When it dawned on me that American Gods’ entire fourth episode – the WHOLE THING – was going to be a flashback telling the story of Laura Moon and how she ended up dying with Robbie’s dick in her mouth, I have to admit I had a little grumble to myself. Was this going to be an unnecessary interlude before we got back to the good stuff of gods with bleeding hammers and burning eyes and the ability to shape-shift into dogs and tarantulas? Come on! Just when the action is getting going, there’s a diversion!
But there’s a “but” coming, because by the end I was convinced: this is actually one of the best episodes yet and cleverly fleshes out the character of Laura, even as her actual flesh is rotting away.
Let’s backtrack (and it goes almost without saying that this article has more spoilers than Technical Boy’s car).
Showrunner Bryan Fuller always promised us that series one would beef up the roles of American Gods’ female characters, because Neil Gaiman’s novel is too much of a “sausage party”. That meant we would be seeing more of Shadow’s late wife Laura Moon (Emily Browning), her ex best friend and Robbie’s wife Audrey Burton (Betty Gilpin) and praying mantis-like sex goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki). But it is only in episode four that it becomes clear what exactly Fuller was talking about.
What he was talking about was this: instead of only meeting Laura when she’s (un)dead, we travel back in time to when Laura was an unhappy single casino worker trying to kill herself with bug spray in her jacuzzi. We then follow her story all the way through to her death and her resurrection, including a Bridesmaids-like scene when she shits a bunch of embalming fluid in front of a terrified and angry Audrey (she does not yell “It’s coming out of me like lava,” but other than that it’s pretty much the same).
By comparison, the Laura we met in the novel was quite an enigma. Before I saw episode four I thought that was a good thing, but now I’m convinced that – on screen, at least – it makes sense to make some actual sense of her.
The shell of the story remains the same. Shadow is devastated when told that Laura died, and then devastated all over again when he finds out she died giving Robbie an in-car blow job three days before her husband was due back from prison. It’s a stunning betrayal and one he just can’t make sense of: they were in love, weren’t they?
On a whim he throws the coin Mad Sweeney gave him into Laura’s grave, unintentionally bringing her back from the dead. His decomposing wife then wanders through the rest of the story helping keep Shadow alive like a zombie guardian angel.
It’s hard to like Laura because from a reader’s perspective she just seems like a terrible person. Much as Shadow can’t bring himself to hate her (he even apologises to her grave), the facts are these: Shadow is only in jail because he took the rap for his wife, and once he was locked up, Laura then began a passionate affair with Robbie – her best friend’s husband, no less. So now she’s back from the dead, why is she so determined to help the husband she screwed over so massively in life?
It’s puzzling, but in the novel that was okay. One of the great things about Neil Gaiman is that he doesn’t patronise, and he doesn’t spell things out as if his readers needed everything to be neat and tidy and logical. Life is messy.
But the series gives us a whole extra level of detail. Laura works at a blackjack table at a casino in Eagle Point, Indiana (in the novel, by contrast, she worked as a travel agent). One day she goes home, makes dinner for one, kills a bug with bug spray, considers the dead bug lying on the floor for a second, and then shuts herself in her jacuzzi an an attempt to poison herself to death. The attempt fails, but now we know: Laura is a profoundly troubled woman.
Then she meets Shadow – a thief trying to steal from the casino. There is an immediate connection, Shadow seduces her, and what follows is a happy montage of their life together as a married couple, hanging out in bed and at barbecues with their pals Audrey and Robbie. Shadow gets on the straight and narrow, he takes a job at Robbie’s gym, he’s glowing with happiness. But then Laura casually asks him to pick up bug spray from the store.
So, Laura isn’t happy. This is why she wants to rob the casino: a last ditch attempt at changing the life she hates. And when Shadow says he would be fine living in a cardboard box as long as it was with her, she hits back: “I think maybe I resent not being happy – not because of you, just – resent.”
“Do you still love me?”
“Yeah I still love you. I’m just not happy.”
Oof. So they do the robbery, Shadow gets caught, and Laura promises to wait for him to get out of jail. She doesn’t. Laura’s cat dies, and Robbie comes over to bury it while she downs a bottle of wine. She’s vulnerable and they sleep together. Then they sleep together for a few years more.
There is a lot of cognitive dissonance at work here, because even as they are making out Laura is telling Robbie she must wait for Shadow, and that is what she still plans to do. Right.
Then of course there is the blow job and the car accident and Laura comes back from the dead. Now we’ve caught up with the timeline of the novel, but Bryan Fuller and Michael Green still give us more.
There’s a trip to the afterlife where Anubis wants to weigh her heart against a feather (why does he appear when she doesn’t believe in Ancient Egyptian gods? This question goes unanswered). Once she gets Mad Sweeney’s gold coin and climbs out of her grave, she sees Shadow hanging from a tree and beats up Technical Boy’s lackeys to save him.
Then, bloodied and missing an arm, she pays a visit to Audrey. Her old best friend isn’t pleased to see her, on account of the cheating and how Laura is supposed to be dead. (As a side note, I am so glad to see more of Audrey. She has a bit part in the book, but in the series she is absolutely hilarious in her grief and rage.)
Somehow the two end up on a road trip together, before Mr Ibis and Mr Jacquel turn up to take charge of Laura and give her dead body the TLC it requires before she can surprise Shadow in his motel room with a “hello, Puppy.”
But the most interesting bit comes in the car when the two former friends are driving towards Shadow, who has now become like the North on the compass for Laura. Or as she says, “my own private sunshine”.
Audrey wants to know what the hell was going on in Laura’s brain that she could treat her “sunshine” so badly. “I love Shadow. Loved Shadow. Love Shadow,” insists Laura. “I love Shadow.”
“You did not love him when you were alive,” says Audrey after laughing mockingly for a really long time. “Come on, not love him love him. He was like a pet. There was a reason you called him Puppy.”
“Yeah, well. I love him now,” says Laura.
So this is kind of how it all makes sense. Shadow always loved Laura more than she loved him, and this was a problem: the marriage was not as happy as it seemed, because Laura’s deep-seated dissatisfaction with her life could not be outweighed by Shadow’s love. But now everything is different, because of the gold coin thrown by Shadow into the grave.
In the novel you don’t see Laura’s misery because we mainly get to know her through Shadow’s eyes. Personally I don’t like her any more in the series than in the novel, and I don’t think we are meant to. But I do feel like I understand her a little more as a person in her own right, and that can only be a good thing.
Farewell to the sausage party and hello to Laura Moon.
American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes added every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights.