Inside the Vast and Violent 'American Gods' Premiere

American Gods Still 11 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Starz

[This story contains spoilers from the first episode of Starz's American Gods.]

What are people getting into when they sit down to watch American Gods, the new Starz fantasy epic based on Neil Gaiman's celebrated 2001 novel? Take it from the novelist himself: "Trouble. Big, big trouble."

Indeed, even after watching the premiere episode of the new series from executive producers/showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan), viewers were likely left scratching their heads wondering what they just witnessed. Especially when it comes to what happened to poor Joel Murray (Mad Men). Some solemn pledges of devotion and worship are just not worth making.

In any case, to help further unpack the premiere of the long-awaited adaptation, The Hollywood Reporter turned to the cast and crew of American Gods for guidance. Read on for an explanation of the premiere, and what to expect as the series, about a mortal man (Ricky Whittle) trapped in a war between ancient and infant deities, moves forward. 

Shadow in the Storm

At its core, one man stands front and center in American Gods: Shadow Moon (Whittle), a brooding hulk of a man who begins the series with only a few days left in his prison sentence. He's released from jail even earlier than expected, due to the sudden death of his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), in an automobile crash. 

During his trip home, Shadow encounters Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a mysterious man with a twinkle in his eye and a job offer for Mr. Moon. The first scene between these two characters, which takes place on an airplane in the middle of a thunderstorm, was also the first major dialogue scene shot for the series.

"The first scene we ever did was the scene on the plane," says McShane. "It was a long and great day. At the end of it, we felt like we knew each other. And it's been the same ever since. We never went in with a long conversation about how to play the scenes. We just got on with it, rehearsed it, said the lines, and when we got on the plane, we did the scenes. And we kept doing it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but this works."

"It was an absolute delight," adds Gaiman, who was present for the shoot. "It was magic."

The Power of Belief

If it wasn't immediately clear from the title, American Gods focuses on mythical creatures given human form. For instance, Wednesday isn't all that he says he is, as readers of the novel already know all too well. What's more, Shadow encounters a leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), who can pull golden coins literally out of thin air. 

These so-called American Gods have their roots in immigrants who came to what's now known as the United States, praying and worshipping their deities of choice. As a result, American Gods features a vast array of gods from different cultures, including the African trickster god Anansi (Orlando Jones), the Slavic hammer-wielding god Czernobog (Peter Stormare) and perhaps even a thunder god of the Norse tradition. 

In all of these cases, these gods were willed into existence due to the fervent belief of their followers…in the universe of this series, it's the worshippers who created the gods, not the other way around. 

"That's the genius of Neil's book," says Green. "People had done stories about pantheons come to life, but nobody had ever commoditized faith, belief, time and attention as a currency that redetermined on a daily basis the value and worth of a deity. It is wholly original. It's a gift."

Swallowing Your Pride

It's not a gift for everyone. The premiere makes it clear that several of these old gods are down on their luck, several shades of pale away from the all-powerful creatures they once were. This is largely thanks to Americans' shifting methods of worship, devoting their lives to new gods of the digital realm — folks like Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), the toadskin-vaping kid who kidnaps Shadow and orders his execution. 

Look no further for an example of a disenfranchised goddess than Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the woman at the heart of the American Gods premiere's most memorable moment by far — a scene that's absolutely iconic in Gaiman's original novel, no less. In the scene, Bilquis takes a lover (Murray), and asks him to worship her during sex. The more and more passionately he pledges his devotion, the further and further he's drawn inside of her body, until there's no more Joel Murray left. 

It's one of the most surreal television sequences in recent memory, and yet, it's just the first episode. According to Fuller, the Bilquis scene represents the show's attitude toward sexual exploration and empowerment, saying: "When you look at the Bilquis scene, there's a woman in control of her own sexuality that's very empowering and enlightening, and we can treat sex not just as a means to a cum shot, but as a means to explore what it is to bond and join and physically become one with another human being and leave our individual sense of self behind and become something greater than what we were before we were penetrating or being penetrated or entwined in whatever respect we were going to be entwined with another."

A Viking Funeral

The Bilquis scene represents how far American Gods is able to push its content, but with that said, viewers were immediately thrust into the bloodiest end of the oceans.

The premiere begins with a sequence set long before the main action, as a boat filled with Viking warriors lands upon American shores. There, they encounter an indigenous warrior people, leading to an incredibly violent conflict that doesn't work out so well for most of the Vikings. In order to leave this place, the Vikings turn on each other as a means of sacrifice, and even pluck out their own eye. The final shot of the scene indicates that even though the Vikings were able to sail away, they left their gods behind to explore this great new land.

