For the last seven weeks, “American Gods” has warned us of a coming war. One by one, the gods of centuries past made their way from the pages of global lore into the twisted landscape of this Starz show, where the mortal and immortal co-mingle and their fates are intertwined. With “Come to Jesus,” a grand finale that cobbled together all the disparate elements that made the series compelling viewing, Season 1 of “American Gods” reached its creative peak and paved the way for its cosmic tug-of-war to continue.
Though this season has delighted in its own diversions, crossing national and metaphysical boundaries to bring its infamous cast of characters together, keeping these factions separate for so long made their convergence all the sweeter. Mr. Wednesday, fresh from offing Vulcan, tows Shadow along to the house of Ostara, introducing a perfectly cast Kristin Chenoweth to an already loaded ensemble. While Wednesday tries to recruit the afternoon’s host to his side of the war of his making, Sweeney and Laura have effectively tracked down Shadow. Toss in a surprise visit from Media and its cohorts and it’s the perfect opportunity for Wednesday to pull back the curtain on his true identity.
In true “American Gods” fashion, Ian McShane’s booming invocation of “ODIN!” gets swept into the swirling atmosphere of this ill-fated Easter celebration. Coupled with Mr. World’s exponential choreography, its the show’s biggest example of showing that even with Shadow in tow, this is a cosmic battle that is specifically tied to weapons of its own devising. With this season-capper, it’s established the divide between Old and New and moved the conflict from a sensory, experiential realm to one where its moving chess pieces have clearer intentions.
As a piece of science fiction and a tome about the role that mythology has in informing our view of the world, it wouldn’t be unfair to view this finale through the prism of history and the chapter being written in our modern world. As this finale ventured from Egypt to Tehran, echoing the journeys in this season from Europe to the Middle East and westward to North American lands, it’s hard not to see this whole season as a shot across the bow against isolationism.
“American Gods” lives in a land of artifice, but there’s a value to having this allegorical conflict feature so prominent in its finale. The tools of Wednesday’s destruction are those of time-tested mythology, but the constant question of illusion, delusion and free will that’s woven into each development feels timeless.
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Book readers were obviously privy to some of these plot machinations and characterizations, but for the uninitiated, “American Gods” took an almost perverse delight in shielding both Shadow and the audience from the most basic of information about who these immortal players actually are. Media, Technology, Mr. World, Czernobog and company — all of those individual entities still have some degree of abstraction to them, but having now seen so many of them in a direct face-off opens up a portal to a storytelling world where that caginess won’t serve as much of a purpose.
Even though the season has been drenched in a classic battle between two opposing forces, the divide between old and new doesn’t necessarily mean a simple battle between light and dark or good and evil. The lush vegetation and pastel costumes harkened back to “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies,” previous Bryan Fuller TV efforts that wrestled with the consequences of the whims and rules of the supernatural making their way into the everyday minutiae of life in North America. It’s a world where familiar tropes and cultural touchstones can be upturned at a moment’s notice, reworked to challenge our assumptions about the traditions that made them into such recognizable entities.
Even as McShane continues to excel at acting like Ian McShane and the cycle of other MVPs come trotting across the screen (only a show like “American Gods” could have Jeremy Davies as Jesus feel like sensible window dressing), Ricky Whittle’s performance and the treatment of Shadow Moon is still the center of the Venn diagram that the rest of the show flows through. But here, in this finale, there’s a sense that as the character begins to understand his place in the universe, “American Gods” finally found a way to take all of the densely detailed individual worlds of these gods and drive them toward a common purpose.
In many ways, Season 1 of “American Gods” has felt like a richly delivered preamble, written on a page in beautifully rendered calligraphy and draped in the wardrobe like that of the inimitable Mr. Nancy. Orlando Jones’ return to this saga was a welcome one, especially when he’s again given a rich story to help bring to life through his narration. The Bilquis origin story, drenched in devotion, sacrifice and carried by an unexpected fall from grace, shows that “American Gods” doesn’t need direct connection between its players to be an engaging meditation on the stories we tell ourselves and the way we connect to the folklore of ancestors past.
But, as Mr. Nancy invokes in conversation with Wednesday and Shadow, “This is all too big. Too much going on at once. We should start with a story.” Now that the show has finally spent its share of time on stories, it’s arrived at a chilling crossroads, ready to bring along with it everything that set its first eight hours apart.