Even amongst the endlessly inventive and abstruse material that American Gods provides, this episode is an oddity.
The show seems to be intent on never being predictable; on constantly re-defining its audience's parameters and expectations in the manner of a David Lynch work. Not only does it do so in terms of story and subject, but even in the styles and mediums it presents them.
So, the episode opens with a familiar scene; where the last two culminated, in Shadow's reunion with now-undead wife, Laura, but then quickly shifts to one of the “Coming to America” sequences which is, ironically not a “Coming to America” sequence at all, but an “Established in America” sequence, involving tribespeople from the last ice age, hunting down mammoths, making clothes from their hides, eating their meat, rendering icons in their bones and skulls.
What makes this sequence bizarrely (but effectively) incongruous is the nature of its recording: whereas all previous such sequences have been live action, this one is rendered in CG animation, lending it a quality that is removed from waking reality, almost fairy tale or dream like in its ethos.
The story of the tribe itself is all but wordless, exploring their hardships, their efforts to eke out a living from increasingly hostile and bitter land, turning to the divinity they have made, the god they have brought into being, to help them, who does so (purportedly) via visions visited upon the tribe's shaman, who leads them in a voyage across the hostile wilderness in search of a promised land, many suffering and dying along the way.
It's an oddly melancholy sequence, designed to demonstrate how the divinities that pervade the show's mythology come into being, what strengthens and transforms them; how they are tied symbiotically to their worshipers, often treating them with neglect or contempt as a means of subtly facilitating expressions of faith through sheer desperation.
Following the deviant extravaganza that was the last instalment of American Gods (Arabic immigrants engaged in graphic homosexual intercourse, one of whom turns out to be an Ifriti fire demon of Middle Eastern myth), this was always going to be a problematic episode.
That is not to say there's anything in particular wrong with it, only that it may suffer in the eyes of some by contrast alone.
Tonally and in terms of rhythm, the episode removes itself from any prior from the get go, focus shifting away from Shadow Moon (at least, in his present incarnation) to erstwhile wife, Laura, who vacilates back and forth between past and present, the episode exploring how she and Shadow first met, the truly bizarre relationship they enjoyed even before the latter got himself mixed up in a mysterious game of gods and demons and mythological monsters.
Whilst some have criticised the episode for stretching out a back story that could have, conceivably, been told in a ten minute flash back, I find it a useful tonal palate cleanser and calming period following the intensity and emotion of the previous episode, before things start to kick into high gear once more.
One of the more fascinating elements of the episode is how it frames Laura, whom Shadow clearly idolises in a manner that is distorting, almost religious in its delusion. When they first meet, she is a lost and despairing individual, out of love with the world, sustaining from day to day in a job she loathes, working at a casino into which Shadow drops as a naïve and not entirely successful con-man. Having attempted to play his hand at her table and been spotted, instead of finding himself reported and detained by casino security, he is instead informed by Laura of the situation, who urges him to leave without any further ado.
Waiting for her outside, he seduces her -and vice versa- without pre-amble, the two finding something in one another that they assume they need, though what she takes from Shadow is far more ambiguous and less profound than what he takes from her: to her, he is a distraction, almost a hobby, rather than something in which she finds meaning.
Everything in this small back story is framed from Laura's perspective; a sincere effort to make her more than simply an element of the protagonist's back story (as so many female characters still are, even in present day TV series), she is a complex and emotive agent, with her own ambiguities and agendas, many of which contrast or even contradict the narrative or mythology that Shadow invests their relationship with. Whilst she clearly finds some release and pleasure in him, he is simply not enough to entirely forestall the despair and darkness in her soul: she remains detached, nihilistic, quietly unsatisfied, though she can't articulate to herself why.
Meanwhile, in the present, where her life has unambiguously ended, she finds herself at the behest of a familiar character: her disembodied soul lost in the metaphysical desert where Anubis presides; a state where she, once again, exercises her agency, refusing the mythological rite in which her heart must be weighed against a feather, tipping the scales of her own volition, taking control of her own guilt.
Whilst Anubis insists that she believed in nothing and therefore will go to nothing, she refuses that proscribed fate, hurtling back to where her body lies, finding herself waking to it, though its heart has long stopped beating, its blood long stopped pumping, in a state of not only distress, but also new and uncertain processes: no longer requiring breath, her heart and entrails still, her body rejecting the formaldehyde and various chemicals swilling about it in a graphically gross and hilarious manner...
There's more than a hint of gallows humour about these scenes, in which the show seems intent on portraying Laura at her most disgracefully human, despite her undead condition; that her state hasn't become entirely better or worse simply because she happens to be no longer burdened by life. This in itself is a rarity for female characters, certainly romantic leads, that have a tendency to be idealised to ludicrous and dehumanising degrees by popular TV: this episode portrays Laura both in living and undead states as something entirely other; just another lost and frightened and beaten down woman, trying to make something of her existence, not known how, making mistakes and slip ups along the way, but ultimately just trying to be.
