‘American Gods’ Recap: The Bank Heist

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon and Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday in Starz’s American Gods. (Photo: Starz)

Warning: This recap for the “Head Full of Snow” episode of American Gods contains spoilers.

What is belief? What does it take to believe? Shadow finds himself drawn into a world that is not the reality that any of us know. How much proof would you need to believe you could call down snow? Think of it like love, says Mr. Wednesday. Shadow didn’t believe in love until Laura. “So you didn’t believe until you did, then the world changed because you believed.” American Gods is a kaleidoscope of beliefs, offering a prismatic spectrum of fantasy and philosophy. But it also has interesting things to say about how and why we do the things that we do — which makes the show much more than a simple light show.

The plot
Shadow meets the third sister, Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Carr), who plucks the moon from the sky to protect him — in the form of a silver dollar. He challenges Czernobog (Peter Stormare) to another checkers match, which he wins; Czernobog still gets a swing of the hammer, but only after he helps Mr. Wednesday. Shadow and Wednesday then pull a con outside of a bank. Wednesday tells his bodyguard to think hard of snow; as the old man makes signs and business cards, snow begins to fall. He puts up an “out of order” sign on the ATM and pretends to be a security guard taking after-hours deposits. When a police officer calls the guard’s “supervisor,” Shadow answers to make the scam seem real. They run into Mad Sweeney, who demands the return of the coin he gave Shadow. Shadow tells him he left it on Laura’s grave, but when the leprechaun digs up her coffin, she is missing. She’s waiting in Shadow’s hotel room.

Tales of the gods
Anubis (Chris Obi) — the jackal-headed god who weighs people’s hearts before sending them on to the underworld — takes a woman who has died in her apartment in Queens. He balances her heart with a feather (“It was a very heavy feather. We had it made special,” he says in the book), and she is allowed to choose her doorway into the afterlife. A Jinn (Mousa Kraish) says he doesn’t grant wishes, but he somehow manages to give a struggling salesman (Omid Abtahi) the things he wanted most.

A1 Security Services
Game of Thrones is a wonderful show, but there’s never been much room for lightheartedness. American Gods turns on a dime from self-serious gods musing on the nature of goodness and death to a doddering old man — complete with music that could have been pulled right out of Curb Your Enthusiasm — swindling folks of their cash with a con that must be as old as banks themselves. Is there another show on TV now that can move between comedy and tragedy so deftly?

Sex and violence
Reading Neil Gaiman’s version in print “feels like a dream,” to use Shadow’s own words. Everything — including Shadow himself — feels a little disconnected from reality in a way that makes the gods feel more real than people. By contrast, the TV version feels lurid, as if everything is bathed in neon lights. When there is violence, the blood comes in gouts. When there is sex, it is both graphic and poetic. Everything is turned up, even the little things. In the book, Zorya Polunochnaya only kisses Shadow’s eyelids and Wednesday’s overtures to Zorya Vechernyaya are much more subdued; here both circumstances are more carnal and forward. Surprisingly, it all still feels true to the spirit of the book. It’s like reading an old favorite with a slick new font.

Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney in Starz’s American Gods. (Photo: Starz)

From page to screen
Pablo Schreiber does an amazing job as the sad-sack leprechaun, and it’s clear why the showrunners decided they wanted to see more of him. In the book, he appears once near the beginning and once halfway through. In between, things go very badly for him, but we’re never given specifics. Here we’ll get to enjoy much more of his awful run of bad luck.

The music
“St. James Infirmary Blues” — like “In the Pines” from the first episode — is another traditional folk song (with its roots going back possibly more than 200 years) that is best known in its incarnation as a blues song from the early 20th century. Again the show’s composer recorded a version with Mark Lanegan on vocals for American Gods. Though the lyrics seem to be referring to a dying or dead woman — the song is accompanied by Shadow’s first sight of his dead(ish) wife, Laura — the song is about the dying wishes of a man who’s lived a poor life of gambling and drinking. So it might also be about Shadow himself, who is a dead man walking, having promised his head to Czernobog when all is said and done.

Godly thoughts
Zorya Polunochnaya’s comment about kissing — “Disgusting. But in a nice way. Like bleu cheese. Or brandy” — feels like vintage Gaiman. Compare that to a line from an episode of Doctor Who he wrote a few years back: “Biting’s excellent! It’s like kissing, only there’s a winner.” Both suggest making out with Gaiman would be quite the adventure.

Add Scott Thompson (The Kids in the Hall) to the growing list of comedians to be found populating this show. The next episode will provide our first glimpse of Dane Cook as the man Laura was cheating on Shadow with.

American Gods airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.

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