Shadow Moon, the protagonist of American Gods, doesn’t just have “an outstandingly improbable name,” as his new employer Wednesday says. In both Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel and Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s new television adaptation, he has outstandingly improbable bad luck.

The series premiere of the urban fantasy epic follows Shadow as he’s released from prison only to find that his wife has died, his best employment prospect is from a con man, his airplanes are waylaid, and mythical creatures fight and lynch him.

“They did not yet have a word in their language for miserable.”

The premiere, “The Bone Orchard” opens with a group of Vikings as they struggle with a series of hostile environments: a sea that refuses to put wind in their sails and a land that refuses to provide shelter or food. In an effort to reverse their bad fortune, they pray to a god the narrator refers to as “the Allfather.” This is Odin, the most powerful god in the Nordic pantheon. They resort to increasingly violent methods of capturing his attention like gouging each other’s eyes out and battling to the death. The last part does the trick.

The bloodsoaked sequence holds a grisly beauty that’s trademark Bryan Fuller — but the most important takeaway is not the savage artistry. Rather, it’s that Odin is fueled by war, and actions that look barbaric to one culture are sacred to another.

Ian McShane as Wednesday and Ricky Whittle as Shadow in 'American Gods'
Wednesday and Shadow meet on an airplane

“Today’s my day.”

The crux of American Gods is the relationship between ex-con Shadow and mysterious con man Wednesday. As this episode sets up, they have a constant interplay of light and shadow, of banter mixed with Shadow’s frustration and Wednesday’s grandiose manipulation. Their first meeting on the airplane perfectly encapsulates this. (Wednesday: “I offer you the worm from my beak, and you look at me like I fucked your mom?” Shadow: “Sorry, you’re just the first person I talked to who wasn’t an asshole.” Wednesday: “Give me time.”).

As played by Ian McShane, Wednesday oozes charisma and intelligence, but however charming he seems, don’t forget that cold open, which shows what it takes to please Odin. Mild spoiler alert, Wednesday is no ordinary man.

The Orgasm of Death scene in 'American Gods'
Yetide Badaki as Bilquis in 'American Gods' 

“Worship me.”

Somewhere in America, a man gets eaten by a vagina. This notorious scene is known as the Orgasm of Death to book readers. Aside from a slight tweak (Bilquis meets her victim on an internet date on the show; in the book she’s a prostitute), it’s a shockingly faithful adaptation. Although American Gods has not spelled it out yet, Bilquis is the Queen of Sheba. Just as Odin’s power is rooted in war, hers is rooted in sex. Her partner is unappealing by traditional standards because the emphasis of the scene is on Bilquis. Before the sex she’s uncertain and even timid; after consuming him, she’s invigorated and glowing. It’s validation through sex made graphically literal.

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When it’s not following Shadow’s surreal odyssey with Wednesday, American Gods revolves around gods that struggle to stay relevant after their believers abandon them. Bilquis’s attempt is the most visceral, which makes her an apt god to begin with.

Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney in 'American Gods'
Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney in 'American Gods' 

“Aren’t you a little tall for a leprechaun?”

After Shadow reluctantly accepts Wednesday’s offer of employment, the leprechaun Mad Sweeney provokes him into a bar brawl. Although Mad Sweeney is a dick, he doesn’t fight Shadow on a whim. His reasons will be revealed later in the story. In the book, he has a trucker-trash aesthetic that was ubiquitous in the early 2000s (remember Ashton Kutcher’s trucker hat?). In keeping his undershirt but giving him a slightly madcap hipster undercut, the show has updated it into a derivative look to suit the modern era.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in 'American Gods'
Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in 'American Gods' 

“We don’t give a fuck about him or anyone else like him anymore.”

“The Bone Orchard” ends on Shadow hanging in a tree. This happens after an unpleasant visit with Technical Boy, a New God who represents the internet. He’s essentially the Joffrey of American Gods, and just like Mad Sweeney, the show has wisely given his aesthetic a facelift. In the book, he resembles a stereotypical early 2000s hacker; the show has turned him into a combination of an Instagram star and a YouTuber just waiting for an inevitable reveal that he’s a Nazi internet troll.

His attack is also amplified. In the book he simply has his henchmen beat Shadow; in the show they lynch him. The show is honing in on race and the consequences of internet trolling more precisely than Gaiman’s novel did. Shadow is racially ambiguous in the book, often passing as white or prompting questions about whether he’s Spanish or a Gypsy. In the show, he’s not someone who can easily pass as white, and the horrific image of him getting lynched proclaims the show’s intention loud and clear. American Gods is not shying away from the ugliest sides of America: the racism, the violence, the xenophobia.

It’s a bold beginning that signifies the show’s willingness to simultaneously lean into the source material’s weirdest aspects and avoid the trap of using it as a Bible, which is somewhat fitting given that it’s all about deconstructing religion. The nature of belief and the way America worships is hardly stagnant, and the key to this show’s success is its ability to understand that.


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American Gods Season 1 airs on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern on Starz.

Photos via Starz