Shadow Moon, the unlucky ex-con protagonist of Starz’s American Gods, might get his head bashed in. The second episode of the glossy adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel sees Shadow meeting the god of Media, visiting Chicago with his enigmatic employer Mr. Wednesday, playing a high stakes game of checkers, and meeting a family of Slavic gods. If the first episode showed how gods are con men and hustlers, “The Secret of Spoons” shows how gods are kind of assholes.
“Once upon a time a man got fucked. That’s the story of black people in America.”
The cold open begins on a Dutch slave ship, where a slave invokes the African trickster god Anansi, better known as Mr. Nancy. Unlike Odin in the first episode’s cold open, Anansi actually appears here to talk to his believers. In the books, he’s an old man and only appears intermittently — though he stars in his own Neil Gaiman spinoff novel Anansi Boys.
Played by Orlando Jones, at his most electric, he appears in a colorful suit to give a show-stopping soliloquy on what awaits the slaves in America. (“You are staring down the barrel of 300 years of subjugation racist bullshit … 100 years after you get free, you still getting fucked out of jobs and shot at by police.”) This is a show-only invention. It’s hard to say what’s more powerful: his monologue or the aftermath when he incites the slaves to revolt to their doom, only to waltz away in his spider form; calm as you please as his believers go up in smoke. Wednesday later says the secret of his success is “charm,” and the same applies to Mr. Nancy.
“I was lynched. Strange fucking fruit.”
In lynching Shadow in the first episode, American Gods made a clear statement that it intends to engage more overtly with America’s ugly relationship with race than Gaiman’s novel does. “The Secret of Spoons” continues that conversation first in its cold open and later in Shadow and Wednesday’s confrontation about Shadow’s lynching. In the book, the phrase “strange fruit” appears in a dream Shadow has. It’s a reference he engages with passively and subconsciously. In the show, by bringing it up himself in a heated conversation with Wednesday, he engages with the language of racist history more actively.
Although Wednesday promises Shadow that he’s angry about what happened, he also shrugs this jarring experience, steeped in three hundred years’ worth of trauma, as an “occupational hazard.” Just like Mr. Nancy’s scene with Wednesday, the show is making it clear that gods don’t exactly look out for anyone’s individual well-being in a traditional sense. The New Gods might be assholes, but the Old Gods aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, either.
“Hey. You ever want to see Lucy’s tits?”
In the novel, the god of Media appears to Shadow as Lucy Ricardo on a seedy motel TV. The show has updated the setting to an anonymous, quintessentially American superstore — a stand in for your average Walmart, Best Buy, or Costco. It’s also added in a reference to screens “in your lap or the palm of your hand” to allow for today’s world of iPhones and tablets, but the scene is otherwise faithful to the novel.
Like Technical Boy, the god of Media is a newer form of worship who clashes with the Old Gods. Where he stands for the internet, she stands for television. Unlike Technical Boy, she doesn’t merely threaten Shadow; she offers him a job. She entices Shadow by first laying out why her side is better (“We’re the coming thing … he ain’t even yesterday anymore,” she says of Wednesday), appealing to his ego, offering him better compensation, and, at last, offering a glimpse of I Love Lucy’s tits. Unfortunately, even Gillian Anderson posing as a vaguely malevolent version of Lucy Ricardo can’t entice Shadow, who has had it up to his ears with people fucking with his head. But the scene raises a question that will be ongoing: Why is Shadow so special that both Old Gods and New Gods alike want him on their side?
“Family is who you survive with when you need to survive.”
In Chicago, Shadow and Wednesday first meet Zorya Vechernyaya (played by Cloris Leachman), the oldest of three sisters. They have parallels to the three Fates of Greek myth, but they’re rooted in Slavic tradition, with the oldest sister being the “evening star,” the middle sister being the “morning star,” and the youngest sleeping sister being the “midnight star.” In this sequence, American Gods leans even further into the mixture of the mundane and the divine.
While Wednesday and Mr. Nancy have shown the gods tendency towards capriciousness, they have a gravitas and mysticism that can’t be ignored. Here, the three sisters are just a dysfunctional immigrant family in Chicago, complete with a member who makes awkward racist comments at the dinner table. There’s an immediate recognizable universality about their dynamic — even though they’re clearly more than human.
“It’s a shame. You’re my only black friend.”
Czernobog, played by Peter Stormare, is the Slavic god of darkness and evil — also known as the black god. He thrives off of blood and death — though the joy of his kills have been compromised by new slaughterhouse technology, as he explains with gloriously timeless Slavic surliness. (“Why is he in my home? Make him not be here, or I make him not be here!”) Like his sisters, there is a universality to his reminiscing about the good old days back in the mother country — to his grumpiness towards guests. Not every American knows a man who joyfully smashes heads in, but everyone has met a man with Czernobog’s less grandiose qualities.
His scenes tie together with the cold open. In far less eloquent and more “racist uncle” terms, his questions about Shadow’s race, and his comments about being the “black man” over there (“where we’re from, everyone was the same color, so we fight over shades”) echoes Mr. Nancy’s breakdown of race as a social construct. (“You all don’t know you’re black yet; you think you’re just people.”) Of course, then he pounces on Shadow as his next head-smashing victim in the morning. This scene is faithful to the book, right down to Shadow’s nonchalance at the prospect of his own death.
American Gods is currently airing on Sunday nights on Starz.