The word ‘seminal’ is a fairly over-used adjective these days but it’s absolutely applicable to Neil Gaiman’s wondrous novel, ‘American Gods’. Telling the story of the Old Gods and the New Gods as they battle for the worship of the American masses, the novel is a story of immigration, religion and folklore as much as it is a rollicking fantasy adventure and, we’re pleased to say that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s small screen adaptation not only honours its source material, it builds on it. American Gods: Season One arrives on Steelbook, Blu-ray and DVD on July 31st, ready for fans of the novel to lap it up. But there’s plenty to get on board with even if you haven’t read the book, and with Season Two already confirmed, it really is time to get on at the ground floor.
That said there’s a lot going on; with the exception of the New Gods, our hero Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle), his reanimated wife Laura (Emily Browning) and a Muslim taxi driver (Mousa Kraish), almost all of the characters in the show leap from the pages of religious texts or tales of folklore, with some more familiar than others. Never fear, however, helpful creatures that we are, we’ve come up with a handy guide to the major players so you can settle down to your new box set obsession with the ability to impress and educate your friends. Because people love that, don’t they…
THE OLD GODS
Character Name: Mr Wednesday
As much thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as anything else, people are broadly familiar with the world of Norse mythology these days but the version of Odin on display in American Gods is a different beast to Anthony Hopkins’ benevolent Allfather from the Thor movies. Played with hypnotic charm by Ian McShane, Mr Wednesday is an Odin down on his luck and in need of his fellow Gods’ help if he’s to combat the waning of his power. In Norse mythology, Odin is the supreme deity, father of Thor and Loki, and he famously sacrificed his left eye for a drink from the Well Of Wisdom (hence Mr Wednesday having different coloured eyes in the show). The fact that he’s a god of war should influence your take on the proceedings as they unfold on screen. Impossible not to be reeled in by, Odin is not necessarily someone to trust.
Character Name: Mad Sweeney
Inspiration: Leprechaun / Buile Suibhne
Mad Sweeney is little more than a footnote in Gaiman’s original work but the author sounds as gleeful as anyone when discussing his happiness at American Gods taking the opportunity to expand and examine the minutiae of these seemingly throwaway characters. Played by Pablo Schreiber, Mad Sweeney is, simply put, a 6’5 leprechaun with the ability to pluck gold out of thin air. There’s plenty of suggestion that Sweeney is more accurately based on the legendary Irish hero Buile Suibhne, a warrior who went mad following the loss of a battle in 637 AD, but regardless of the truth, Sweeney himself adheres to the folklore roots of the leprechaun by pointedly not going down the route of the Lucky Charms school of clichés – there’s little to suggest leprechauns were ‘little people’ so much as larger, tree-dwelling sorts.
Character Name: Bilquis
Inspiration: The Queen Of Sheba
The Queen of Sheba fell in love with King Solomon in biblical myth, although her story has also been absorbed into a number of different cultures and religions. Not technically a god, the Queen of Sheba was nevertheless worshipped for her beauty and is represented in the series by the character of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a faded ‘god’ who straddles the methods of worship of both Old and New Gods (she uses a Tinder-style app to attract ‘worshippers’). Gifted with perhaps one of the most mind-bogglingly ‘did I actually just see that’ moments in the first season, Bilquis demonstrates a unique way of benefitting from worship – she literally absorbs her worshippers as they pray to her through the act of sex. Alright, she swallows them with her vagina. There, we said it. For sheer, excuse the pun, balls-out crazy, Bilquis is worth the price of admission all by herself but also the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the knock your socks off visual flair seen in American Gods: Season One.
Character Name: Mr Nancy
Mr Nancy is another character that enjoys significantly more screen time compared to Gaiman’s novel – indeed, his Coming To America section remains one of the first season’s most powerful as he both succinctly explains the advent of racism and delivers an incendiary response to it in a barnstorming performance from Orlando Jones. Anansi, the trickster god Mr Nancy takes his cues from, originated with the Ashanti people in the country now known as Ghana and is often represented as a spider, just as he is in the show itself. Whilst not as focused on war as Odin, Anansi isn’t averse to a little human sacrifice when the time calls for it, something witnessed in the Coming To America section when he effectively condemns a ship of slaves to death just as he inspires them to revolt.
Character Name: Czernobog
If you want someone to channel grimy, angry darkness, you cast Peter Stormare, simple as that. Fortunately, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green got the memo, resulting in the perfect interpretation of Czernobog, the first God Shadow meets (after Wednesday) at the start of his road trip. The representation of a Slavic ‘black god’, Czernobog, variously known also as Chernabog, Chornoboh, Čiernoboh, Crnobog and Tchernobog is essentially all that is dark and violent, a point literally hammered home by the fact that the manifestation of him found in American Gods passes the time working in an abattoir slaughtering cattle in a desperate bid to remember the good old days. Tellingly, he also loves to play chequers in a not too subtle attempt to communicate his relationship with light (his counterpart in Slavic lore is Belobog, which literally translates as White God).
Character Name: Zorya Vechernyaya / Zorya Utrennyaya / Zorya Polunochnaya
Inspiration: The Evening Star / The Morning Star / The Midnight Star
Czernobog lives in a state of abject decay in his Chicago apartment with the three Zorya ‘sisters’ (with TV legend Cloris Leachman perfectly playing Zorya Vechernyaya). The Zorya, in Slavic mythology, are deities who are also the daughters of Sun God Dazbog, with the Morning Star opening the gates to his sun palace every morning to let his sun chariot leave, whilst the evening star closes the gates each evening following his return. In Gaiman’s novel, the Evening Star is the only one of the sisters able to read fortunes, giving the down on their luck fading gods a route to at least earning a living. The Midnight Star is an addition to the family borne solely out of Gaiman’s mind to balance the two sisters and is named after the Iggy Pop song, ‘Sister Midnight’.
