By Simon Button
Ricky Whittle is right when he tells us season three of American Gods is “a massive return to form”, at least judging from the four episodes made available to reviewers before the show’s return to Amazon Prime this month.
After all, season two of this flashy, ambitious, sometimes thought-provoking and often completely bonkers screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel was, quite frankly, a mess. Jettisoning the first season’s tight plotting in favour of an all-over-the-map approach and major deviations from the source material that seemed more about going bigger and brasher than expanding on Gaiman’s vision, it had many fans pondering: ‘How could what was so right now be so wrong?’
Not that said season wasn’t without its pleasures and genuinely thrilling moments, just that it meandered down narrative cul-de-sacs (Laura and Mad Sweeney’s pointless trip to New Orleans, for example) and lost sight of the big picture – namely the war between the Old Gods and the New, spearheaded by Ian McShane’s crafty Mr Wednesday on one side and Crispin Glover’s chilling Mr. World on the other.
Thankfully, season three is a re-righting of the ship – though not without caveats. Personally I could still do without endless flashbacks to days of yore (which could be done away with with a bit of expositionary dialogue), and on the technical side it seems as if the team of directors (one per each of this year’s ten episodes) have it their contracts that they must use a lot of slow-motion, no matter the subject matter. It’s horrifically effective when used to show animal entrails spilling out onto the ground but a slo-mo close-up of a jacket being steam-cleaned? Really?
But the narrative focus is as tight as it was on season one, probably because Gaiman – who was too busy with the screen version of Good Omens to have much input second time around – hunkered down with showrunner Charles ‘Chic’ Eglee to re-steer his creation.
Whittle’s Shadow Moon is very much the centre of the new narrative. Having learned that Wednesday is his father, the ex-con has turned his back on the war effort and (with distractingly tousled hair and a designer beard) is now working in a factory in Milwaukee as he tries to build a normal life.
His destiny, however, appears to lie in the small town of Lakeside, a new setting for this series where Burt Bacharach muzak plays on the soundtrack and the local eatery’s pasties are the biggest talk of the town. That doesn’t sound terribly exciting but the scenes in Lakeside are a lot of fun, especially whenever shopkeeper Anne-Marie Hinzelmann is around. As played by Julia Sweeney, she’s like a genial Annie Wilkes from Misery with added pep and no sledgehammer.
Anyway, without giving spoilers a girl goes missing in Lakeside and the new boy in town is the prime suspect, in a storyline that’s sure to delight fans of Gaiman’s original novel. But we’ll say no more here.
Of course, the world of Lakeside and Anne-Marie is a stark contrast to Dominique Jackson’s Ms. World, a newcomer to the series. I’m not sure why Mr. World morphs into a Ms in the first episode (with later episodes also adding Danny Trejo as another version of the character), but the Pose actress is a sassy addition to the show as well as a terrifying one, unleashing her violent anger on a cyber employee with a baseball bat like De Niro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables.
There’s at least one other new character in the shape of Sheriff Chad Mulligan (Eric Johnson) and Crispin Glover fans needn’t worry; he’s back this season, as are Bruce Langley as the playfully psychotic Technical Boy and Yetide Badaki as the love goddess with a very novel way of making her paramours disappear.
Then there’s McShane, who continues to be an irresistible blend of mischief and menace as he dives into a thrash metal mosh pit, strips off to the disgust of passing motorists and does a ritual dance with Peter Stormare’s Slavic god Czernoborg at a wake that’s more fight than footwork.
Shadow’s dead wife Laura (Emily Browning) also seems to be alive and well-ish again after a spell in Purgatory. Don’t ask why; such flights of fancy are typical of both Gaiman and the show. Likewise when Whittle declares in the second episode “I want no more riddles, no more cryptic answers” I heard myself saying back “Good luck with that!”
But there’s a real sense, after the first four hours, that everything is coming together to reveal just what Shadow’s destiny is and a feeling that the story strands are all heading in the same direction. While season two felt like a chore, early indications are that season three will be well worth the ride.