I am already loving this new show, and no, I still haven’t finished the book yet. I’m going to list what I liked and what might be confusing to some people who have not read the book. I got it. Not everybody has the time to do that, but may have an hour free, to watch the show. And if you’re not used to Fuller’s signature way of creating ashow, you may not catch all the details in the narrative. Hell, I may not catch all the details, but I’m going to give it a try.
So, this is a Bryan Fuller/Michael Greene/Neil Gaiman Joint, and they don’t give a flying hot damn whether or not you’ve read the books, American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Norse Mythology, and they’re just gonna throw you in the deep end. Well, we’re gonna figure this out. If you have some ideas of your own about what happened in the episode, please feel free to share them. Also, this post going to contain plenty of spoilers for the book, and the show.
So far, the episode is mostly following the books, just not in strict detail. This is pretty much how Bryan works. All of the key moments get a shout out, but there’s also a lot of extra stuff thrown in. That’s okay too because that sort of thing happens in the books, with interstitial chapters, chronicling how some of the avatars of the old gods were brought to America.
The episode begins with the story of how Mr. Wednesday was brought to America, by the Vikings making a blood sacrifice to him, in exchange for helping them escape the hostile natives. He is probably the oldest European god in America. (There were already gods in this land worshipped by the Indigenous peoples.) It’s a gloriously bloody scene. In fact, this is some of the goriest TV I’ve ever seen, with Fuller taking full advantage of this airing on cable. We are talking gallons of blood flying through the air.
When Wednesday first meets Shadow he tells him that Wednesday is his day. And it is! Wednesday is another name for Woden’s Day, and Woden is another name for Odin of Norse mythology. (You guys would know him as Thor’s dad from the movies.) Knowing Fuller, we are probably going to be in for a lot of animal imagery, later in the series, as Odin is represented by his ravens, Thought and Memory.
Since the Old Gods thrive on human sacrifice, that’s how many of them were summoned/arrived in America. This is illustrated in the scene where the Vikings land in the New World. They’re prevented from exploration because the Natives keep killing them, but they can’t leave without Odin’s help. So they offer their eyes first, and when that doesn’t work, they carve an image, and stage a war in Odin’s name, showering blood all over the beach. They’re successful in summoning Odin’s aid, but leave their dead comrades behind without burning the bodies. That tattered black feather, that one of them throws to the sea, is representative of one of Odin’s ravens.
Shadow Moon is played by the British born Ricky Whittle, who is a mixed race Black man. This was a deliberate choice on the part of both Starz and Neil Gaiman, who said he would not endorse the series if a White man was chosen for the role. Gaiman was careful to shut down fans on Twitter, who wanted to protest the casting, making it very clear to them, that it was going to happen, because he did not want his character whitewashed. I have to applaud him for that.
In the book, Shadow is of indeterminate race, in keeping with the melting pot idea of America. Fuller and company chose Whittle to emphasize certain themes. In the book, the other characters are constantly trying to figure out Shadows ancestry. Fuller states that Shadows obvious blackness will be a source of fascination to the others, on the show.
At the end of the episode, Shadow is lynched by Technoboy’s henchmen, in a scene that is deliberately meant to evoke the lynchings of the Jim Crow South. His henchmen look like refugees from A Clockwork Orange, all dressed in White, which is not an accidental image. There are a couple of noose images in the episode, too. Earlier, in the prison yard, a group of skinheads threaten Shadow with a noose, and that threat is finally carried out by another asocial white man, Technoboy.
Fuller loves to deal in parallels and foreshadowing, and shows you what he wants you to know, so the visuals are as important as the dialogue. He often foreshadows events that will happen later in an episode, or later in the season, so when watching his shows, you have to pay close attention to the visuals. When we first meet Shadow, he is still in prison. In the prison yard, he’s discussing gallows hangings with his cellmate. Later that night he dreams about a Bone Orchard, where the trees attack him with white hands. He’s due for release in a few days, but gets released early, because his wife, Laura, dies in a car accident. This is pretty much just like the book, where Laura, who Shadow loves deeply, is killed in a car crash, while cheating on him with his best friend Robbie. So not only does Shadow have to deal with his grief, he now has to deal with feelings of betrayal at his wife’s infidelity, so he is experiencing a great deal of emotional turmoil.
In the first episode, just like Shadow, we spend most of our time being introduced to some of the primary characters. We also learn, along with him, that now that he works for Wednesday, he’s become the McGuffin of the narrative. That one thing, that must seem to be of great importance to all the other characters, for them to pursue. He spends most of his time being chased, first by Mr. Wednesday, and then fighting and/or getting beat up, and kidnapped. We get to see how tough he is, and get some indications why Wednesday might be interested in him.
I won’t come right out and tell you who Shadow is, but he is important. Pay attention to all the asides that Wednesday makes to him in their first conversation. In one scene he jokes about fucking Shadow’s mother, that he envisioned her with a big afro, and that Shadow could end up King of America, if he comes to work for him. In another scene, he mentions Robbie’s death, before Shadow finds out about it, as if he knows something about how Robbie died.
Shadow sent a lot of his time in jail teaching himself how to do coin tricks and this ability is something that will play into the plot later. He spends most of the episode trying to make it to Laura’s funeral. Fuller briefly mentions behavioral context, and institutionalization. In an airport scene, Shadow recognizes that the kind of behavior that is accepted, and encouraged, in a prison setting, is not the kind of thing that’s acceptable in the outside world, and that it’s the institutionalized man who can’t tell the difference, and ends up back inside. Shadow is not a dumb man, and is shown thinking carefully about his actions. This is important, because Shadow being able to adapt to the astonishing situations he finds himself in, will determine his survival.
