her deathbed, “No matter how dark the world gets, your light will always be shining.” There may be more to that than your typical last words.
One more thing on the flashbacks: Ricky Whittle has a nice beat right after remembering the death of his mother. As the camera zooms in, he conveys the pain on his face, and it’s somewhat telling that the most emotionally resonant shot this episode features no dialogue.
It’s almost funny that such a dialogue-heavy episode ends with a straight-up action scene. Laura and Mad get to the train on which Shadow is being Matrix-ed and start kicking some ass. Someone tries to cattle prod Laura, but she’s a zombie so that doesn’t work. Just as Shadow looks like he may be convinced to join the dark side by Mr. Town, Laura busts down the door and rescues him. Her last line before the train crashes into Mr. Wednesday’s car? “I had to save you.”
• In one of the flashbacks, Shadow is reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. The book consists of things the author wrote in the 1920s but didn’t find again until later in life, published posthumously in the ’60s. So, in a sense, it was a literary flashback.
• If you only know Mr. Town as Mayhem from the commercials, allow me a minute of praise for the great Dean Winters, who made me laugh every single time he was on 30 Rock, and gave an underrated, unforgettable performance on HBO’s Oz. Let’s hope the new writers of American Gods find a clever way to use his talents with comedy and drama here.