For his part, Fuller justifies the use of extreme violence in the Viking vignette, saying, "It's violent but it's also kind of absurd, and we wanted to make sure that when we did these stories that had a little more violence in them that we were accomplishing a couple of things: worship of the gods and demand of sacrifice is a violent, one might say biblical, aesthetic for these stories. So we felt like we needed a certain amount of bloodshed to kind of poetically comment on what sacrifice is and what's expected, but we also wanted to have fun with it, which is why you have an arm swinging through the air without a body."

"The world has a long history of violence," adds Emily Browning, who plays Laura Moon. "It's definitely part of different faiths and areas of belief. That's part of the story. We do certainly go for it. It's very intentional. It's something Bryan…if you've seen Hannibal, you know Bryan's fascinated with it. I don't see it as gore porn. I don't see it as gratuitous in that sense. It's just a fascinating thing for us to explore."

The Storms That Lie Ahead

The American Gods premiere's prologue sequence might not be matched in sheer blood-by-the-gallons for a good little while (though episode four contains a sequence that gives it a run for its money), but it does represent a taste of what to expect from the show's future all the same.

Among the show's many themes, few are as important as immigration, and the idea that aspiring Americans are able to bring their own unique strengths to their brave new worlds. As such, scenes like the Viking arrival will become regular occurrences, with episode-opening vignettes (as well as mid-episode sequences) revealing how certain gods came to America, and what their lives are like now.

"The show is about immigration," says Whittle. "It's about people from all over the world coming to this beautiful country that is America, which is an incredible melting pot. If you look at this cast, and it's so ethnically diverse, but that is America and that's important. People brought their traditions, their flavors, their cultures and their gods. Some flourished, some faded away, and that [Viking] story is just one of them."

As Shadow is drawn further into a brewing conflict between different schools of gods, he's also drawn deeper into a personal mystery that stems from his greatest tragedy. (Spoiler alert: Emily Browning isn't on this show just to play a corpse…at least not a sedentary corpse.) He also must come to terms with the fact that the world is either wilder than he realizes, or he's going mad — a similar struggle that viewers of American Gods may encounter from time to time. In that regard, American Gods author Neil Gaiman looks to what readers of his original novel experienced, and applies it to what to expect from the show's future.

"This is not actually a very good story for stupid people," he says. "Stupid people will not like it, in the same way I had people complain about the book to me, not liking it and not getting it. People complained about the complete lack of humor in the book. It's a pretty funny book, but you need to be reading it right. It's a book that asks for a close reading. It's a book that repays rereading. If you read it once, you know the plot, and then you get a different book. And that was very intentional, too. I was very proud of what I built. So I like the fact that people coming into [the series] don't know very much about it. I like that you're going to figure it out as you go. We will give you eight episodes of stuff, and some of that stuff goes all over time and space, and some of that stuff is Shadow's story.… The whole thing, I'm so proud of. I think it's good TV for smart people."

The Right American Gods at the Right American Time

Does the world need a series right now about bar-brawling leprechauns and man-swallowing goddesses? The American Gods team certainly thinks so, considering how the show's stances on immigration and slavery intersect with contemporary politics. 

"We're in a very weird world right now," says Gaiman, speaking somberly on the subject. "My story remains sadly relevant. Things in my story which were, damn it, not intended to be in any way controversial — things that I believed to be utterly innocuous — statements along the lines of, 'This book is immigration positive. It takes the same attitude to immigration that the Statue of Liberty does.' I thought that was an innocuous statement. We are against the madness that created the Chinese Exclusion Act 120 years ago. We're against the same kind of madness on the other coast that campaigned and lobbied to keep the Irish out, and claimed the Irish were no better than animals. Also, for the record, we're against slavery. We don't think that was a good idea. These are not things I thought were f—king important stands! These are the kind of things where I'm going, rock-bottom and innocuous. This is civics. This is just, 'by the way.'"

The author further contemplates the show's relevance to the modern moment, and applies it to the people who might be repelled by what they see in the first episode (and beyond) of American Gods.

"I think both for us and The Handmaid's Tale, we stayed in the same place while the world went mad and suddenly they're looking at us," says Gaiman. "People are acting and talking as if the world went mad last year and we rapidly wrote scripts and shot this thing. The truth is, no. We made our show. We say the things we have to say. We begin the story we have to tell. And watching people who have announced that they're going to be boycotting American Gods — which, by the way, when I was young, we used to call not watching; I'm old, I go back a way — it's just like, guys? You wouldn't have liked it anyway."

Did you like the American Gods premiere? Sound off in the comments below, and keep checking back for more news and interviews.

Additional reporting by Jean Bentley.