Praise Wednesday! Praise Technical Boy! The television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantastical opus American Gods finally made it to the small screen. The Bone Orchard, the first of the eight-episode first season, is nothing short of faithful and dazzling.
From its opening moments, The Bone Orchard is crafted with care and precision, thanks to the masterful storytelling capabilities of showrunners Michael Green (Heroes, Kings) and Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Hannibal).
Every scene in the first episode of American Gods is like something out of a painting. We open with a “coming to America” sequence, written and narrated by Thoth – the Egyptian God of wisdom – composing his story in a well-decorated study. He writes of a group of Vikings, the first to arrive in America, hundreds of years before Leif Erikson and Christopher Columbus.
The Vikings are welcomed to this new land by an onslaught of arrows, insects, hunger, and utter uncertainty. Eager to return home, they find themselves stranded, as their ship won’t sail due lack of wind. The Vikings make a number of sacrifices to their God, the All-Father Odin. This includes burning out one of their eyes with a red-hot blade, burning one of their own alive, and a bloody and grotesque battle royale. Finally, the Gods answered, and the wind has returned. The Vikings leave the new world, never to return again. However they have left their mark, leaving a wooden sculpture of Odin on the beach.
The old Gods have arrived in the new world.
From there, the world-building begins quickly and boldly, handled with a style that is next to impossible to describe. You just need to go and watch it for yourself.
We are introduced to Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), who is days away from getting out of prison and reuniting with his wife Laura (Emily Browning). Whittle gives Shadow an emotional weight right off the bat, as everything good in his life is taken away in an instant. Laura dies in a horrific car accident alongside his best friend, who had a job waiting for him.
Shadow has to go home for his wife’s funeral and gets on his first plane ride and meets the enigmatic, smooth-talking Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). He makes Shadow an offer he cannot refuse — yet he somehow does.
And then – “somewhere in America” – we meet Bilquis (Yetide Badaki). A Goddess who leads a scene that is eye-popping. Jaw-dropping. It’s a sex scene that was a tad difficult to visualize if you read the book. Now that it is brought to life on the small screen, it’s still hard to comprehend.
Back to the main story, Mr. Wednesday finds Shadow at a bar, struggling to pay for a meal. He once again tries to woo Shadow into his employ. After a botched coin toss (never bet against a God), Shadow caves and is hired as Mr. Wednesday’s driver, bodyguard, and aide-de-camp.
Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a drunken, seven-foot-tall Leprechaun shows Shadow a coin trick of his own. Sweeney says he will reveal the secret to the trick, if Shadow fights him. Moon refuses, but is provoked by the deranged Irishman. The two brawl in the bar, ending with Shadow waking up in the back of Mr. Wednesday’s car, on the way to Laura’s funeral, with no memory of how the fight ended, and one of Sweeney’s gold coins in his pocket.
Shadow finally makes it to his wife’s funeral only to find out that she died in the car with his best friend, Robbie, with whom she was having an affair. After the funeral, Audrey (Robbie’s wife and Laura’s best friend) offers revenge sex to Shadow on her husband’s freshly dug grave. He refuses and, after a few solemn words with his deceased wife, throws Sweeney’s coin on Laura’s grave.
On his way to rendezvous with Mr. Wednesday, Shadow is kidnapped by Technical Boy, a pipe-smoking, pompous wunderkind of a New God, who knows he’s working for Mr. Wednesday. Wanting to know what Mr. Wednesday is up to, Technical Boy threatens Shadow by having him deleted. Shadow, employed by Mr. Wednesday for only a few hours, doesn’t know a thing. This still pisses off Technical Boy, who commands his faceless thugs to beat the piss out of Shadow and lynch him.
The episode ends with Shadow saved by an unknown entity.
The episode isn’t perfect, but pretty darn close. There’s a lot to unpack in this one episode. There are pacing issues, and you might find yourself a bit lost if you have not read the book. Still, the unique visuals and clear setup of things to come should make you clamoring for the next episode.
American Gods does not hold back any punches. The Bone Orchard has made that abundantly clear. Director David Slade helps Gaiman’s tale come to life, taking you through a trippy trip of striking visuals, compelling performances, and the start of a most epic story. It’s horror, fantasy, and mythology, with wildly imaginative storytelling and unconventional narrative. And it’s one of the biggest strides in the evolution of cinematic television in years.