Does season one of American Gods live up to Neil Gaiman’s novel?

American Gods stays within the spirit of the book – but there have been some drastic changes to the plot

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We may have reached the American Gods season one finale – but the drama is only just getting started. With just 130 pages of Neil Gaiman’s novel behind us, 500 more stretch out beyond the bookmark. There is so much more story to tell.

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Even so, it’s time to pause and take a quick look back at the path Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have carved out so far. 

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At this point I should issue a spoiler warning: you should probably only read on if you’ve finished season one. And as the series itself borrows characters from later in the story (Easter, Mr Jacquel, Mr Nancy), I’ll be pulling in a few very-mildly-spoilery details about how they are different in the novel too. Continue at your own risk.

And so we come to the reckoning: how does season one of American Gods stand up to Gaiman’s beloved 2001 novel? Pretty well, I think. A lot of the plot is wildly different, and the narrative is twisted to bring in major characters for unscheduled appearances when – by rights – they shouldn’t appear until season two or even three.

But despite major changes, Fuller and Green have stayed true to the spirit of American Gods. Perhaps that has something to do with Gaiman, who has kept close watch over his brainchild as executive producer.

What was different? Here’s the rundown:

“Dead wife” Laura is a star in her own right 

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When Bryan Fuller said he’d be bulking up Laura Moon’s role because American Gods was too much of a “sausage party”, I was concerned that this admirable initiative could backfire. What if it didn’t add to the story? But luckily it was extremely well executed – and Laura (Emily Browning) has been given a narrative of her own.

Everything starts off the same. As in the novel, Shadow Moon is waiting to be freed from jail and head home to his lovely wife when tragedy strikes. Laura Moon has died in a car crash. But when he arrives at her funeral, Laura’s best friend informs him that his lovely wife was a cheater; she died with another man’s dick in her mouth. Torn between anger and grief, he throws Mad Sweeney’s coin into her grave. The coin brings her back zombie-style, so she drags her rotting corpse around rescuing her beloved “puppy” Shadow from danger.

But there are some key changes to Laura’s role. Firstly she gets a backstory, which sees her meet her future husband as he tries to rob a casino. And once she’s dead, her story takes a different path too.

Take this example: further on in the novel Laura rescues Shadow by killing Mr World’s spooks. But this is brought forward in the TV version where she emerges from her grave and immediately saves Shadow from Technical Boy’s digital “children” who have beaten him up and lynched him on a tree. (In the book Technical Boy only roughs him up a little then boots him out of the car.) This serves two key purposes: it shows how devoted dead-Laura is to her husband, and it reveals how dangerous the New Gods really are.

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The “children” are all slaughtered at Laura’s hands, but not before they have pulled her arm off – so she heads to Audrey’s house to sew it back on again, leading to an extremely awkward reunion that never happens in the novel. It also serves as the perfect opportunity to bring in Mr Jacquel and Mr Ibis, who divert Laura to their funeral parlour and give her dead body the TLC it sorely needs. 

Ancient Egyptian deities Mr Jacquel and Mr Ibis don’t make their appearance in the novel until much later, and it is Shadow who spends time with them. But twisting Laura’s story allows the showrunners to squeeze more of the old gods into season one, hinting at what’s to come. It also drives home how badly Laura’s flesh is rotting and how little time she has left on Earth as the flies buzz constantly around her head. 

Mad Sweeney and Laura Moon go on a journey

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In the novel, the only tie between Mad Sweeney and Laura is the coin she keeps in her blouse pocket – a charmed coin which the leprechaun desperately wants back.

But the American Gods showrunners have invented a new subplot, throwing them together for a weird road-trip which actually kind of works.

Determined to take back his coin (in the series, it’s nestled inside her chest where he can’t get at it), Sweeney decides to follow Laura while she in turn follows Shadow. To say they get on badly would be a huge understatement. Add in Salim as a taxi driver in search of his ifrit lover and this could be a mini-series in itself. 

