A reckoning has always been what American Gods promised us in exchange for our viewership, and with the finale of its second season, it delivered, though perhaps not in ways that one might have expected.
Like the goddess of media, American Gods became something different in its second season—something much more rooted in reality, at times utterly mundane, and strangely on the nose about its big secrets.
With its season finale, American Gods acknowledged all of these new things about itself with a bold, if simple, statement about what its deities really are.
One of American Gods’ greatest sins: It completely dropped the ball by not addressing Mr. Wednesday’s brilliant plan to bolster his side of the god war by working with Easter (in season one) to rob the entire world of springtime and the surge of organic life that would have come with it.
By Wednesday’s logic, a good, old fashioned famine and catastrophic collapse of a few ecosystems would have been the ideal calamity to inspire mortals to pray to the Old Gods for salvation, but American Gods never bothered to follow up on that particular plot point, rendering it moot.
The season two finale, “Moon Shadow,” opens with a kind of spiritual successor to that major move of aggression, but the focus here has shifted to the New(ish) Gods and a history lesson of the kinds of havoc Media can unleash upon the world.
With Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, Media—in a previous incarnation—was able to strike terror into the hearts of Americans by crafting a reality in their minds that was based purely on fiction. Because the gods are creatures rooted in the collective imaginations of mortals, their innermost power is the ability to manipulate those imaginations.
While Wednesday makes a point of flexing his muscles in attention-grabbing, performative ways for everyone to gawk at, “Moon Shadow” presents Mr. World as his foil, carefully plotting just behind the scenes to make his own grand attack.
The funny thing about Mr. World is that, despite the fact that we’ve followed him for two seasons, he hasn’t really changed all that much as a character in response to anything that’s happened. Crispin Glover hasn’t modulated his performance to reflect the various wins and losses World’s stacked up in the episodes building up to this finale, but it works in the character’s favour because it reads more as a kind of resolute faith.
So much of this season has been concerned with throwing Shadow and the audience for wild loops that take our eyes off what’s to come, but World, in a strangely reassuring way, has always been rather one-note, said note being: “Keep moving, we’re going to win.”
American Gods seems to understand that the rivalry between Technology and New Media, while conceptually interesting, was a narrative drag that made the New Gods vulnerable to the point of being ineffectual villains.
In “Moon Shadow,” Mr. World, New Media, and an unsurprisingly resurrected Technical Boy work in concert as a deadly machine, leveraging the might of the digital age to take aim and fire at Wednesday and his associates. And the episode slows from its steady pace for a moment to let the gravity of the Technical Boy’s return from the incorporeal realm to sink in.
After giving the CEO of Xie Comm the pure inspiration to will him back into existence, the newly-updated Technical Boy reunites with his oldest friend to reflect on the nature of humanity and convey how he’s beginning to lose touch with them in a significant way.
Everything about the Technical Boy — from his image to his persona—has been designed to reflect the idea of the cutting edge, not just in terms of new technology, but the concept of newness itself. The Technical Boy is the shiny, new thing that mortals want, and being a god, he craves the attention and devotion that relationship breeds.
But as the Technical Boy explains how the gods are made in humans’ images with all of their mortal whims and flaws, the subtext is that in his newest incarnation, he’s found a new path to glory for himself that’s less about him being close to people like the Xie CEO.
By “hacking” Xie’s servers (we’re meant to see the company as American Gods’ answer to an Apple or Google), Technical Boy is able to bring the world to its knees because the information stored in those data farms is power in one of its rawest forms. With New Media’s help, Technical Boy is able to sew the seeds for public hysteria without batting an eye, and all the world’s mortals can do is pray that their phones and computers start working again as news reports of massive data leaks dominate the news cycle.
It’s telling that Wednesday spends the bulk of this episode off on his own having a meal as a maelstrom of metaphorical fire descends upon his assemblage of gods and monsters in Cairo, Illinois, where the authorities now know Shadow and the others to be located.
As potentially interesting as American Gods’ Cairo-centric subplots were, it was clear from the moment they were introduced that there was a chance they wouldn’t be properly wrapped up by the season’s end, and “Moon Shadow” makes quick work of telegraphing that the show is ready to move on.
Finally, after all the time Shadow’s spent stumbling around in the dark and ignoring all of the signs and warnings most of the people in his life have been giving him about Wednesday’s true nature as a predator and how his plans will end with Shadow’s death, the man is beginning to come to his senses.
But, for Shadow, taking stock of the situation and accepting the truths that have been presented to him is a much more existential task, because while American Gods hasn’t explicitly spelled out who Shadow is, it’s certainly muttered it in very audible stage whispers.
Shadow’s destined for greatness, but whether that greatness is his own is a decision he’s got to make for himself—regardless of however much assistance he’s tempted with by the likes of people like Laura, who genuinely care for him, or Bilquis, who’s as opaque as ever with her motivations.
He’s managed to pull off some truly magical things in American Gods, but the way he appears to wipe reality as “Moon Shadow” draws to a close is the most significant thing we’ve seen so far, and it moves American Gods into an interesting new place that Neil Gaiman’s wanted to go for some time now.
Armed with a mysterious new ID and a renewed sense that he’s in over his head, Shadow hops onto a bus headed for someplace cold, and it’s honestly difficult to say just where American Gods will go in its third season. The more staid, human perspective on things was a bold experiment that let American Gods shift its storytelling gears and try something new, and in the end, it amounted to a season of television that...was. Here’s to hoping that when the show returns, it’ll aspire to be more.