This has the effect of making her incredibly endearing and identifiable; not some pedestal-mounted, unobtainable icon (though this is, ironically the way in which Shadow regards her), but as a human being. Whilst it's very easy to condemn her for the infidelities she commits whilst Shadow is in prison, the manner in which the show frames them makes the act more one of desperation than of conscious cruelty or selfishness; before her death, she is on the very edge of terminal despair, of abandoning life altogether, which she likely would have, were it not for Shadow, her relationship with whom she cannot fathom or define, knowing only that it endures and endures in a way that nothing else in her life ever has.
Her reunion with former best friend Audrey (with whose husband she continued an on-going affair whilst Shadow was in jail) is one of the stand out moments in the entire episode; funny, fraught and dramatic, Audrey herself, whilst ostensibly a supporting character, complex and engaging in her motivations, in the manner she relates and responds to Laura: whilst initially horrified that her former best friend is somehow out of her grave and walking around, her terror -hilariously played- is soon supplanted by angry and bitter bitchery, that is brilliantly portrayed; not exploding in histrionics or displays of violent contempt, but hissing and seething in exchanges that are all the more fraught for taking place in a bathroom where Laura expels the formaldehyde from her system in none too dignified a manner.
These exchanges are some of the most beautiful in the episode, not to mention the series thus far; the emotional spectrum of their relationship cycled through and blossoming into something new and ambiguous in the space of a few moments. Whilst far from friends, Laura does not lie to Audrey; she answers her questions honestly and without ornament, to which the woman responds with more than necessary grace, even helping Laura to sew on her arm, which became detached earlier in the episode in an encounter with the Technical Kid's digital minions.
It's also during these exchanges that Laura articulates both to Audrey and herself how her relationship to Shadow has changed during death: whilst she could not say she unambiguously loved him in life, she most certainly does now in death, Shadow's presence seething before her eyes like a miniature sun fallen to Earth, allowing her to follow him wherever he goes.
A reunion with Anubis and his cohort, Mr. Ibis, leads to a strange and ambiguous relationship, in which the erstwhile Egyptian Gods of the dead help her to repair and maintain her mouldering body, until such point as they are no longer able, when her business in the world of the living is concluded. As to what role they will later play in her strange thread of the American Gods mythology, it is left deliberately ambiguous, even for those who have read the book, as Laura's back story has been elaborated and expanded upon by significant degrees.
The episode ends in the same place as the last, though from a significantly removed perspective; on her reunion with Shadow, allowing the audience to regard the exchanges to follow from a position of information rather than bias: whilst, in the last episode, it would have been very easy to condemn Laura, following events in this episode, such becomes profoundly more problematic: this is not a simple case of “good guy vs. bad guy,” in which one participant is unambiguously correct and the other wrong: their reunion is a ragged, uncertain, fraught and powerful event, all the moreso, given the revelations that both have experienced, suggesting intense and potentially cataclysmic exchanges in the episodes to come.
It is easy to regard this episode as simple filler, given that it goes through a great deal of material simply to end up at the same place where the last one ended, but that would be to ignore the manner in which it shakes up and even inverts the audience's perceptions and position, not to mention the fantastic things it does with Laura as a female lead (and a conscious parody of female leads).
The show seems intent on providing all of its characters, from the most prominent to the most incidental, a degree of genuine weight and back story; motivations that make them more than mere protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains: no one and nothing here is so clean cut: despite the existence of extreme and aspect-defined entities such as gods, demons and monsters, everything, everything, everything boasts a freight of ambiguity and uncertainty that is pleasingly human, but also serves to upset or invert the narrative roles they would traditionally occupy.
Far quieter than the previous, far less breath-stealing in its deviance, but still significant degrees beyond much of what popular television presently offers.
(WARNING: MANY, MANY SPOILERS)
In 1979, Director Ridley Scott established an entire mythos with his horror-science fiction film Alien. I am not entirely confident Scott envisioned that his film would spawn a sequel that is completely derivative of his vision; or an entire line of comic books that would include epic battles against Batman and Superman. Given an opportunity to return to the universe he created with the visually pleasing, head-scratching “prequel” film Prometheus, Scott’s latest entry into the story--Alien: Covenant–is proving to be just as divisive among audiences, if we consider the reviews so far.
Full disclosure: I loved the film, and I loved Prometheus. I am glad a lot of people don’t like either film, simply because I don’t think these movies should be enjoyed by everyone. I was inspired to write this by the review I read for Covenant on Ginger Nuts of Horror. I like “negative” reviews that provide intelligent commentary, even if I don’t agree.