When last we saw Mr. Wednesday and his man Shadow in the finale of American Gods’ first season, the coming war between the deities of old and the new gods looking to usurp them became that much more real. For the first time, the gods decided to begin involving humans in their conflict in a much larger, more devastating way.
After a season of following Mr. Wednesday around and not quite understanding all of the fantastical things the man seemingly drew to himself with his very presence, Shadow finally came to understand that Wednesday’s anything but a regular, eccentric old man. As the show’s second season opens, Shadow’s still coming to grips with the revelation about Wednesday and his many associates’ real identities, and asking himself just what it means to believe in the existence of gods.
“House On the Rock” picks up almost immediately after the events of last season, and it’s impossible not to get the sense that the episode is designed to be two things: a solid jumping-off point for anyone who might be new to the Starz series, and a message to longtime fans that even though American Gods lost a number of showrunners, the story it’s trying to tell remains intact, as does much of the stylistic vision that made the first season so mesmerizing.
With Shadow in tow, Wednesday and his entourage of fellow ancient gods make their way to the episode’s titular location. They’re meeting with a number of their kind from the far corners of the country—gods who immigrated to the U.S. in the minds of their believers—to discuss the next step in the quickly escalating conflict.
For all that Shadow’s seen of Wednesday and his ilk, there’s still an endearing naivté to him that makes it difficult for him to fully grasp just what it is that he’s seeing. In the past, Wednesday’s asked Shadow to believe in him and for the most part, he does, because of the things Wednesday and other gods like Mr. Nancy have shown him about their true selves. But one of the important messages tucked into “House On the Rock” is that belief on its own isn’t enough to sustain a god—it’s their believers’ faith that makes them powerful, and their tenuous faith in one another is what makes the prospect of a holy alliance between them all such a daunting prospect.
That tension and the philosophical differences between belief and faith are something “House On the Rock” digs into by homing in on the show’s most prominent relationships between mortals (or, in Laura’s case, mortal-ish) and the divine people they’ve found themselves inexplicably connected to. While the show spends a lot of time watching Shadow and Wednesday circling one another as they try to make sense of their dynamic, it also pulls your attention back to Salim and the Jinn he fell in love with, as well as Laura and Mad Sweeny.
Though none of the dynamics are exactly the same, each of them highlights a different way in which a person can grapple with their belief in a higher power as they struggle to deal with the everyday realities of being a (somewhat) regular human. Salim wants only to be able to experience and enjoy the love that he knows is out there waiting for him, and Laura wants to feel (and be) alive again, even though fate’s consigned her to death.
For their part, the newer gods understand now that their elders aren’t to be casually dismissed, and that they need to be ready to up the stakes if there’s any hope of them winning the war. And unfortunately, it’s with the new gods that there are moments when American Gods’ behind the scenes drama bleeds into the story in noticeable ways—Mr. World and Technical boy explicitly mention Media’s sudden exit, and Ostara’s conspicuous absence drains some of the energy out of Wednesday’s meeting, given how significant a role she was seemingly going to play in his plans during the show’s first season.
If anything, “House On the Rock” is a strong argument in favor of keeping your eyes on American Gods. While the story picked up where it left off and didn’t venture much into the larger world, the second season might just be able to continue the story in a way that matches the first season’s wildly imaginative, artful style of storytelling. But whether one should unquestioningly believe that’ll be the case for the season as a whole remains to be seen.
Season two of American Gods premieres March 10 on Starz.
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