Whether we’re talking cinema, television, or theater, conventional drama is predominantly made up of exposition, which experimental art seeks to transcend or obliterate so as to theoretically tap into deeper meanings. For better or worse, deeper meaning often equates to obliqueness, which means less to most audiences than repetitive variations of common pop-art symbols. There’s another way to approach exposition, though, as American Gods and the new Twin Peaks illustrate: double down on it so transparently that it serves as an orienting device as well as a flourish of stylized abstraction. “Lemon Scented You” is entirely expositional on one level, but it’s so flamboyantly and decadently realized that it doesn’t matter, as it satirically equates exposition to sales as necessary binding agents of contemporary life.
The episode revels in the pervading aesthetic of American Gods, which suggests a view of America as glimpsed from underneath a neon sign in the middle of a deserted, pitch-black night. Directed by Vincenzo Natali and written by Maria Melnik, “Lemon Scented You” revels in the lurid light emitted by motels and night clubs, and features intense close-ups of characters’ faces as they negotiate for power and freedom; it’s almost entirely composed of duets, except for the climactic scene, which features several warring parties and resembles a disingenuously and gaudily empowering corporate slide show. This is as far as American Gods has ever drifted from Neil Gaiman’s novel up to this point, as it re-contextualizes certain scenes from the book, fashioning riffs that unlock the story’s freak-flag agency.
In a conventional TV series, the conversation between Media (Gillian Anderson) and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) might’ve been another obligatory act of villains pow-wowing over what to do with the good guys. As staged by Natali, however, this scene is a playful paean to aggression and to how much free-associative texture actors and craftspeople can wring out of a moment that serves an ostensibly simple purpose, setting the stage for the climatic arrival of the presumed big bad, Mr. World (Crispin Glover).
It’s no accident that this scene revels in claustrophobic geometric patterns and cheesy disco lighting, as Natali is the director of Cube. We first see Technical Boy leaving a club, wandering an abandoned parking lot in which surreally colored houses are visible in the background—a horror-movie image that’s accompanied by an ominous sound effect, borrowed from George Pal’s The War of the Worlds, that suggests a Theremin approximating a rattlesnake’s rattle. Technical Boy is seized by a virtual reality helmet and plunged into Media’s limousine office, which comically oscillates in length, showing the contemporary gods to be impatiently restless show-people—whores of style.
This impression is compounded by Media’s mimicry of Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie, the score’s subtle homage to Bowie, and the amusing reactions of Technical Boy, whose impatience and self-absorption collectively scan as a parody of culture’s demonization of millennials. Technical Boy is an über-millennial who has no respect for history and feels entitled to kill his forefathers without a second’s backward glance, while Media reminds him of her more advanced history and perspective, which includes a reference to Orson Welles’s 1938 radio drama The War of the Worlds, informing that earlier sound cue with thematic cheekiness. Of course, Technical Boy’s point of view could be put another way: He wants to work and for the prior generation to relax its death grip on the jobs that haven’t been gobbled up by the corporatization of America. But Technical Boy also wants to join up with said corporation, which has the best benefits—a conflict known to many millennials who’re trying to survive according to the hypocritical rules imposed on them and are accordingly resented for it.
After four episodes’ worth of coyness as to the nature of the central conflict of the series, “Lemon Scented You” offers a huge reveal so fleetingly that audiences unacquainted with Gaiman’s novel may miss it: Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) is actually Odin, a powerful Norse god of death, art, and seduction, a god of battle to whom the unfortunate Vikings in “The Bone Orchard” were praying. Wednesday’s alias was a hint hidden in semi-plain sight, as the middle day of the week that furnishes him with his name has its etymological origins in an Old English word for Odin. We hear Odin’s true identity referred to twice, fleetingly: When Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) tells Laura (Emily Browning) not to trust Grimnir (another of Odin’s ancient names) and when Mr. World and Media finally pitch Wednesday on a merger of the gods, promising a “guidance satellite” called Odin that can be launched over North Korea. In the spirit of all corporations, the new gods rely heavily on euphemism, as “satellite” truly means missile.
Technical Boy resonantly sits in the background, while Media, Wednesday, and Mr. World hash out the particulars. Wednesday, of course, is the very sort of old guard that Technical Boy holds in contempt, while middle-aged gods like Media and Mr. World adopt a more pragmatic approach; they’ve outgrown rebellion. Wednesday has been trying to get the old band back together, so to speak, which was the point of his visits to see Czernobog and Zorya Vechernyaya and of his recruiting of Shadow (Ricky Whittle) as an assistant and sidekick. Mr. World correctly takes Wednesday’s machinations as an act of war, and goes on an amazingly hallucinatory rant that’s performed by Glover with the magnetic brio of a yuppie beat poet.
Glover manages the unlikely feat of stealing scenes from McShane, particularly when Mr. World evinces empathy for Wednesday, saying that he understands Wednesday’s rugged individualism shtick as a likeable brand that doesn’t work anymore. Monopolies are the way of the world of American Gods, as they are the way of real life, and Mr. World tries to school Wednesday on the concept of illusory choice: All the gods should band together, as cable and Internet providers essentially have, and offer audiences an ultimatum disguised as free selection. Consumers can choose which kind of salsa they get, sure, but they will get salsa. The word “salsa” is spat out by Glover with a flakey psychopathic fervor that’s exhilarating and deeply unsettling. Once again, by strict definitions, this is all exposition, setting up the battle between gods ancient and callow, but it’s elevated to a level of preachy performance art, elucidating the erosion of grounding notions of belief in America for the sake of an all-points capitalist tug of war.
Two other performances bolster this thematic. Browning superbly mines enraged and studied blankness for comedy of sexual entitlement that complements Technical Boy’s brio and even the homogeneity preached by Mr. World’s umbrella religiosity. It’s corporatized pop culture, after all, that conditions us to yearn for the Lauras of the world—a situation this Laura knowingly plays to her advantage. When she and Mad Sweeney fight over the coin embedded in the former’s rib cage, what they’re really enacting is a parody of a taboo topic: the gender politics of rape. Mad wants what’s inside Laura, which she won’t give up, leading to his useless brutalizing of her, as Laura’s already dead and thusly invulnerable to Mad, empowering her to emasculate him with a stone-cold expression that says, “That’s it?”
Anderson offers a correspondingly caustic explosion of a female icon. During Mr. World’s sales pitch to Wednesday, Media assumes the form of Marilyn Monroe, clad in the white dress from The Seven Year Itch, going through Monroe’s breathless and implicitly post-coital exertions with startling and hilarious insincerity. Anderson equates Monroe’s sexualized naïveté to a calculated mode of sales distraction, a heightened put-on that courts our lust and urge to “know” the stars whose images we worship. Wednesday, an ancient manipulator of sex and violence, isn’t buying it, though we are, by eagerly gobbling up the lurid tropes of productions like American Gods.
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