The fourth episode of the lackluster second season of American Gods does actually achieve a bit of thematic coherence, but you have to dig for it and end up hoping it amounts to more in terms of storytelling. Worst of all, it sidelines Laura Moon and Mads Sweeney for an entire episode, and they’re arguably the two performers keeping this show afloat, by bringing an energy that the rest of the show notably lacks. Finally, there’s a scene between two of the most captivating characters/performers from last season, who have been reduced to shadows of their former selves in this episode, which may serve best as the one to watch when people are considering how this season went wrong.
First, back to that thematic coherence: “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is really about how Gods that no one thought could ever change have done so in the new millennium, largely through technology. The long introduction — which almost feels like a welcome throwback to the intros of season-one episodes — presents a young man with a technical mind. We first see him playing Pong and later Game Boy, but his father encourages his skill as a pianist, playing Bach for him and admiring the ineffable in the composition. How could someone suffering so much grief in his life write something with so much grace? But the father is crestfallen when his prodigy son comes home with a beautiful composition that was created by a computer program. When even art can be recreated by technology, what remains to keep us human?
While that thread is being explored in the Technical Boy subplot of this episode, there’s a parallel commentary about how something once considered inalterable has been impacted by tech. Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon are together again and race off to find the God of Money, played too-briefly by the great William Sanderson, allowing for a mini-Deadwood reunion before the real thing in May. Odin and Mr. World are still recruiting Gods for the impending war, and the deity to whom we all bow when we spend our hard-earned cash would be a natural no. 1 prospect. But, as Mr. World points out, even money ain’t what it used to be. It’s more 0’s and 1’s now than physical cash — transactions run over the information superhighway in a way that makes them more new school than old. Like art, something once deemed inalterable has been forever transformed. It’s no wonder the God of Money refuses to take sides — money is both old and new school at the same time. Why choose?
Those two subplots of “The Greatest Story Ever Told” reflect each in other in interesting ways, but ultimately don’t add up to a satisfying episode. This is a chapter that features some of the flattest writing and dullest visuals of the series to date. A scene in which Anansi monologues at Bilquis and Ibis is particularly frustrating. Remember the passion and fury of Anansi’s first appearance on the slave ship in season one? A monologue in which he rails about things like the alt-right, gun violence, and football players taking a knee feels intended to rekindle that passion, but it’s simply poorly written. On the one hand, addressing the race of Ibis, Anansi, and Bilquis is ambitious and feels like it should be important to the show, but the delivery is tone-deaf and simply not up to what we thought we knew about the eloquence of these characters from last season.
Did we forget that Shadow Moon has sex with a cat lady? In one of the season’s most unusual tangents, Shadow has an elaborate sex dream in his first scene of the week. It’s long and somewhat explicit — almost as if someone at Starz added a note in the margins of a script that read “Could this season have more nudity?” Shadow awakens from a dream in which a sexy woman scratches him to find marks on his chest and a cat wandering the room. He then speaks to Ibis, who gets a decent scene about how he settled in Cairo and about what he does, but Shadow seems too distracted by whether or not he did it with a cat.
Meanwhile, Technical Boy is ordered by Mr. World to find a replacement for Argus, which will eventually lead him to the now-famous CEO from the opening sequence. It’s a company called Xie Comm, and Technical Boy seems to be calling in this tech whiz to the side of the Gods, but Mr. World interrupts. He shows the CEO something on a screen with flashing lights that mesmerizes him, and then Technical Boy races off until he’s caught by what could be called a computerized face-hugger. It’s a really weird scene. It seems to allow Mr. World access to the diner in which Odin is meeting with the God of Money. Was Technical Boy the payment?
Before the final scene in which Money refuses to take sides, there is one nice subplot with Bilquis and a woman named Ruby Goodchild in a chapel. Their second encounter leads to a conversation about how Jesus was a rebel and a troublemaker. He refused to be controlled and now look at the power he wields and the worship he commands. Thematically, this is what American Gods should be — a show that subverts the traditional story of Gods and the people who worship them. There’s still time for it to become that once again. But the resurrection better come soon.
• I kind of love that Crispin Glover pronounces Zorya differently than Odin because not only does it feel like a very Glover-esque acting decision, but it fits that the Old Gods and New Gods would even use language differently. Let’s do more of that.
• Speaking of Glover, his appearance this week reminded me a great deal of Agent Smith from The Matrix. He is similar in not just fashion and tone but the way both characters use technology to achieve their goals.
• Someone should GIF up Technical Boy’s totally weird pronunciation of “ignorant” through gritted teeth. I rewound it a few times and it’s truly bizarre. Maybe Glover suggested it.
• Given the drama that had already erupted on set by the time this episode filmed, it’s kind of fun to question if Orlando Jones is acting or speaking to producers when he says, “I’m getting bored watching this bullshit.”