The opening scene of the new season of American Gods indicates the kind of show it has become. Ballerinas appear on stage, with tutus shimmying in unison. Soft music plays in softer lighting. And then the drums start, the lights come on, and the ballerinas turn to reveal their bloody faces from a human sacrifice underneath them on the stage. A band called Blood Death walks onto the stage as the ballerinas exit. Their concert is dedicated to Wednesday (Ian McShane), the All Father himself. Adoring hands reach out to Wednesday, and the leader of the band (played by Marilyn Manson) presents a sword to him as people in the crowd scream Odin’s name. A delicate dance gives way to pageantry, revealing the show’s tone: loud and obvious.
This season attempts to copy the aesthetics of previous seasons without matching the intent behind them. CGI isn’t just what made American Gods beautiful, it was the meaning and artistry behind the visual choices. Although the visuals this season can still be interesting at times, they can also ring hollow. Slowed-down blood droplets flying across the screen have little impact if they are just there to look cool and not to further the story. (It does not bode well that one of my notes from one of the four episodes I got to watch was just “bored.”)
This season of American Gods finally gets Shadow to Lakeside, Wisconsin, which book readers will recognize and have likely been waiting for. Lakeside is a typically American story of small-town niceties covering atrocities, like children who go missing without a trace. After a teenage girl disappears, Shadow (Ricky Whittle)—known to the town as Mike Ainsley—becomes an immediate suspect. The sweet and slightly bumbling sheriff apologies to Shadow for the “optics” of a white cop interrogating the only Black man in the town when a girl goes missing and says that Lakeside isn’t like that. Shadow responds by saying it’s still in America, isn’t it?
Leaning into the contradictions and atrocities of what makes up the U.S. is what makes a particularly American story like American Gods so interesting. It would be to its benefit to dig into the complexity of these contradictions. Evil can lurk under everything in the U.S., even and especially when it looks saccharine from the outside. The key to doing this without seeming preachy or boring is to pay attention to how easily evil can hide in plain sight. What makes it appealing? How does it benefit those in power? What makes it so hard to dismantle? How does it continue to get excused and promoted?
Exposing these questions involves reimagining typically American images and showing the rot beneath them, and how long that rot was able to grow. But as the opening scene attests, American Gods seems less interested in this subtlety and more interested in unleashing evil outright.
The big bad of the show still seems to be technology and the new gods, but there’s a lack of subtlety there, too. Technology and social media are portrayed as empty and harmful, but there’s little time spent on what is actually good about new media and tech. In the show, it just becomes a means for the new gods to get access to followers. But the emptiness of gaining followers and likes is a tired argument for hating social media and doesn’t add anything new to the conversation.
This is a minor quibble but indicative of American Gods’ lack of thoughtfulness: A property manager turns off the heat in the apartment that Shadow ends up occupying, in winter in Wisconsin, a few scenes after Shadow was warned about hypothermia. The property manager sheepishly says, “Why heat an empty place?” I live in Chicago, and the answer is so pipes don’t burst. Presumably people in Lakeside who spend so much time telling Shadow how to live in their town in the winter would also know this.
When he first arrives and can’t get through the front door, Shadow tries to get in through a back entrance, but he’s stopped when a shotgun is pointed at his head. Then the episode ends. It would have been a better cliffhanger if the gun went off—or if something else happened to show what could come next. There’s little doubt Shadow survives and not seeing who is on the other end of the gun and not knowing for sure if they’d pull the trigger builds much less suspense than actually seeing a glimpse of the danger that could come next. A good cliffhanger walks up to a cliff and takes one step off of it, so the audience can see the next step. This cliffhanger ended too soon to build that kind of suspense and excitement, so it just felt empty when the next episode starts and this predicament is resolved quickly.
In addition, a person holding a gun to Shadow’s head is treated as a way to introduce a tough character. But in actuality, raising a gun to a person is serious and scary. This small act that could so easily have ended a man’s life just because he was trying to get into an apartment he rightly occupied should be examined as deeply as any other evil in America that the show used to seem willing to explore. These small acts that many think are harmless or funny add up to evildoing when they are compounded and overlooked. That’s part of America’s story, too.
American Gods was full of powerhouse actors and interesting characters, many of whom left the show in between each season. Laura (Emily Browning) is still one of the best parts of the series, but she’s missing too much from the screen. There’s little focus and disparate storylines, and American Gods doesn’t seem interested in the deeper questions it once asked. Unlike the dead on the show that rise again, what made it special may not be able to come back.
American Gods Season 3 premieres Sunday, January 10th on Starz.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. Her book is All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture, from Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian will come out in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.
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