To say that Americans Gods has had a rough second season behind the scenes would be a huge understatement. Multiple showrunners left the show, some actors vanished with them, and the show fell victim to multiple production delays because of the constant chaos. I’m frankly surprised that the show was renewed for a third season, of course with a new showrunner, given the turbulence.
A lot of shows and movies go through production troubles, but what matters is that the final product shouldn’t fall victim to the internal drama. When I first looked at the second season of American Gods, I was a bit worried about the general direction of the show. It was trying to play closer to the Neil Gaiman novel, but the show began to rely solely on the worst aspects of season one. A war was coming, but where the hell was the war? Would the buildup for the first season be worth it?
Now that it’s all finished, I’m satisfied with the journey that I went on, but American Gods decided to trade in all of its old problems for newer, shinier issues. They’re not as egregious as the first season’s problems, but a problem is still a problem nonetheless.
Unlike the first season, which focused on smaller vignettes that informed us about the characters more so than progressing the main plot, the second season was able to get that momentum slowly chugging along. We still see a lot of traveling from the main characters, but I am a bit disappointed that the pairings from last season have remained generally unchanged. Shadow (Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) still travel together with Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Laura (Emily Browning) on an adventure to bring Laura back to life. The format itself may not have changed, but the reasons why they’re traveling feel more energized.
Take “Donar the Great”, an episode where Wednesday and Shadow visit a small sect of dwarves to repair the legendary spear Gungnir, only to find the dwarves are mall kiosk workers without any strength, with the only way to strengthen them is Wednesday and Shadow to steal a jacket worn by Lou Reed. It’s ridiculous, but it offers a fun bit of levity to an otherwise very serious show. I found myself enjoying the show more and smiling at the cross-country adventure that these characters went on way more than the first season.
But it’s almost impossible not to mention the loss of previous showrunner Bryan Fuller and Gillian Anderson, who played the New God Media. They both left the show between seasons one and two, though Fuller’s departure may actually have been a blessing in disguise. As the season progressed and the show became more faithful to the book, I found myself enjoying it far more. Not because being more authentic to the source material inherently makes a better show, but because it became easier to follow and not as obtuse. When Fuller was in charge the pacing of the first season was all over the place, with frequent flashbacks that served to flesh out the characters without really getting to know who they were. It was saying a lot without saying much of anything, but every flashback in the second season felt like it had a purpose. Going back to “Donar the Great,” we’re allowed to see Wednesday’s time in America and the relationship between his son Donar, while “Treasure in the Sun” gave us another deep and well executed look at the life of Mad Sweeney.
Where the show stumbles is with the cast, specifically the new additions. New Media (Kahyun Kim), who replaced Anderson after her departure, understandably feels like a last minute addition and comes across as grating whenever she’s in a scene. It’s not that she steals the show, but she takes so much focus onto herself that all of the other more interesting characters are pushed to the side so this new character can get her time in the spotlight. The various characters that also pop up for an episode feel especially expendable, like when Shadow spends an episode hitchhiking to Cairo and just talking with a random woman that never appears again for the rest of the season. She may have significance as the story progresses, but as of now it just came across as a waste of time. I know that the first season had characters who appeared for a single episode and were never heard from again, most notably Vulcan, but at least there we spent enough time where we got to know them and their story only needed one episode to tell. Here the new characters aren’t even around for a full episode before they’re tossed away.
I’m even a bit disappointed at some of the returning cast members due to how much time we spend with them in the second season. Most of the season is confined to a funeral home in Cairo, so most of the side characters just chill around and do nothing while all of the major players go on their journeys. Mr. Nancy was a tour de force in the first season since he only had one major speech (it still rocks the house on rewatch), but seeing him deliver a speech nearly every episode robs him of that spark. The same goes for Bilquis, who was built up in the beginning as being a double agent for the New Gods, but instead just kind of walks around and gets into the same debates with the other gods at the funeral parlor.
The main cast is still outstanding and seemed to have finally embraced their characters with aplomb. Wednesday is still the same conniving con artist he is, but we’re able to sympathize with him and see him at his weakest, with the best example being when he sings alone on an empty stage “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” You can feel your heart break for a character who is willing to throw any and everyone under the bus for his own gain. But the season belongs to Mad Sweeney and Mr. World (Crispin Glover) who both deliver very different, but very effective performances. Sweeney is a man who’s lost everything and hates his life yet still has to fulfill his contract with Wednesday, while Mr. World takes glee in the war he rages against Wednesday with a menace that only Crispin Glover can deliver. It’s all the better that the best episodes of the season focus on these characters, and take place in the second half, giving the show plenty of forward momentum for the finale.
Unfortunately, that finale leaves a lot to be desired. With all of the build up towards the New Gods’ attack on the Old Gods, it left me scratching my head on what exactly was happening. The best part of the finale was an opening monologue from Mr. World as he describes the power of fear while reenacting Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast as a metaphor for the power the New Gods have over America. Despite that amazing beginning, it was clear that this final episode suffered the most from the production hell, with scenes and lines stitched together with no sense of cohesion. This leaves the finale to be obtuse, introspective, and give us a cliffhanger that left me ambivalent on what the future of the show may hold.
Acting and ending issues aside, I still enjoyed my time with American Gods quite a bit. While I do believe that its second season avoids the sophomore slump that most shows go through, it only barely does so due to how flawed the original season was. I’m curious to see how long the show can continue on at this point, given the ambivalent fan reaction online and the troubled state of production. Hopefully the third season can be smoother both in front and behind the camera, but that’s remained to be seen. It’s a short season of eight episodes, so it’s not asking too much of your time for an above average road trip through America.