Old Versus New: American Gods, “The Secret of Spoon”

Where premieres are usually all about shock and awe, second episodes set the stage for the bulk of the season. If “The Secret of Spoon” is any indication of what the average American Gods episode will offer, we’re in for a helluva ride.

Once again, Mr. Ibis opens the episode with a “Coming to America” tale, this one set in a 17th-century Dutch slave ship. Despite the era, Anansi (Orlando Jones) is all sultry jazz, colorful suits, and jive-talkin’ Black Lives Matter. Jones’ Anansi is a present-day Black man, which brings contemporary social relevance to the character. He is, like all African Americans, both himself and his heritage, accumulated over the long centuries; we suffer on the same continuum as our ancestors but also carry with us the influences of our African cultures. The Kwaku Ananse of folklore has a lot in common with Loki, while TV Anansi is more a force of manipulation and emotional chaos. This Anansi uses his silver tongue to light fires and shatter chains. He outsmarts those more powerful than himself by using his oppressors’ own strength against them. He can’t overthrow the system, but he makes the best of a bad situation.

The scene on the slave ship isn’t in the book (although there is a story about twin West African children who grow up on plantations in Haiti and the South, involving a different deity), but it is necessary to the show as a bridge between the lynching and Shadow’s confrontation with Wednesday. Shadow specifically uses the term “lynched,” a word brimming with centuries of assaults on African Americans. We aren’t lynched by hanging anymore but through state sanctioned executions and police brutality. Black men were and are the most frequent targets of this kind of racial violence. I don’t have the space necessary, in terms of word count, to break down the history of racism in America here, but suffice it to say, there’s a very good reason that Anansi gives this particular speech to these particular slaves. This conversation is integral to the the history and experience of America, which means it’s integral to the story American Gods wants to tell.

I’m just not sure showrunners and co-creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have done the spectacular job they think they have. The themes are powerful and poignant, but undermined by how quickly it’s all brushed past, not to mention with Czernobog’s “so much for fighting over color” nonsense later on. As if racism was simply a disagreement about skin color rather than centuries of systemic abuse and inequality. With respect to what Fuller and Green (and Neil Gaiman) are doing here, I’m not sure any non-African American writer could ever fully convey the nuances needed to make a plot like the lynching and its aftermath really work. The point they made was rather blunt, but at least it came from a place with good intentions, I guess. Watching the scene as a Black woman, even if I didn’t already know the races of the writers, I’d be able to guess that it was written by progressive white dudes. I can’t pinpoint what exactly was missing, but it felt somewhat incomplete.

After Wednesday convinces Shadow to stick around, Shadow spends the night recovering in a motel. He dreams of Laura, the motel room and their marital bedroom blurring together. The next day he packs up his belongings and abandons Eagle Point. He and Wednesday head out on the open road, making sure to steer clear of the highways. During a pitstop, Wednesday sends Shadow into a big box store to pick up supplies while he meets a man in sunglasses in a diner. So far, the magical things Shadow witnesses have been pretty mundane—sleight of hand, coin tricks, innuendos, simple magic that’s easily dismissed—but when Lucy Ricardo (Gillian Anderson) talks to him through the dozens of display televisions, Shadow is forced to admit that reality is weirder than he ever imagined.

The last third of the episode takes place in a run-down old apartment in Chicago occupied by Czernobog (Peter Stormare) and the Zorya sisters. In medieval Slavic folklore (or, at least the Christian interpretation of it), Czernobog was the “black god,” or god of bad things; his counterpart was Belobog, noted in the show as having left his family and gone mad. The Zorya sisters represent the morning star (Martha Kelly as Zorya Utrennyaya), evening star (Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya), and midnight star (Erika Kaar as Zorya Polunochnaya). Wednesday needs Czernobog more than Czernobog needs him. After besting Shadow in a game of checkers, the black god gets the sacrifice he longs in the promise of getting to knock Shadow’s brains in with his hammer.

If viewers haven’t already guessed, by this point, everyone not obviously human—that is, anyone who speaks in cryptic half-answers or performs inconceivable feats—is a god or legendary being. Some of the gods are ancient and well known, others are fresh out of the gate and more conceptual than mythological. Shadow has inadvertently stepped right into the middle of a brewing battle between the old gods and the new. Everyone knows that old proverb about how when elephants fight it’s the grass that suffers, right? Well, Shadow is the grass.

Everything Television said about the old gods being antiquated and meaningless is reflected in the portrayal of the Slavic gods. Bilquis resists her redundancy and even uses Technical Boy’s religious rites to continue her ancient rituals. Wednesday eschews modern technology except when he can manipulate it for his own benefit. The Slavic gods are trapped in the era during which they first arrived in America. Czernobog spits on modernization and the sisters deem learning and adaptation to be beneath them. Bilquis has learned to navigate a world no longer interested in her, Wednesday wants to reassert his dominance, and the Slavic gods have given up.