And yet, when Laura busts open her body again in a car accident, Sweeney pops the coin back into her chest instead of taking it. Why? Perhaps it has something to do with the revelation that it was Mad Sweeney who murdered Laura on Wednesday’s orders. Shock horror!

Along the way we get the tale of Irish lass Essie McGowan (played by Laura actress Emily Browning), which reveals how Mad Sweeney came to America. This is a twist on a “Coming to America” story from the novel, which originally featured Cornish girl Essie Tregowan. Episode seven is actually a little weird and I’m not sure it works,  but it does cement this odd relationship between the dead wife and the leprechaun.

Vulcan shows us what “franchising” really means

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The series introduces us to Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanoes and metalworking. Though he’s not in the novel, he was actually the brainchild of Gaiman himself.

Unique among the old gods, he has found a way to prosper by using a modern invention: the gun.

This serves a key purpose. At this point in the series we’ve heard Mr World (Crispin Glover) and Media (Gillian Anderson) try to “persuade” Wednesday to franchise his worship, but we don’t really know what that means. That is, until we meet Vulcan who has accepted the bargain.

Vulcan explains in episode six: “I’ve franchised my faith. You are what you worship: god of the volcano. Those who worship hold a volcano in the palm of their hand. It’s filled with prayers in my name. The power of fire is firepower, not god but god-like. And they believe. It fills their spirits every time they pull the trigger.” 

He only gets one episode before he gets his head chopped off, but that’s all it takes to make an impact.

It is becoming clear why Bilquis will be a central character

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Part of Fuller’s de-sausage-partyfication of American Gods also involved beefing up female character Bilquis’ part. Again: good call, showrunners. 

Yetide Badaki is sensual, vulnerable and terrifying as this sex goddess, consuming men through her vagina as they orgasm exactly as she does in the novel.

In the 2001 novel, Bilquis is only just beginning to move from prostitution to online dating to get her fix of sexual worship. But now it’s 2017 and Technical Boy is the one to offer her salvation in the form of a smartphone and a dating app. 

Now she owes him one. So, reluctantly, she agrees to turn the power of her vagina against Technical Boy’s enemies. Will she try to seduce Shadow or Mr Wednesday in season two? Intrigued.

Technical Boy gets an upgrade…

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The last sixteen years have also transformed Technical Boy. In the novel he’s more of a basement-dweller: this obese kid “wore a long black coat, made of some silky material, and he appeared barely out of his teens: a spattering of acne glistened on one cheek.” 

That personification of the internet has been replaced by an ultra-cool, sneering young man with a very vicious streak. He’s thin, he wears designer clothes, he smokes an e-cigarette. 

Judging by his appearances alongside Media and Mr World, it looks like Technical Boy is becoming more important than ever.  

…And so does Mr Nancy 

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Mr Nancy shouldn’t really be in season one, seeing as he doesn’t appear in the novel until the House on the Rock. But he’s too much fun as a character to leave out.

That must be part of the reason Nancy (Orlando Jones) appears early in the series in a Coming to America story, inciting a rebellion on a slave ship.

Easter reveals her vindictive side – and Mr World declares war

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Episode eight is decisive. Easter becomes a pivotal character, serving as Mr Wednesday’s “queen”. She may have invited a whole gang of Christs to her Easter party (Mexican Jesus, white Jesus, Asian Jesus), but that doesn’t mean she’s exactly happy about being overlooked as a goddess in her own right. Nor does she like to be bullied by the New Gods who arrive at her party.

So what does she do? Cancel spring, destroy the harvest, and assert her power as Ostera, that’s what she does. Plus Mr Wednesday destroys the New Gods’ thugs by summoning a lightening attack, dedicating the deaths to Ostera.

It’s a dramatic scene that has been invented just for the TV series, but it’s there for a reason. All this time Mr Wednesday has been trying to provoke a proper war, and now he gets his wish. As Mr World lies in the dirt, he declares: “You wanted a war. You have one. Be glad. It will be the war you die in.”  

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Season one of American Gods is available on Amazon Prime now