American Gods is good at gore and even better at grief

The TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel specializes in bloodletting with a purpose

American Gods.
(Image credit: Starz)

American Gods — Starz's lush adaptation of Neil Gaiman's epic novel of the same name — manages to be faithful to its darkly funny, depressive, and twisty source text while adding some layers of its own. That's quite an achievement; Gaiman's novel doesn't exactly lend itself to television, nor is it a text in need of expansion. The book is a spiky, playful, mystical mess, the kind of project that rejects the constants and constraints that make a TV adaptation thinkable. It shuffles historical periods and locations and mythologies. It covers prophetic visions and petty annoyances. It sprouts characters without explaining their connections, anatomizes technology and television and America, and psychologizes an ex-con. It tells an epic story through mundane settings: This is the Iliad narrated through barfights and wheat fields and walk-ups. Despite those cosmic trappings, it also precisely renders varieties of pain that are personal — that is, contemporary and decidedly un-allegorical.

What unifies all those elements is the confidence of Gaiman's writerly voice, which authorizes those outrageous leaps and pushes you (like Shadow Moon, the book's reluctant protagonist) to believe in unlikely things. The other great unifier is Gaiman's gift for reconciling the sublime with the mundane, for making supernatural gore resonate with private grief.

The show, which stars Ricky Whittle as Shadow and Ian McShane as his employer, the puckish Mr. Wednesday, lends all the authority and license that made the novel work to the camera. McShane brings Mr. Wednesday to life by telling Shadow he has "one astoundingly improbable name." The same can be said of the American Gods pilot, which is as implausibly eclectic a visual buffet as you're likely to find. It includes the following shots, none of which look like they belong to the same genre, let alone the same show:

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As aesthetics go, that's an ambitious spectrum. Now, we're living in a moment that happens to be saturated with beautiful and creative camera-work. Legion, Better Call Saul, Westworld, Mr. Robot, and The Americans all boast gorgeous and sometimes innovative cinematography. Bryan Fuller's fits into that tradition, and his sensibility (familiar to fans of Pushing Daisies and Hannibal) is on full display here: This is a camera that likes to play. What sets this show apart from several of the others (Westworld, Mr. Robot, and Legion particularly) is that it plays with a purpose. Too often these days, exquisite cinematography becomes a kind of crutch for an underwritten story. Not so here. In American Gods, the writing is more than adequate, so there's no need to desperately plant Easter eggs. That frees up the camerawork, which comes to be a joyful complement, an element that unifies these crazily disparate styles into a kind of harmonic sense.

Take the pilot, which begins with a title, "Coming to America," written in old-timey calligraphy by this man, whom we have yet to formally meet:

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He'll go on to narrate a group of unlucky Vikings' adventures in the New World. And hey, if this show likes to dress up its epic in barfight drag, the opening our narrator conjures here is pure uncomplicated epic. Welcome to the Iliad. Or the Odyssey: Note that the frame above collapses into a more epic widescreen letterbox:

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But even in that epic mode, the camera smashes its own frame to wink at you. Take a look at that disembodied arm exceeding its story's aspect ratio, hinting that this elevated register won't stick:

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It's disconcerting. There's an almost slapsticky sense of humor here. The camera is inviting us to find something funny about this ultraviolent story in which eyes are put out and men are sacrificed.

By the time we finally meet Shadow Moon, our protagonist, we're at least a couple of narrative frames deep in the "Coming to America" meta-narrative. The America and the god of the show's title are introduced with an epic tale about worshipers as told by the scholarly figure shown above. Blood and penmanship. Neither seems especially amusing. But the camera is snickering.

Oddly, that sense of humor helps the story transition from gore to grief.

We meet Shadow in prison. He's been there for three years, which he's spent practicing coin tricks and reading history books. His world has gotten very small, a point the camera makes by focusing on his hands:

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Shadow's curse is that he's a skeptic with a sixth sense. He doesn't believe in things he can't see, but he's uneasy anyway. He's getting out soon, but something feels wrong. He calls his wife Laura to find out whether everything is okay. It is! Then she dies. He's released early to attend her funeral. Bereaved, lonely, the weird result is that everyone he encounters thereafter — Mr. Wednesday, Mad Sweeney, Audrey — seems to find his grief a little bit funny.

Mind you, the camera doesn't constantly laugh at him. It captures his loneliness. It lingers on the sterile bureaucratic nightmare of a night in the airport.

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You might notice that Shadow is depicted in a pretty shallow depth of field there; only a narrow slice of that scene is in focus. I don't know if that's a riff on the dimensions Shadow can't see yet, but what is clear is that the camera (and the show) prod him out of that slice by pelting him with inconveniences and indignities: The janitor nearly vacuums his feet. A self-proclaimed leprechaun attacks him. His wife's casket gets stuck going into the ground and has to be jerked free. He finds out how his wife died (giving his best friend a blowjob), and her best friend Audrey offers him a blowjob in revenge.

That graveyard confrontation between Audrey and Shadow shows, by the way, what the sober side of American Gods can do. The cinematography there is comparatively restrained, and the acting takes that scene to an unexpectedly high plane. Betty Gilpin deserves an Emmy for her turn as Ativan-drunk, grief-stricken Audrey; she lends that scene a heavy psychological realism that manages to be even more mordant and funny than the show's puckish camera. It's a bravura performance, one that helps anchor a show that could easily billow out into abstract nonsense. Her wild grief gives expression to Shadow's repressed agony. (It's a credit to Neil Gaiman that he put his foot down when the series creators, Fuller and Green, wanted to make that aborted blowjob happen).

And that's important, because Shadow's predicaments start to take on a vaguely sparkly quality that could, in different hands, leaven our sense of his bereavement. A simple barfight looks oddly epic and gets scored like a videogame:

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A visit to the bathroom blossoms into all kinds of interesting angles:

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Everything around Shadow is exploding into sparkles and lights and agendas that culminate in the camera's most startling choice: his lynching.

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There will be a lot more to say about American Gods and race, but the first is that the series is doing things that the novel didn't. Bilquis' role will be expanded (with Gaiman's input), and the series is taking on issues that the novel only flirted with.

But the most remarkable thing about that lynching is how it ends: with a renewed explosion of joyful gore, like the kind that started the pilot. It doesn't end well for Shadow's attackers:

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(About this, too, there will be more to say. The explanation is just as interesting as the incident, and so are the different ways this incident is filmed.)

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But the point is this: Gore and grief aren't especially compatible modes. Spectacular feats of blood-letting tend to shut down an emotional response by making death seem almost abstract. American Gods is reconciling those registers at their most painful extremes. And it's doing so messily, joyfully, and (as Mad Sweeney says) "with panache." More importantly, though, it's doing so with purpose.

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Lili Loofbourow

Lili Loofbourow is the culture critic at She's also a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books and an editor for Beyond Criticism, a Bloomsbury Academic series dedicated to formally experimental criticism. Her writing has appeared in a variety of venues including The Guardian, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Slate.