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A Heavy Dose of Visual Effervescence Can’t Save a Plodding American Gods

Like a crackle of lightning over the open sea, Orlando Jones’ Mr. Nancy opens American Gods’ second episode with a powerful monologue, a broad encapsulation of the hundreds of years of fuckery and torture perpetrated against black lives, simply because some Dutch motherfuckers decided different skin tones made for different destinies. As he speaks to a group of men not yet aware of the lives (and deaths) awaiting them, Mr. Nancy speaks of the horrible, inevitable fates their entire community laid out ahead of them in history – knowing all the while, he’s motivating them to send a symbolic middle finger to the hateful, misogynistic white culture abusing them for hundreds of years to come. As the trickster god Anansi (symbolized by the neon-shaded spider crawling around the ship), Mr. Nancy is there to shake the can, releasing the carbonated shower of blood and vengeance across the sea in an act of metaphysical righteousness; unlike the rest of “The Secret of the Spoons” Mr. Nancy asks the freed black men to step forward and take action.

Similar to its first hourAmerican Gods‘ second episode is utterly captivated with its own visual metaphors; this time, the images of bubbling liquids, observing the fleeting power of heat and oxygen in pots of boiling water, blood mixing with cleaning chemicals, and liquid soap hitting the current of flowing bath water. Every single image in this episode – right down to the dick pic Shadow finds on his dead wife’s phone – is about the build up; save for the explosion in the opening moments of the episode, there’s no release to be found in the 55+ minutes following Mr. Nancy’s fancy, unabashedly #Relevant opening sequence.

This would not be an inherent problem with the episode, if the entire endeavor didn’t feel like another “chapter in a long book” approach to television writing, which is beginning to become undeniably stale in the crowded era of Peak TV. Even Mr. Nancy’s first appearance is an unsatisfying, pointlessly vague affair; they don’t mention his fucking name once, nor do they give any context to his appearance in a modern suit on a boat in 1697. As a symbolic reflection on how little society has actually evolved, the opening piece is a powerful statement (albeit one supported by no other moment in this episode); as a part of this television show in this universe, the opening scene is as lost as sea as the doomed CGI slave ship in it.

The rest of “The Secret of Spoons” can be summed up in a compound sentence; Mr. Wednesday and Shadow hit the road, and meet with Czernobog, a crazy motherfucker who enjoys checkers, and slaughtering creatures with a hammer. The road trip, is as entertaining as you might expect; it’s utterly carried by Ian McShane, a performance clearly written as the centerpiece of the show, both, and narratively. McShane’s an obvious fit, able to deliver an impressive variety of shades into a single line of dialogue, the kind of mystery and duplicity the rest of the episode sorely lacks to establish. Ricky Whittles is certainly a beautiful man, but his wooden mannerisms and lack of emotional depth to his character in the writing, have made him an enigma in all the wrong kinds of ways, for the character who is our surrogate in this new, strange universe. In short, he’s an utter bore of a character, and “The Secret of Spoons” offers him nothing but the opportunity to look confused playing checkers.

Ahh, the checkers match; the spiritual opposite to the opening scene, a sequence delivered with a sense of power and movement seen nowhere else on the show. The checkers match is about as exciting and relevant as… well, a checkers match in a supernatural drama; once Czernobog threatens Shadow Moon’s life as a wager for the game, it’s obvious there aren’t actually any stakes. At least, obvious ones; while characters like the technology wizard and Gillian Anderson-as-Lucille Ball (you can tell Fuller’s been waiting to do that scene for awhile) certainly give some more scope to the external conflicts outside Road Trip with Mr. Wednesday, the scenes largely composing the meat of the final two acts of this episode have no real bearing on establishing anything, or moving the narrative forward in an important way.

Is it cool to see Peter Stromare (and to a lesser degree, Cloris Leachman) tearing up scenery, in the dirtiest, grimiest costuming one could imagine for him? Yes, obviously that’s a treat; you’d have to be a fucking idiot to not enjoy watching him suck down on cigarettes, pontificating about the beauty of providing a peaceful death to an unknowing party by manipulating it into not knowing its death is imminent. But it doesn’t offer much thematically to the proceedings, no matter how many times Gods wants to quick cut through some scenes of bubbles building up, an image that becomes slightly more hollow each time it is used (and Boy George, is it used a lot in this episode – see also: references to the “other sister”).

American Gods is obviously a show with a fun world it is very excited to build; however, the slow drip with which it is delivering information to the audience has been underwhelming in the first two episodes (like with Bilquis; she just eats a bunch of people with her vagina in a scene, then disappears for the entire episode). There are already moments where it feels the creative minds are too close to the source material, so enamored with recreating details and images and feelings it forgets to exist in the medium it is being produced for. As a visual exercise in film theory, “The Secret of the Spoons” is certainly something to celebrate and explore; as an episode of television, there’s no denying the unsatisfying emptiness that awaits when the credits roll as another flashy, superficial episode comes to a close.

Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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