It’s been a rough six days for Shadow (Ricky Whittle). His wife died, his best friend died, he got hired by an untrustworthy god, he’s been lynched, he lost a very unfortunate checkers game and he got roped into robbing a bank. Until now, Shadow has taken just about all of this in stride.
His wife dying elicited barely more than an eye twitch. Learning Laura (Emily Browning) was having an affair led to a calm, if sorrowful, monologue. But seeing Laura appear as a member of the undead on his hotel bed makes Shadow slowly come undone.
Visibly shaken, Shadow throws a pillow at Laura to make sure she’s not an apparition. But confirming she’s real doesn’t make him any calmer. Instead, Shadow raises his voice and spits out his words, asking to talk about Laura’s affair, saying that dying won’t let her off the hook.
So Laura talks, and Shadow listens. As they talk, the scene cuts between them, often placing them in the center of the shot, directly facing forward. It feels vulnerable and intimate, as if the audience is being directly spoken to during a difficult conversation. Shadow is viewed with a tight, wide angle. The effect of the camera makes it look almost distorted, as if the walls are closing in around him. Laura appears in a glowing light, making her face soft where Shadow’s is harsh. The light on Shadow is brighter, showing a glare on his skin that highlights the sweat on his brow. These choices may seem small, but they all contribute to breaking down Shadow’s usually even-keeled demeanor.
While Shadow is beginning to show the strain of the last six days, Laura remains as calm as ever (at least until an angry leprechaun tells her that her muscles will continue to disintegrate until she falls apart). She asks Shadow to get her a cigarette to calm her nerves, but nothing she does gives away that she’s feeling any nerves at all. She’s matter-of-fact as she gives Shadow details of her affair, and then she gets in the bath to warm up, hoping to feel warm to the touch should Shadow want to touch her. When Shadow places her wedding ring on the edge of the bathtub, Laura even bats her eyes, playfully asking him to put it back on her finger. It’s as if Laura thinks that by acting like things are normal, she can make them so. But Laura can’t make it snow like Shadow can; she can’t imagine something into being real. When she asks if Shadow is still her puppy, Shadow says no. The couple doesn’t get to finish their conversation before Shadow’s day gets even worse and local cops come to their motel to arrest Shadow and Wednesday (Ian McShane) for bank robbery.
Shadow isn’t the only one having a rough time. Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) gets picked up by a David Bowie version of Media (Gillian Anderson) to get scolded about hanging Shadow from a tree. Media also passes along a message from a mysterious Mr. World (Crispin Glover), demanding Technical Boy apologize to both Wednesday and Shadow. (Technical Boy takes being told to apologize about as well as you’d expect a petulant teen to take it.)
These stories collide in the police department in an effective scene where the old and new gods get together for the first time. When Shadow and Wednesday are allowed to speak together in an interview room, Shadow starts to panic and asks Wednesday to explain what’s going on. The depth of field on Shadow is shallow and the focus shifts, making parts of Shadow’s face look blurry while other parts are sharp. This mirrors how Shadow feels: He can’t clearly see what’s happening because he doesn’t have the context to make sense of it. Like Shadow’s conversation with Laura, the camerawork in the police department tells a story of Shadow breaking down under extraordinary circumstances.
Glover’s performance as Mr. World is unsettling as he cheerfully and creepily ringleads the new gods in a performance of dominance. He starts by making Technical Boy come in to give that apology to Shadow. (Technical Boy wears a great black-and-white sweater that reminded me of lines of static on a TV.) He goes on to offer Wednesday a kind of merger, where all the gods could work together under Mr. World to expand their reach for followers. It’s all political posturing from people who can’t be trusted, and Wednesday shuts it down.
“Lemon Scented You” is just as visually interesting as the previous episodes of American Gods (especially that animated opening), but it’s not as compelling. American Gods usually builds on themes and images to evoke feelings rather than list plot points, but “Lemon Scented You” trudges along through some heavy exposition. The exposition is dressed up as David Bowie, a zombie wife, and a police drama, sure, but it’s exposition nonetheless. (In fact, because it’s so dressed up, it took me a while to realize why I wasn’t as into this episode as I was the previous one.) “Wouldn’t you like an upgrade? A brand new, lemon scented you?” Media asks. But at this point in American Gods, things are getting a little worse for wear.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Real Life, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.