Nearly three years after it was first announced, Starz's sublime adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods made its highly anticipated debut Sunday evening. The series, adapted by Michael Green and Hannibal's Bryan Fuller, is a true stylistic achievement that turns Gaiman's intricate but expansive story, about a brewing war between the old gods of mythological roots and the new gods of media and technology, into a bewildering and gorgeous television show.
The first hour, titled "The Bone Orchard," merely hints at the long and bumpy road awaiting ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) as he joins the magnetic Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) on a road trip across America following the death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning). Beginning with Shadow's early release from prison to attend Laura's funeral, where he learns she was having an affair with his best friend while he was inside, the hour eventually culminates in an unsettling scene, one in which Shadow, a man of mixed race, is lynched by the faceless henchmen of Technical Boy (newcomer Bruce Langley), one of the new gods.
The scene is foreshadowed throughout the hour by pointed references to lynching and recurring noose imagery, and Fuller's ability to turn the macabre into beautiful, stylish works of art — previously seen on NBC's low-rated, but acclaimed drama Hannibal — is again on display in the David Slade-directed episode as blood appears to rain from the sky and pool around Shadow.
Despite this, however, the scene — which is not featured in Gaiman's novel — remains a disturbing and harrowing reminder of America's horrific past and ugly relationship with race, which is exactly the point.
American Gods is, in essence, a story about immigrants, and race is naturally a major factor in that story. When casting the character of Shadow, whose ethnicity is left ambiguous in the novel, Fuller and Green wanted to remain true to the origins of the book, and although network executives expressed concerns about featuring the scene, the duo felt very strongly about including it.
"There was a moment very early on when [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht asked us about dealing with a black man hanging from a tree," Fuller tells TVGuide.com, "and it was part of the story in our minds [to remind viewers of America's dark past]. But it wasn't anything that we intended to do to shock people. It was something we intended to do to tell the story [of American Gods]."
Whether or not the producers intended to shock viewers with that scene, there's no doubt about it: even with the foreshadowing, you're never quite ready for it when it comes. And that might be exactly why it was the right decision to keep it in.
American Gods airs Sundays at 9/8c on Starz.
Additional reporting by Sadie Gennis