The two best episodes of American Gods’ first season are about Laura Moon (Emily Browning). But Laura Moon is not supposed to be the main character. She is the dead wife of the ostensible protagonist.
There’s “Git Gone,” in which we see Laura fitfully flirting with death until she actually dies, and discovers that she’d like to live after all. And there’s “Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” in which the now-dead-and-reanimated Laura sets off on a road trip across the country with a leprechaun and a Muslim cab driver who’s in love with a djinn, like a demented Dorothy in Oz, looking for a way to live more permanently.
Other episodes of American Gods have been more philosophical. They’ve spotlighted the flashy, immensely charismatic performances of Ian McShane as the grandstanding divine conman Mr. Wednesday, and Gillian Anderson as the chameleonic Media. But those episodes are by and large grounded in the character of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) — the protagonist, the audience stand-in, the figure offered up to viewers for our identification. And since American Gods does not seem to be all that interested in Shadow as a character, those episodes had a tendency to feel hollow.
But while Shadow Moon is the show’s narrative anchor, Laura is the character in whom American Gods is emotionally invested. Her episodes have heart and sparkle and emotional resonance. It is easy to care about Laura’s well-being, while Shadow’s well-being can easily become an afterthought, secondary to the plot mechanics driven by his character.
To understand why Laura is the best part of this TV show, you need to understand the relationship between American Gods, the TV show produced by Bryan Fuller, and its source material American Gods, the novel by Neil Gaiman. The TV show’s Laura is specifically a Bryan Fuller character, while its Shadow is Bryan Fuller interpreting a Neil Gaiman character. That distinction lies at the heart of what makes the TV show’s Laura so compelling.
Gaiman tends to populate his books with everyman heroes whose girlfriends are abrasive and unlikable
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a hybrid road trip novel/epic fantasy with a sprawling mythology to match, but in its heart of hearts, it’s noir. It’s smoke-filled rooms and neon reflections on wet pavement. It’s the Raymond Chandler-esque story of Shadow Moon, a man walking down mean streets who is not himself mean.
Shadow is a fundamentally good and moral person in an immoral world, mixed up in a conspiracy that he struggles to fully comprehend. He’s not afraid to throw a punch, but he’d prefer to handle things peacefully, and he says little but thinks a great deal. When presented with the impossible, he is unflappable. “I’m a leprechaun,” Mad Sweeney says, and “Shadow did not smile. ‘Really?’ he said. 'Shouldn't you be drinking Guinness?’” It’s that unflappable chill that makes Shadow so likable: Miraculous things might be happening all around him, but Shadow will just take things as they come. He goes with the flow. He’s cool.
Gaiman’s Laura, in the meantime, is a cipher. She is not central to any of the novel’s aims. She is the wife who was unfaithful in life but devoted in death, a deus ex machina who can be counted on to rescue Shadow whenever he finds himself in a particularly sticky situation and then disappear into the background. She serves both to establish Shadow’s bona fides as a nice guy — he loves his wife! — and to absolve him when he sleeps with other women on his journey: He might still have a wife walking around, but after all, she died in the act of giving his best friend a blowjob, so who could blame him for sleeping around a little?
This is not an unusual combination for Gaiman, who tends to like everyman protagonists with faithless, abrasive girlfriends. Neverwhere’s Richard is a charmingly bumbling Martin Freeman type who finds his inner hero over the course of the novel; his domineering girlfriend, Jessica, steps over the prone body of a girl lying bleeding in the street without blinking. Stardust’s boyish Tristran Thorn sets off on a quest to bring a fallen star back to Victoria Forester, but Victoria is only playing with Tristran’s feelings and actually loves another.
I don’t mean to suggest that Gaiman can’t write compelling women — Neverwhere has plucky, likable Door and terrifyingly efficient Hunter; Stardust has the delightfully angry Yvaine — but that there is a slot at the beginning of every Gaiman book that seems to be marked “girlfriend: not good.” In Gaiman novels, the girlfriend or wife at the beginning of the book tends to stand for domesticity, for the mundane world that the hero must leave behind. And because the world of adventure and excitement must be seductive, the woman who represents domesticity must be vaguely off-putting: She’s faithless to the hero, or doesn’t care much for him, or is simply not a very nice person.
In American Gods, Laura shambles after Shadow and trails the promise of the mundane world behind her, but Shadow, fully engulfed in the world of gods and conspiracies, refuses to be tempted back. As far as he’s concerned, Laura is dead, and the world she symbolizes is dead, too.
In Gaiman’s American Gods, Laura is significant for her role as a symbol in Shadow’s personal journey. As a character, she is a cipher.
Fuller isn’t interested in men who are cool. He’s interested in characters who are obsessed with death.
Fuller, like Gaiman, uses Shadow as the central protagonist, the audience’s proxy in a marvelous and unknowable world. But where Gaiman’s Shadow had the luxury of emoting inwardly and presenting the outward world with a cool, blank stare, Fuller’s Shadow is visibly shaken by the miracles around him. He blusters; he yells; he is angry and afraid.