Character Name: Ibis and Jacquel
Inspiration: Thoth and Anubis
Brought to America by the Egyptians when they travelled up the Mississippi, Ibis and Jacquel are the manifestation of the deities Thoth (who was thought to govern over writing, wisdom and magic) and Anubis (the god who watched over the practice of mummification, leading to him being closely associated with all things to do with death). Fittingly, then, the duo, who sassily live in Cairo, Illinois, have been caring for the dead via their funeral home for many, many years. Ibis (so-called because Thoth is usually represented with the head of an ibis) is also the scribe recounting the Coming To America sections which explain how the show’s gods arrived in America), whilst Jacquel is also seen administering celestial judgment on the dead, including one Laura Moon who pointedly refuses to play ball with the natural order of things.
Character Name: Jinn
Inspiration: The Djinn / Ifrit
American Gods: Season One pushes boundaries as much as it entertains and enthrals. Matching Gaiman’s book in both open-mindedness and diversity, the show is rare for matching character with race. Sure, it’s a crying shame that this should be considered a plus rather than just the norm but in displaying this kind of faith in its source material, American Gods has also produced some of the most uniquely emotional TV moments of the year, not least of which being the touching one night relationship between the earthbound, taxi-driving Jinn and the heartbreakingly lonely Salim which deftly manages to transcend headline-baiting whilst breaking down barriers at the same time. In folklore, Djinn or Ifrits have their roots in Arabian myth. Creatures with flaming, demonic wings who wield great power and who can grant wishes are re-imagined by Gaiman, and Jinn’s act of magic here is to lift Salim out of loneliness and back to life – one of the series’ few moments of genuine tenderness and all the more powerful for it.
Character Name: Vulcan
The only God so far to be added to Gaiman’s original roster, Vulcan is a smart addition given America is the centre of the firearms world. In ancient Roman mythology, Vulcan was the god of fire and the forge, so essentially the god of making weapons – and if a god thrives on worship the god of all things shooty, stabby and skewery is going to live like a King in the United States. Played by the legendary Corbin Bernsen, Vulcan fulfils a pivotal role in American Gods: Season One, and is another example of an Old God not entirely at odds with the allure of the New.
Also blurring the boundaries between the Old and the New, Easter is the very definition of a modern Old God. Conflicted by the fact that the worship she benefits from is received through the prism of Christianity after Jesus effectively stole her festival, Easter is Gaiman’s version of Ostara or Eostre, a Germanic goddess worshipped in times gone by in order to ensure the onset of Spring. In American Gods: Season One, Bryan Fuller re-teams with Pushing Daisies stalwart and stage icon Kristin Chenoweth, who brings her usual bubblegum-with-edge lustre to what transpires to be a pivotal role. Stating that her collusion with the New Gods (Easter lives on as a media-centric festival just as Christmas does, whether or not celebrants are also Christian) is just ‘religious Darwinism’, Easter nevertheless can’t resist the call of her worshippers when Wednesday shows up on Easter Sunday to place the cat firmly amongst the pigeons.
THE NEW GODS
Character Name: Media
Media, by her own admission, was born at the beginning of the radio age. As soon as Orson Welles caused panic on the streets of America with his pioneering radio broadcast of ‘War of the Worlds’, people began to understand the power of Media and Media began to understand the power she could wield as people starting worshipping their TV, cinemas and radios and forgetting about their churches. Appearing to Shadow Moon first as Lucille Ball in a shopping mall TV wall, and later channelling David Bowie, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, Media is played to perfection by Gillian Anderson, clearly having the time of her life and proving that the dream pairing of her and Fuller on Hannibal was no flash in the pan.
Character Name: Technical Boy
In Gaiman’s original novel, Technical Boy was an overweight, food-obsessed mass of unpleasantness. In the years since its publication, however, the geek has indeed inherited the earth so the version we meet in American Gods: Season One channels every tech-obsessed, snot-nosed, scared of being left behind teenager who’s ever sneered at your outdated phone on the tube. Characterised beautifully in the series by the seemingly adorable Bruce Langley (seriously, watch a DVD extra on the box set and fail to fall a little in love with him), Technical Boy nevertheless has a face for punching, not to mention a bank of seriously cool gadgets. Oh and henchmen with no faces. There really isn’t anything not to love about this series, is there?
Character Name: Mr World
Ostensibly American Gods: Season One’s big bad (there’s so much more to it than that, but we are at least supposed to fear Mr World and seemingly everyone else does too), Mr World is something akin to the embodiment of globalisation and as such is a mass of insecurity, uncertainty and probing, preternatural surveillance. He seems keen to offer the Old Gods, or Wednesday at least, a violent truce (with Wednesday’s Allfather named as the destroyer of North Korea, a violent act sure to get him noticed again), but it’s not hard to see why the offer is declined when you look at the mighty Crispin Glover’s unhinged portrayal. Equal parts terrifying and ailing, Mr World is in just about as precarious a state as the globe he represents but don’t expect things to be quite as simple as that as American Gods continues.
AMERICAN GODS: SEASON ONE IS AVAILABLE ON STEELBOOK, BLU-RAY AND DVD FROM JULY 31ST COURTESY OF STUDIOCANAL