The premiere episode of STARZ’s American Gods creates a striking impact with a vivid, exaggerated visual style that creates a sense of unreality and emphasizes the bloody, violent world we are entering alongside protagonist Shadow Moon.
The following post contains potential spoilers for “The Bone Orchard” (season 1, episode 1 of American Gods).
The opening credits, with their neon lights, saturated colors, and strange blend of spiritual and technological iconography in the form of a totem pole, tell us that this is not an ordinary reality we are about to encounter.
The first scene of the episode itself, as a band of Viking explorers reaches the North American coast, unfolds with an over-the-top power that explodes onto the screen. An absurd swarm of hundreds and hundreds of arrows takes out a Viking warrior, when realistically only a single arrow should be needed.
Limbs go flying and vibrant bursts of blood pour out across the beach as the Vikings, desperate for wind to help them return home, kill one another in a sacrificial battle for their god, Odin.
This series of events is our introduction to the world of American Gods, in which religious expressions of faith and sacrifice occur on the basis of violence and brutality. It is also, as it turns out, the origin story of Mr. Wednesday, whom fans of Norse mythology will know from the hints given to us, is the American incarnation of Odin (Wednesday is “Woden’s day”). Thus, the mysterious deal, or “compact,” he makes with Shadow takes on sinister undertones: what kinds of sacrifices might Shadow have to make to uphold his agreement with this violent, dangerous god?
The motif of bloody displays of violence, made in service to the gods, continues, from Shadow’s “bargain” to fight Mad Sweeney for a gold coin to the brutal scene at the end of the episode when the Internet god’s digital goons bludgeon Shadow to a pulp, only to be destroyed themselves in a pool of blood. The splashes of crimson everywhere in “The Bone Orchard” indicate that Shadow’s–and our–entrance into this terrifying reality is essentially a baptism of blood.
Of course, we can’t discuss this episode without mentioning “that scene,” infamous from Neil Gaiman’s novel, in which Bilquis, an ancient goddess of love, consumes a man whole with her vagina. There is no literal blood in this sequence, but the saturated red lighting and Bilquis’ powerful sexual dominance hint at the idea of violent blood sacrifice.
Back to the Viking scene. It is important to note that in this scene we are not observing an objective reality because this story is being recorded and retold, presumably centuries later, by a narrator who inserts his own viewpoint into it. The flashy visual flourishes of the sequence create a sense of exaggerated vividness, bringing it to an epic scale and reminding us that we are viewing a mythologized narrative, not a historical account.
This story is, of course, a “Coming to America” tale, part of a larger immigration mythology built into the American cultural experience (something with increasing resonance in the current political climate). We get the sense that what will be important in this series are the narratives that people believe and have faith in, not what is factually, historically, or objectively true. This is basically what Mr. Wednesday says to Shadow on the plane: it’s our belief that the plane will stay in the air that gives it the power to do so.
This excessive vividness extends throughout the episode, disrupting our sense of reality. We see it in the harsh light of the prison yard and in Shadow’s cell, as a disorienting camera angle inverts the room and creates a window to his wife, Laura; this aligns with Shadow’s unsettling feeling that something is wrong with the weather or that death is approaching.
We especially see it in Shadow’s dreams of the bone orchard, characterized not by misty or traditionally “dreamy” effects, but a strangely hyper-realistic style, as if we are looking at a high-contrast computer screensaver so sharp, due to digital editing, that it looks unnatural–the same sort of thing that happens when a film looks fake because it overuses CG effects.
Similarly, the sleek-looking technological environment of the Technical Boy’s limo is exaggerated and disorienting: the puffs of smoke, the absurdity of vaping “synthetic toad skins,” the digital distortions, and glimpses of the Internet god’s real form all suggest that this is no ordinary reality.
Everywhere we look in American Gods, we receive the sense that something is just slightly off about this reality, as if there is another layer beneath it, and it is this hidden layer of reality–a terrifying world of powerful beings–that the glowing-eyed buffalo seems to be asking Shadow to believe in, and in which Mr. Wednesday is beginning to induct him.
If “The Bone Orchard” is any indication, the impressive visual style of American Gods should definitely be something to keep an eye on, not only as something unique in its own right, but also because it reflects the thematic interests of the series in establishing that we are encountering another reality and that accessing this violent, supernatural realm will require sacrifice and faith–quite fitting for the first episode.