Pacing as Psychological Effect in ‘American Gods’

Episode two of American Gods proved to be a very similar viewing experience to episode one.

ag 02 shadow 2
Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon
American Gods, episode 2

I was riveted, though not entirely (or even vaguely) comfortable, but also? I was frankly surprised when the show ended, as I had been expecting ten or so more minutes of exposition. The ending points of the episodes are undoubtedly calculated to effect exactly such a response. In both cases, there’s a cliffhanger aspect to the pause points—momentary hiatuses in the midst of things that are deeply unsettling and uncomfortable. The intermissions are more than mere cliffhangers, however, for the issue is not merely a lack of resolution, but of naturalness as well. The places where the episodes stop are narratively unsound and therefore deeply unnatural, like everything else in the world of the show. It’s an incredibly effective use of pacing, designed to create in the viewer a psychological feeling of being plunged into the world itself and then yanked violently out of it. When an episode ends, you are left with a feeling of strangeness, as if waking prematurely from a dream and not knowing what to make—either of the experience or its termination. It’s not about instilling in the viewer a desire to know what comes next, although that is a valuable side effect, but about making them feel disconnected from their world in a manner similar to the way Shadow Moon, the show’s “everyman” protagonist, feels. We are seeing this strange world through Shadow’s eyes, and like him, we are being jostled about in disturbing and unexpected ways. The result is a palpably emotional viewing experience that is quite brilliant—the creation of a mood not just with acting or directing or setting or music alone, but via the show’s unique approach to narrative pacing.

One thing I can’t help wondering, however, is whether viewers who have not read the book experience the show in a similar way. Put another way, I wonder if my knowledge of the book’s plot intensifies this particular effect. Thus far, with the show adhering relatively closely to the source material, I have a good sense of what comes next—a memory of the more “natural” stopping points constructed by Neil Gaiman via sections and chapters and parts. My perspective on the series is intrinsically tied to my knowledge of the book. Without that knowledge, would the program have the same effect? Or an entirely different one?

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One thought on “Pacing as Psychological Effect in ‘American Gods’

  1. “It’s not about instilling in the viewer a desire to know what comes next, although that is a valuable side effect, but about making them feel disconnected from their world in a manner similar to the way Shadow Moon, the show’s “everyman” protagonist, feels. We are seeing this strange world through Shadow’s eyes, and like him, we are being jostled about in disturbing and unexpected ways. The result is a palpably emotional viewing experience that is quite brilliant—the creation of a mood not just with acting or directing or setting or music alone, but via the show’s unique approach to narrative pacing.”

    It’s the whole symphony of the art, including the pacing. I am surprised at how so much of what hasn’t (yet) seemed to work for you in Hannibal are the very same things that you praise about American Gods. As I watch American Gods, I see over and over again how the techniques Fuller and his directors used in Hannibal are being put to the same purpose of disrupting viewers’ relationships to the narratives. It ping-pongs between a Brechtian alienation stimulated through weird slo-mo shots and excessive visual unreality and an immersive POV experience which, like any good binary opposition, serves to make the alienation even more intense.

    It seems likely that your preexisting investment in Gaiman’s story enhances your reflexivity about the viewing experience, much in the same way that my preexisting investment in the Thomas Harris’ novels add something to my experience of Hannibal. I don’t think the effect you describe is something that depends on that knowledge, however. I think your intimacy with the book just prompts you to think more about it. I cannot remember the details of Gaiman’s narrative, only the basic conceit and how it ends, but I notice how the show isn’t leading me in the way I expect, and that makes me smile because I like to be shaken up.

    I also think it’s worth considering whether or not Shadow is presented as an “everyman,” even in the book. Just something to think about and discuss later, maybe?

    Also, I continually shake my head and roll my eyes at Fuller’s approach to female sexuality. Also for later discussion… I hope.

    Like

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