All hail the women of American Gods
Emily Browning and Yetide Badaki took full advantage of the expanded TV roles for Laura Moon and Bilquis – and it's transformed American Gods for the better
Laura Moon is the worst. She gets her husband sent to prison, she cheats on him while he is behind bars, she sleeps with her best friend's husband and she dies with another man's cock in her mouth. Even when she comes back from the dead, she remains a self-obsessed and self-absorbed zombie woman pursuing her husband around America – whether he wants her there or not. Her only redeeming quality is her sharp sense of humour.
In short, she's the kind of female character you don't see on screen very much.
"She's pretty terrible, but I love the fact that she's allowed to be, you know?" says American Gods actress Emily Browning, who spent six months getting inside Laura's rotting brain and living in her decaying skin. "In the whole first season she hasn't really had a redemptive arc yet and I think that's really cool."
In fact, the first season of American Gods has seen a huge expansion of Laura's role. She was a key character in Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel, which painted her as this awful but complex character with hidden depths and mysterious motivations.
But when showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green took on the project of adapting American Gods for the small screen, they announced that the original material was too much of a "sausage party" and they would be expanding the female roles.
Now the first season is over, we can see exactly what they mean.
What Fuller and Green have done is keep the essence of each character the same. But we get a look at Laura's life from her perspective, and we get a brand-new storyline for the glorious sex goddess Bilquis. Both get a lot more screen time, but neither character is easy to define.
"I love that; we're not cut up into either the Virgin Mary or the Magdalen type of characters," Yetide Badaki, who plays Bilquis, tells RadioTimes.com. "I love that you're never really sure where these women stand.
"And I love that you don't always agree with their choices. That makes it interesting, and that - at least for me as a fan - keeps me on my toes. Then I'm more fascinated, I want to know more.
"I think it's important in as far as representation anyways, that we see all the different sides reflected back at us as viewers: the good, the bad, the ugly, the weird, the things we're embarrassed about. Because the more it's represented the more I feel that we're setting out the message that we're a part of this tapestry. That we all belong. That there's nothing more beautiful than feeling a resonance with that which you see on screen."
When it comes to resonance, viewers may not exactly share Bilquis' experience of being an ancient goddess who finds her sexual partners on dating apps and then consumes them with her vagina.
But they could perhaps relate to the way Bilquis can be simultaneously vulnerable and powerful, and the way her self-esteem is tied to her sexual conquests.
As for Laura, her part is actually pretty relatable. Sure, since the book came out in 2001 she has divided Gaiman fans, with some hating her maggot-addled guts, some admiring Laura for doing whatever the hell she wants, and others falling somewhere in the middle. Many humans make mistakes that hurt other people – should Laura be judged by a higher standard?
"It is interesting to me to see that it's Laura that gets the most hate out of anyone," Browning says, "When the worst thing she did to Shadow is cheat on him, whereas Wednesday is kind of f**king with his head and also had his wife killed.
"I do think that female characters are generally held to much higher standards, so I like the fact that we are ignoring those completely."
Browning seems to fall in the middle camp; the Laura she describes is a nasty (but in some ways sympathetic) character. But Laura has one major fan in the cast.
"In relation to Laura, I think it was shared pretty early on that I was a big fan," says Badaki, who rushed out to buy the novel when it came out in 2001. "We did the original binge watch together; Emily, Ricky [Whittle] and I sat in the production office and watched several episodes. When it got to Laura's episode I had to turn to Ricky and go, 'Look i'm sorry. But I'm fangirling Laura right now.'"
Badaki adds: "I absolutely love the fact that they expanded the role of Laura. I think it was one way in which to answer a lot of questions for viewers that they may have had from the first episode, and it was also a wonderful opportunity to show yet another three dimensional, flawed, fascinating female character.
"Really at the end of the day I could remove the 'female' part and just say 'character'. It's just a beautifully written character. It's fascinating and it's something that usually I think tends to be more available to men, that kind of character on screen. And so it was incredibly refreshing to see this incredibly talented, wonderful, intelligent, capable woman play with that."
To make Laura 3D, you have to let her be gross. Really and truly disgusting: deathly pale and with straggly, dirty hair and a stomach full of maggots. You can almost smell her through the screen, the flies buzzing around her decaying body serving as a constant reminder that you wouldn't want to be downwind of her on a hot day.
"By the end of the season we were all so exhausted that they barely had to do any make-up – I was just sort of grey by the end of the season," Browning jokes.
"But it was so much fun. Laura goes into Easter's house in the finale, and that thing where she vomits up maggots and then takes her sunglasses off and her eyes are all milky. That was so much fun for me. I love gross s**t like that, and I love that Laura has been allowed to be gross the whole time. She was never 'hair and make-up'; they only ever dolled me up and made me look pretty in Shadow's fantasy."
This, too, is rare. Have you ever noticed how female main characters never seem to get truly disgusting even if they're in the middle of an apocalypse? Filmmakers chuck in a few artfully-placed streaks of dirt and fashionably ruffled hair, but that's about it. How does movie-woman always have perfect eyeliner in the middle of a life-threatening adventure? Why isn't her hair greasy? Surely one sexy outfit can't last forever without getting sweat marks and pit stains?
"I loved the fact that when you actually meet Laura, even when she's alive she's kind of gross," Browning says. "And after she dies she just gets progressively more gross. That was another thing that was really key for me because it's so rare that you get to do that."
Luckily, it looks like American Gods is in good hands as it heads into season two. The last time we saw Bilquis she was heading out on mission to take down Technical Boy's enemies, perhaps by turning her sexual powers against Mr Wednesday and Shadow. Laura had just rocked up at Easter's house to reunite with her husband, something that is sure to bring her into conflict with his new Norse God boss, while Easter (or Ostara) has thrown herself into Wednesday's campaign by cancelling Spring. On the other side, Gillian Anderson does an excellent job of being super-feminine and yet menacing as hell as the New God of Media.
The women of American Gods look set to take centre stage.
American Gods season one is available in full on Amazon Prime Video