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“American Gods” Builds Its Mythology Around The Immigrants Who Built America

The epic adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s seminal novel begins its first season on Starz at a time when its themes are more resonant than ever.

“American Gods” Builds Its Mythology Around The Immigrants Who Built America
Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in American Gods [Photos: courtesy of Starz]

Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, published in 2001, is the story of an ex-con named Shadow who accompanies the Norse god Odin–who goes by the name of “Mr. Wednesday,” a play on the Norse naming conventions of our days of the week–on an epic road trip across the United States as the old god seeks to consolidate power against the new ones. The book’s theme of pitting religion and mythology against technology and pop culture resonated strongly 16 years ago, but in the adaptation of the show, which debuts on Starz on April 30, the most timely and relevant theme the show explores might be that of immigration.

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That’s something that the show’s creators, Bryan Fuller (who created the cult favorite Wonderfalls and Hannibal) and Michael Green (who cowrote Logan, Alien: Covenant, and Blade Runner 2049), were aware of as they developed the show–and something that came into much sharper focus after the election. Suddenly, they realized that a show about the gods and myths that are brought to America’s shores by immigrants was resonant–and the way that those cultural totems come to define America, too.

“We wrote and produced the show before the regime change,” Fuller says. “We were crafting the show in a progressive administration, and now we’ll be airing the show in an insane administration. That brings out a certain politicization of the story. That wasn’t something we intended, but it’s something we wanted to be authentic. We wanted to tell stories that were genuine from the perspectives of the characters, who themselves are representing different cultures and ethnicities. And then everybody went crazy regarding immigrants. And that’s the heart of our story, so we stumbled upon a much louder platform than we had anticipated.”

Green says that the show was still in its editorial process when “the asteroid hit and leveled America,” but that the opportunity to have a voice that comments on the America that the show will find itself premiering in isn’t something they take lightly.

“It was a strange experience, because we were working on an episode that deliberately was going to be about gun culture, which was an issue that we knew had some heat behind it, but we wanted to explore all sides,” Green says. “Suddenly, things that we were discussing with the network and the studio about, ‘Oh, are we pushing too far’ became plain. Certain images we had that we thought would look satirical suddenly looked like the news. I wish it didn’t.”

If American Gods is going to be pushing some hot buttons, they have a cast that’s equipped to do it. Ricky Whittle, who plays Shadow, brings a quiet, restrained intensity to the role of the ex-con who knows that the system tends to be stacked against men like him–big, dark-skinned, with a record. Relative newcomer Yetide Badaki, in her highest profile role to date, brings a regal authority to the part of Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba–one of the old gods looking to have her power restored. And Orlando Jones–who proved he could thrive in dramatic roles in fantasy-inspired series in Sleepy Hollow–makes his first appearance as “Mr. Nancy” in the second episode.

Whittle, paired with Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday, carries the show on his back, and Badaki stars in the pilot’s most memorable scene, but it’s Jones’s work in that second episode that helped reveal to Green and Fuller that they had something especially poignant and resonant on their hands.

“When we got the dailies back from Mr. Nancy’s coming to America, there’s a scene where the slaves are coming en route to America–not as immigrants, but as slaves–are praying to Mr. Nancy to come to some sort of aid because they didn’t understand what was happening,” Fuller says. “And Orlando Jones gives a fantastic monologue as Mr. Nancy to these slaves about what is waiting on these shores in the land of honey and opportunity for people who are black. And that’s there is no honey and there is no opportunity–you’re slaves, and a hundred years after that, it doesn’t change. And a hundred years after that, it doesn’t change. And a hundred years after that, it doesn’t change. And a hundred years after that, you’re still being shot at by police. And in the moment, we were just trying to be authentic to the black experience as we understood it as two white guys, historically, and the 40 actors who were playing the slaves on the ship gave Orlando Jones a standing ovation. And that has to do with how vividly Orlando brought that to life. Watching those dailies with our postproduction team, we realized, ‘Oh, this is an important conversation to have.'”

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All of this is very much an opportunity that seems more relevant than ever because of the current political climate. Orlando Jones’s monologue was developed after simmering in a culture of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter; regardless of who won the election, the themes of immigration and how what immigrants bring to America ends up defining what America is were being teased out in the midst of an election cycle that saw “Build the Wall!” chanted as the biggest applause line at rallies. But it’s also based on material that existed in the original text of Gaiman’s 16-year-old novel.

That means that American Gods doesn’t just reveal a sharp, unexpected look at America through the myths behind all of these gods–it also serves as a reminder of just how resonant these themes have been for decades in America. Our conversation around immigration has certainly taken a sharp turn, but it’s hardly new. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” may have only been coined a few years ago, but the issue of institutional police violence against people of color in the United States didn’t just emerge with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Shadow may be a rare hero for a television fantasy series simply by virtue of being played by an actor of color, but he was written that way 16 years ago, too. “We owe a lot to how prescient Neil Gaiman’s book is,” Fuller says. “It speaks to how ever-present these issues are.”

Gaiman himself is actively involved in the adaptation of American Gods for Starz–he created the new character of Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) for the show–and he reads every outline and script, reads the revisions, and watches the cuts and dailies each day. Fuller and Green rely on Gaiman for guidance (“He’s a rock-solid uncle-slash-rabbi who’s there for us whenever we need him,” Green says), and they’re hopeful that he’ll return to the world of American Gods in an even more hands-on way by writing episodes of the show’s second season or further beyond.

There’s a risk, when a show touches on hot-button issues and which is being created at a time when essentially all art is political simply because of the political environment in which it’s being created, of being preachy. But one of the things that Gaiman delighted fans of the book with is something that Green and Fuller are able to tap into as a way to drive home the larger political theme of American Gods, too, while also keeping the focus solidly on the storytelling and the characters: Namely, the vignettes in which we see how each character arrived in America, which provide a strong way to capture the struggles common to any immigrant who arrives in a new country, while also ensuring that the theme of the show doesn’t overwhelm the story it’s telling.

“It becomes about the characters. We have this wonderful cast, and we’ll hopefully add to this wonderful cast.” Green says. “And you want to ground them in their personal emotional experience. What are they struggling with? What are they trying to make better in their lives? What are they trying to leave behind, or what are they aspiring to? So seeing how they metaphorically or literally stepped foot on American soil is the origin story for that person as a new American entity, struggling with their new American identity. And it really all comes from that place.”

About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club.

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