Review: 'American Gods' Demands Full Attention and Not a Little Faith

American Gods - Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon
Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in "American Gods." Amazon Prime Video

Early on in American Gods , the new eight-part fantasy drama from Starz, a first-time flyer is treated to an alternative theory of air travel by a fellow passenger. His seatmate explains that the 80-ton hunk of metal in which they are sitting has no business being airborne. But then Isaac Newton came along, he says, with his story about airflow and lift. "None of which makes a lick of sense," he continues. "But you've got 82 passengers who believe it so fiercely that the plane continues to fly."

This idea of faith as the supporting framework of our reality underpins American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2002. Myths sustain nations, even empires. In Gaiman's universe, the old deities that crossed the Atlantic to the New World with early adventurers and immigrants still stalk the land, their influence much diminished as Americans transfer their belief to the capricious forces of modernity.

You wouldn't necessarily grasp all this after an hour, or even two. Viewers unfamiliar with the source material are required to suspend not just their disbelief but also their incomprehension. That's not a criticism. From the opening scenes in which Vikings slice up one another in a bid to catch the eye of an inattentive god who controls the wind, it's pretty clear you're not really meant to know what's going on—not yet.

The plot centers on a convict called Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), an amiable (if imposing) opportunist brought low by a doomed scheme to cheat a casino. After hearing that his wife has died in a car accident, he's released from an Oklahoma correctional facility. On the flight home, he meets the reptilian Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a con man with an abiding interest in the sort of wishful thinking that keeps planes aloft. It's hinted that Wednesday is actually an incarnation of the Norse god Odin—or Wotan, or whatever—but let's not get too hung up on that. In a seemingly unrelated sequence, a man-eating goddess called Bilquis devours her blind date whole during intercourse, in a manner you would not want to have to describe to the police.

More modern gods are also embodied: Gillian Anderson plays screen-bound, black-and-white Media as a kind of omnipotent Lucille Ball; the quiffed deity of the internet, Technology Boy, rules a virtual world accessed via a VR headset. Some kind of battle between the old deities and these uppity new rivals is clearly in the offing, although each new scene adds more questions than it answers.

It helps that Shadow Moon can't really make sense of things either. Fresh from jail and poleaxed by grief, he allows himself to be employed as Mr. Wednesday's henchman without getting much in the way of a job description: It seems to mostly involve him getting beaten up. He should count himself lucky; American Gods is a bloody affair. Gore comes not in gouts, or even buckets, but in rivers. Blood pours from the sky. Severed limbs fly. People frequently get bisected, sometimes top to bottom.

If this sounds like so much untethered surrealism, it isn't. It's a jigsaw puzzle, a tightly interlocked narrative that takes some time to reveal its bigger picture. Without wishing to give too much away, it's the sort of series where dying early in the first episode is no barrier to a starring role. And while it may zip forward and backward in time, the story is firmly rooted in an American landscape, in the motels and cemeteries of the Midwest, in roadhouses with alligator-shaped bars like the one where Moon first encounters Sweeney, a hulking thug who self-identifies as a leprechaun.

"Aren't you a little tall?" says Moon.

"That's a stereotype," says Sweeney.

The writing is sharp and furiously paced; the cast bristles with menace. McShane is particularly good as Wednesday: charming and off-putting by turns, a pot-bellied god running on pent-up fury. He's a god for our times, in a tale for our times: a post-truth fable for a fractured society, where epic myths compete for followers. So while the uninitiated will have to put up with a certain amount of bewilderment—especially at the outset—they should stick with it. American Gods demands full attention and not a little faith. You'll find yourself drawn into its world, until you're willing the thing to stay in the air and get to its final destination. Believe!