‘American Gods’ Season 3 Gives the Series Back Its Stride

American Gods” opens its third season with the necessary edge to announce that it still has much divine juice in its veins, at least for its devoted parishioners. A heavy metal concert introduces us to a Nordic showman, played by none other than Marilyn Manson, who presides over ballerinas tearing apart a human torso. Manson then renders tribute to our returning deity of this series, Odin aka Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who is dressed like a Viking vision. It’s the kind of surreal edge this series has always boasted. For the faithful the ongoing journey of its characters carries on towards a war of the gods.

After season three’s rather wild beginning we return to the other key character of this saga, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), who is trying to remain obscure by working an industrial job at a small town. It’s the best he can do for now to escape the revelations of last season, when he discovered he is the son of Mr. Wednesday. The escape lasts but a few minutes because in no time, Wednesday returns, offering Shadow a chance to get deeper answers. But within Wednesday’s old gang Laura (Emily Browning) is desperate for revenge, trying to revive Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), who Wednesday whacked last season. She carries his corpse around in a cart, seeking any way to get him back and vengeance. New faces also emerge to replace familiar names. In the boardroom of the new media gods trying to wipe out the old ones, Mr. World, originally played by Crispin Glover, is now Ms. World, played by Dominique Jackson. Ms. World is preparing her crew for the coming battle with the old gods led by Odin, so she’s particularly impatient with Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), who still can’t convince goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki). Meanwhile Wednesday goes on a snow-covered road trip with Shadow to both bond and recruit fighting forces.

The third season of “American Gods” is also an attempt at a proper reset after a clunky second season. For those following the show’s behind-the-scenes drama, the original showrunners, TV auteur Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, were fired. This led to cast members leaving and new producers having to figure out how to keep spinning Neil Gaiman’s cult classic (but one volume) novel into an ongoing series. The answer seems to be to keep stretching out certain plot elements and use those now familiar slow burner TV tricks. While this is a fantasy show, it utilizes techniques common to other titles like “Mr. Robot,” where an entire conversation fills in a good amount of minutes and camera work is designed for patient, static shots. 

Static but now hollow, “American Gods” still provides enough of a religious experience for fans who have stood by the series (many out of devotion to the Gaiman novel). The continuing road trip of Wednesday and Shadow leads to great new characters and historical storylines. They journey into a frozen Dakota landscape, where they meet a Native American deity, Whiskey Jack (the great Graham Greene), who gives Shadow some needed words of wisdom for his own journey. But Whiskey Jack also hates Wednesday, because as Odin he was worshipped by the very white Europeans who first came to the New World and pillaged the Native Americans. An episode even opens with a moment where Nordic settlers throw a Native American sacred object into a river after causing death and destruction, realizing they have awakened angry gods. It’s another brief reminder of why Gaiman’s story transcends normal pop entertainment. It’s a saga that also touches on what the religious or mythic practices of a society say about its cultural roots. 

Yet the first episodes of this new season of “American Gods” don’t necessarily dig that deep into the metaphorical subtext. By now it’s more of a standard thriller where Wednesday drives around seeking other gods to join his cause, making stops to see figures like the Night Carrier and Czenobog (Peter Stormare), who is reintroduced in a great, rowdy scene involving endless vodka shots. Shadow at this point doesn’t know if he wants to continue following Wednesday around the map, so he agrees to finally go to Lakeside, Wisconsin, the rural town Wednesday keeps wanting to send him to for mysterious reasons. The place has a “Fargo”-like tone with nights full of snow and small town characters that may take on greater significance as the season rolls on. Shadow remains the most compelling of the personalities in this series, because he is the most human. Hey may be the son of a deity, but he is unsure of his place in the world and still seems shy when girls on a tour bus call him out for being good-looking. 

What “American Gods” does so well again is generate a sense of build-up. Shadow seems closer to finding answers to who he is while Wednesday is edging closer to a final showdown with the New Gods. And as a series this show finds it stride again after an entertaining yet unsure second season. What it never lost and continues to deliver are also hallucinatory visuals that threaten to be more memorable than the narrative, like Shadow having flashbacks to being a kid at a supermarket confronted by a white buffalo with flaming eyes, or the gold-colored forest where Whiskey Jacket sits like a Native American God forever surrounded by nature. How many new converts will be lured in by these new episodes remains to be seen, but for the faithful “American Gods” delivers another religious experience.

American Gods” season three premieres Jan. 10 and airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.