The result is that he loses the Philip Marlowe cool of Gaiman’s Shadow, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s nice to get a hero with Ricky Whittle’s impressive musculature who has little machismo and who blushingly admits that he likes little marshmallows in his hot chocolate. But this change also means that Fuller’s Shadow loses most of the suggestions of an inner life that made Gaiman’s Shadow compelling. Fuller’s Shadow appears to be exactly who he says he is: a straightforward and simple man who is not that bright and not that interesting, surrounded by bright and interesting people.
Most of the cool of Gaiman’s Shadow appears to have landed on Fuller’s Laura instead. Laura reacts to her new world of gods and monsters with a dead-eyed and implacable smirk. “Did you just name drop Jesus Christ like you know a guy who knows a guy?” she sneers. Laura has no chill, but she’s cool — and she’s cool while maintaining a rich and compelling inner life that the audience can see.
That inner life is, in fact, lovingly rendered: We see Laura’s depression during her life, and how she self-medicated by sniffing bug spray and picking up guys who seemed dangerous; we see her fumblingly attempt intimacy with a puppy-like Shadow and then sink back into depression; we see her existential horror at the afterlife with which she’s faced and her desperation to return to her old life and to Shadow.
Fuller’s Laura goes through the character arc of a Gaiman hero in reverse: Shadow represents domesticity for her, and he is running away. Laura is chasing him down to get out of the world of excitement and adventure and back to mundanity.
Laura has the charisma and the emotional arc of a main character. And for Fuller, she also has the thematic resonance of one.
Fuller’s most recent shows tend to revolve around variations on the same relationship: One character represents life, the other character represents death, and they are drawn to each other, and at the same time repelled by each other.
On Pushing Daisies, Ned the pie-maker has the power to resurrect the dead, and he represents life. He is in love with Chuck, the dead girl he resurrected, but if they touch, he will kill her. Their relationship is charming and just on the right side of twee, but it’s also fundamentally tragic — and because Ned and Chuck can never touch, their relationship can never be fully resolved. (Or at least, it wasn’t before the show’s untimely cancellation.)
On Hannibal, Will Graham represents life: He rescues and fosters dogs; he solves murders; he’s always surrounded by lush natural landscapes. And Hannibal Lector, the cannibal, is a Satanic incarnation of death. Will and Hannibal are implacably imposed in their missions, but there is an erotic and romantic charge to their connection that they are only able to fulfill when they first commit murder together and then leap to their probable deaths.
This is not a new thematic fixation for Fuller: The first series he created on his own, 2004’s Dead Like Me, doesn’t contain a romantic life/death pairing, but it is about a group of dead people helping usher the living to their preordained deaths, while simultaneously struggling to function as dead people in the living world. Fuller left Dead Like Me before its first season concluded, and the series’ focus quickly shifted, but its fundamental tension — the push and pull between life and death, constantly drawn to and repelled by each other — was one Fuller has continued to explore in his subsequent work.
The object of Fuller’s aesthetic interest is consistently death: death made charming and whimsical and romantic in Pushing Daisies, or death made seductive and demonic in Hannibal. At the heart of those two most recent stories is, put very simply, a living man who wants to fuck death and feels weird about it.
In American Gods, Laura is Fuller’s way into this preoccupation. Laura is death made rotten: Her flesh turns gray over the course of the first season and begins to fall off of her body, and when she kisses Shadow, the kiss tastes of cigarettes and bile and formaldehyde. American Gods is a show about gods, and death is the god in which Bryan Fuller is most interested. But death as a god wasn’t a major presence in Gaiman’s American Gods, so Fuller found another way to get to it. Laura is the embodiment of the god about whom Fuller makes his art.
Shadow is the other half of the traditional Fuller relationship — he should represent life to Laura’s death. But Shadow is busy moving plot, doing all the things that Gaiman invented him to do, the things that Fuller seems to think are just pretty interesting but not, like, the most compelling things in the world.
But Gaiman left plenty of blank space around Laura’s comings and goings. Gaiman’s Laura has little to do besides periodically appear to rescue Shadow, and her backstory is minimal. Fuller had plenty of room to rewrite Laura as his own character, designed to investigate the ideas and questions in which he is most interested.
American Gods currently exists as two TV shows. First, there’s the one that’s mostly based on the Neil Gaiman book. That TV show is about Norse gods going to war with the gods of media and the internet, and while it’s doing a pretty serviceable job as a showcase for some fantastic performances by its gods, it’s really struggled to flesh out its main character.
And then there is the TV show that is pure Bryan Fuller, about a dead woman trying to bring herself to life again, with occasional appearances from the husband who is both drawn to her and disgusted by her. That show has a terrific main character — but it only makes up about a quarter of American Gods’ first season.
As American Gods heads into its second season, one of its biggest challenges will be to find a way to integrate those two different shows. And if it can’t come up with a way to make Shadow as compelling as it has made Laura, it should seriously consider switching its focus to its other main character.