I suspect that Shadow has lowkey powers of his own, outside of his ability to do coin tricks. There’s an emphasis on the weather whenever Shadow is onscreen. There’s a hyper-realism to those scenes, symbolizing their importance. The weather is sometimes an indicator of Shadow’s emotional state. There’s a scene where Shadow visits a state park, stands on a cliff edge, and screams out his frustration to the sky, which begins to cloud over, as if preparing to storm. There are always storms, or the beginning of a storm, when Shadow is onscreen. When he first meets Wednesday, there’s a lightning storm buffeting their plane, and the episode ends with a massive rainstorm, during Technoboy’s attack on Shadow.
He is also, I suspect, a low key prognostic, as he often has prophetic dreams that he doesn’t know are prophetic. He dreamed about Laura, on her deathbed, the night before learning she died. In this dream, the ceiling of his cell falls inward, and Laura, her body positioned like a corpse, lies on the ceiling talking to him. I think this is also his prophetic vision of her rebirth, as well. She is positioned like an Egyptian mummy, but she’s speaking to Shadow as if everything is normal.
The title, The Bone Orchard, is a pair of dreams, where Shadow enters a field full of bones and meets a Buffalo god, and in another, the trees attack him. This foreshadows the aftermath of his lynching, by Technoboy’s goons, when he is rescued by some unknown savior, and looks around to find his tormentors dead, their bodies brutally destroyed, in a field of blood and bones.
Shadow meets Mad Sweeney in a bar, just after sealing his deal to work with Wednesday, with a spitty handshake, and a glass of mead, a Norse type of wine that is made from honey. (I learned that from watching The 13th Warrior!)
Mad Sweeney is a complicated character, and not so much a god as some guy, whose story was heavily believed in by the Irish immigrants that brought him to the New World. Someone did a bunch of research on some of these characters, so have a link!
Who is Irish leprechaun Mad Sweeney?
Sweeney is capable of pulling gold coins out of thin air and promises to teach the trick to Shadow if he can best him in a fight. We’re not actually shown what the outcome is, but Shadow wakes up in Wednesday’s car with bruises, and possibly the ability to make gold coins appear. We’re not sure yet.
One of the gold coins, that Sweeney gave him in the bar, lands on Laura’s grave and resurrects her corpse. Yes, its an actual resurrection, too. In the book, it takes Shadow a long time to connect that to the coin he dropped on her grave. Who knows how long it will take on the show.
Bilquis entrance into the narrative is , for lack of a better word, spectacular. She is another one of the old gods that requires human sacrifice to remain vital. This is illustrated when she literally eats one of her lovers during the sex act. (Think “vagina dentata”!), after which she looks dewy, refreshed, and glowing.
In the novel, Bilquis’ race is unspecified, and she works as a prostitute, to procure the vital energy she needs from her Johns. In the show however, She is a beautiful African woman who meets some hapless dad-type, by using a dating app. She looks tired. As she calls it, she asks him if he thinks she looks “spent”. Him complimenting her is the beginning of the ritual of worshiping her. During the sex act, her power compels him to say what she needs him to say, until the ritual is complete and he is entirely consumed. There’s no gore in this scene, and its tastefully done. You can tell that the writers thought about how to respect the character, and the actress, because casting a fertility goddess as a Black woman, if carelessly done, would cause controversy.
Fuller has said that Bilquis will be playing a much larger role on the show, than she did in the book, but how she fits into the larger narrative, is not yet made clear. (Yes, I got theories!)
According to the “Whose Your God?” quiz on the website, I’m a worshiper of Technoboy, but quite frankly, I was not impressed by him, or his tricks, and it’s entirely fitting that he’s being played by a shallow skinny teenager, who looks vaguely like Justin Bieber, only less intelligent, with better hair. Technoboy is one of the new gods of technology. Neil Gaiman said he was inspired to create the character after stumbling across a crowd of people, standing in the middle of nowhere, who were all staring at their phones. He found out later they were hunting for Pokémon.
After Laura’s funeral, Shadow is accosted by Robbie’s wife, at Laura’s graveside. She is extremely drunk and tries to rape him, to avenge herself on the dead husband, who cheated on her with her best friend. After Shadow rebuffs her, he gets mind-jacked by Technoboy, while walking past an empty field. TBoy tries to strong-arm Shadow into telling him Wednesday’s plans, but Shadow knows nothing. Technoboy is a curious mixture of threats and politeness. Shadow is unimpressed though, and snarks at him.
TBoy conjures some faceless, white clad henchmen (like the white trees that tortured Shadow in his nightmares, and the four skinheads who threatened him in the prison yard) to kill Shadow, who puts up a very good fight, but the goons manage to hang him, anyway. He gets cut down and opens his eyes to the Bone Orchard of his nightmares. (It’s a testament to the creators, that they managed to film his lynching, in such a way, that I didn’t freak out, and stop watching, although I’m sure there were viewers who did.)
In the next couple of episodes we can expect to meet Mr. Nancy, the Kenyan Spider God played by Orlando Jones; Czernobog, a Slavic demon, famously featured in the Disney movie, Fantasia, in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence; and Easter, the goddess of Spring.