Vodka-gulping sisters and the highest-stakes chess game ever played introduce Czernobog in the second episode of American Gods.
Viewers and writers are still talking about that Bilquis introduction in last week's premiere, a scene that has nearly managed to overshadow Shadow and even the wonderful Wednesday, the series' lead characters. Bilquis is back in the second episode and even hungrier. The show's writers, Fuller and Green, showed long-time Gaiman fans that they were serious with the extremely (and at times hilariously) graphic pilot episode. Their followup is proof that the blood and sex aren't just gimmicks.
Following the neon-trippy title sequence (thankfully not another ripoff of the Game of Thrones intro… Westworld, I'm looking at you), we meet Mr. Nancy under the deck of a slave ship. Mr. Nancy's animated, rallying speech about the future of slavery for the unaware hostages speaks directly to the country today. His metamorphosis from a spider to a plaid-suited man preview his character's craftiness. And his speech deftly transitions from the brutality of plantation slavery to the horrors of modern racism in a way that gives the message of the novel and the show a new importance and a striking relevance.
Returning to the main characters, Shadow meets Wednesday in a hotel where evidence of his boss's "charm" lies naked on his bed. Shadow cleans out his house and hits the road with Wednesday (played by the more and more fabulous Ian McShane), who enforces one rule of the road: "No highways." Why? Shadow asks. "Seen one, seen 'em all," Wednesday replies, though the real reason is the same reason Gaiman wrote the novel: to explore the weirdness of America.
Gaiman was partly inspired to write the book when he saw a full-size, polystyrene reproduction of the largest-ever block of cheese (produced for the World's Fair) that he saw on the side of a road in the midwest in 1992. The strangeness of the U.S. to a British immigrant, combined with the idea that, all through history, immigrants had brought their gods and legends to North America and left them there, sparked his investigation of myths in America and the New Gods that could be threatening them.
One of the funniest introductions in the novel is when Media speaks to Shadow through the television as I Love Lucy's Lucille Ball. In the show, Gillian Anderson plays Lucille Ball on the black-and-white screens of a department store during a scene that leaves Shadow shaken almost as much as being hanged from a tree. Being 2017, Media is rightly one of the most powerful New Gods and, according to social media teasers, is set to return as different characters throughout Season 1 and beyond.
Her recruitment pitch to Shadow further sets up the looming clash between the Old and New Gods. Mr. Wednesday's "friends," on the other hand, are spread across the country and struggling to get by. Episode 2 takes us to Chicago to meet Czernobog and the Zorya sisters, characters out of Slavic mythology with a love of vodka straight from the bottle and high-stakes checkers. Czernobog is a former cattle executioner with a clear history of antagonism toward Wednesday. While one mysterious Zorya sister sleeps, Czernobog challenges Shadow to a game of checkers. Introducing him to his beloved hammer and mourning its obsolescence, he offers a wager: Shadow wins, and Czernobog helps them; Shadow loses, and Czernobog's hammer gets to meet Shadow's head.
Czernobog's chain-smoking, vodka-drinking, murderous habits make him a hilarious character whose dislike for Wednesday makes their relationship all the more fun. But Shadow's first week out of prison is looking worse and worse.
The "goddess of love" continues her insane feast with course after course, eventually admiring what we can assume to be her jewels resting in a glass box in the museum. Her shocking scenes are important not only for the story, but for the position of sex on television. Though Game of Thrones and that one episode of Westworld have plenty to go around, Bilquis's scenes are different: they aren't simply excuses for nudity (be honest: how many of those GoT scenes really needed to be so explicit?) but shows of feminine force and important visual devices. The shrinking of the person being consumed, the angles of the camera, the shot's refusal to flinch—all of this assigns the power to Bilquis with almost no need for words.
And as we'll see next week, the show isn't done with sex:
American Gods' most important success is in interpreting the novel, not adapting it. While any fan of the book should be excited about the show's faithfulness so far, they should be equally happy about the writers' ability to achieve relevance and address the newest and most pressing characteristics of modern life.