Bilquis’ role has greatly expanded from the book, to her great benefit. The TV Bilquis is a textured, vivid character instead of the flat, one-off god from the book. Where she was once a queen with statues carved in her honor and adorned in gold and jewels, now she’s a lonely, bitter woman reduced to whatever meager scraps of praise she can get from various booty calls. Her visit to the museum to see her own artifacts shows how far she’s fallen…and how badly she wants to take back what was once hers. Like the slaves, she has weakened and been stripped of her honor and dignity, but she shares their rage.

What else is left to say? The production elements are, as per usual, gorgeous and haunting, particularly costumes, music, and set design. Just the differences in sets between scenes with the old gods versus the new is stellar. The old gods live in crowded, dingy, cluttered rooms full of faded antiques, while the new gods exist in large, open spaces, sterile and white, the only decoration repeated geometric patterns. Fuller and Green’s script was quieter than the premiere, with less Grand Guignol and more contemplation. But it was still evocative and lyrically playful. The social commentary wasn’t as strong as it could be, but Jones and Ricky Whittle nail the delivery.

The book Wednesday flirted with the Zorya sisters just as TV Wednesday does, but Ian McShane and Cloris Leachman turn their interactions into something deeper. Zorya Vechernyaya knows what Wednesday wants and that he will use every tool at his disposal to get it, yet McShane imbues his performance with so much damn charm that even the wisest of the sisters can’t help but blush.

Newbies, start thinking about why everyone’s so hot for Shadow. Wednesday schemed his way onto an airplane to meet him, followed him to a dive bar to seal the deal, then doubled his pay to keep him around after the lynching. Technical Boy treated Shadow as little more than a pathetic flunky, but Television seems to see the same spark that Wednesday did. Maybe it’s because she’s an older god than Technical Boy, or maybe she’s just better at playing the long game. Rather than beat information out of him, Television appealed to his ego. She offered him the perfect job, with more money and perks than Wednesday could ever give him. The boob tube even offered Lucy Ricardo’s boobs.

Wednesday is so invested in Shadow he says of the lynching, “An assault on you is an insult to me.” But why? What do Wednesday and Television care what Shadow does? Why is Wednesday so interested in Shadow’s deadly deal with Czernobog? Keep those questions in the forefront of your mind, my dear newbies. If the show is anything like the book, we’ll have several seasons before those questions are directly answered, so I hope you’re prepared to be patient.

Music

  • “Up Around the Bend” – Creedence Clearwater Revival: Could those lyrics be any more relevant? Remember, Wednesday stays off the highways, their car is followed by two crows cruising on the wind, and Shadow’s dream about the big tree.
  • “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – Bob Dylan: Same goes for this song. A storm is coming, and Shadow is woefully unprepared.
  • Anyone know what song Czernobog sings? Something about bitter coffee, and Google has been extremely unhelpful. Fairly certain it’s the same tune as in the closing credits, but I can’t quite place it.

Final Thoughts

  • “Once upon a time, a man got fucked. Now how’s that for a story? ‘Cause that’s the story of Black people in America…A hundred years later, you’re fucked. A hundred years after that. Fucked. A hundred years after you get free you still gettin’ fucked outta jobs and gettin’ shot at by police.”
  • Shadow: “Strange fucking fruit.”
    Wednesday: “Plucked. Plucky fruit.”
  • “Time and attention. Better than lamb’s blood.”
  • Zorya Vechernyaya: “Your mother die of cancer.”
    Shadow: “Yeah.”
    Zorya Vechernyaya: “You no die of cancer.”
  • I grew up on Ashanti folktales in which the spider god was always called Kwaku Ananse, so it drives me a little bonkers trying to remember him now as Anansi.
  • Shadow taking baths is one of those little throwaways I’m so happy to see ported over from the book. I love the notion of this giant man crammed into a tiny little bathtub just trying to eke out a moment of peace.
  • When Shadow dreams of Laura, he’s in the hotel bed, but in their bedroom at home.
  • Easter egg: Wednesday stays in room 109 and Shadow in 113. In Norse mythology, 9 is very important to Odin, and Loki was the 13th god, and the number is connected to a bunch of unlucky and fatal events.
  • Ian McShane is such a phenomenal actor that even without CGI, he almost looks younger when hooking up with the front desk girl and like a crotchety old man when scolding Shadow about mourning his dead wife.
  • Nice to know that Mr. Paunch is still having the time of his life, floating around in a vulva-shaped universe.
  • Peter Stormare saying “organic bullshit” in a thick Slavic accent and Ian McShane and Cloris Leachman flirting are my new favorite things.
  • Speaking of the Zorya sisters, Zorya Vechernyaya dresses like it’s the 1890s while Zorya Utrennyaya is costumed like a WWII-era Eastern European matron.
  • Did those coffee grounds look like a crow, or was that just me?

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

19 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!