Well, if nothing else; if the rest of the series crashes and burns or descends into mediocrity (a la The Walking Dead), American Gods will have sealed its place in televisual history with this episode alone.
First of all, let's address the obvious: there is a scene in this episode that EVERYONE is talking about, and with good reason: a scene that I never believed would survive translation from the book, certainly not intact, but which has, and then some:
A bit of nothing, in many respects; one of the many incidental scenes in which Gaiman is attempting to demonstrate how lush the USA is with the mythological flotsam of the peoples that constitute it, almost redundant to the wider story; more like a short story in and of itself: fluff and flavour, but presented with such power, such passion, as to eclipse almost everything else in the episode:
Cutting away from the main narrative, focus shifts to a young, Iranian man, well dressed, but clearly desperate, making his way to some form of professional interview. There, he waits and waits and waits, as the hours shear away, as his appointment dissolves, as the receptionist presents roadblock after roadblock, never once losing his temper, never once expressing the frustration he clearly feels. Very little said, once again, framing, music and direction suggesting theme and situation: the man a fish out of water, cast adrift and alone, desperately trying to find some anchor, away from the land of his birth, in a city that is cruel and uncaring to its own, let alone those it considers to be of other tribes.
After several hours of patience, he is informed that the man he has come to see has gone home, and will not be back today.
He leaves with a sad smile, a sweet but defeated creature.
Outside, he attempts to hail a cab, most of which stream on by through the rain, many soaking him through with gutter run off, until one finally stops.
The driver, a heavy-set, bearded man, similarly Arabic, curses ripely at other drivers in his Mother tongue, to which his passenger replies, asking him how long he has been in New York, how long he has been driving the cab.
This is where things start to get Gaiman-esque:
The man starts to talk about an ancient city, recently unearthed in the Middle East by archaeologists, talking about it as though he knows it intimately, as though he has walked there. His passenger takes this with good grace, though is clearly puzzled by the eccentricity of it.
Stuck in a traffic jam, the driver falls asleep, prompting his passenger to reach through the partition window and tap him awake. The man jolts, his sun-glasses -an odd affectation, given that it's clearly night and pouring with rain-, slip, revealing eyes that burn with inner fires.
Far from recoiling or reacting with fear, the passenger proclaims how his Mother used to tell him stories of the Ifrit; the desert-dwelling fire-people of his homeland, who sometimes take human lovers, sire hybrids with human men and women.
The scene is beautifully strange, not only due to the Ifrit itself (the incongruity of it driving a cab to make ends meet absolutely wonderful), but the man's reaction to it: he is not afraid, not even incredulous; he accepts it as naturally as he might exchanges about the weather. It is part of not only Gaiman's writing but the deviance that the series establishes and thrives on; characters do not react as we might expect them to; they accept what we find impossible, say what we find improbable, do what might otherwise be absurd and it works.
There is a sweetness to the exchanges, an intimacy that itself is fairly transgressive for a TV show of its ilk, given that they occur between two men, and two men of an ethnic and cultural origin in which such phenomena are generally frowned upon: the scene does not intend to mindlessly offend or disrupt, but presents these deviations in a manner that will create frisson and discomfort in the viewer, making them wonder how much stranger and more intimate the moment can become.
At the passenger's hotel, he pauses outside the cab, inviting the Ifrit to his room.
This is the moment that has caused a sensation amongst audiences and critical circles alike:
The man and Ifrit make love, in a scene that is powerfully explicit, breaking many enshrined televisual taboos concerning not only male anatomy, but the presentation of same sex romance and/or sex scenes in general: the scene is unconcerned about its presentation of the male form, framing it in such a manner that it is conveyed as beautiful, but also does not conform to proscribed standards in this regard: there is a tendency in popular media for such scenes to consist of air-brushed, plastic-fantastic pretty-boys; templates of beauty as proscribed by magazine covers, cat walks and pornography.
That is not the case, here; neither character is classically “beautiful;” they are men, the nameless passenger scrawny and uncertain, the Ifrit bulky and hirsute. Rather than actors chosen for their marketable prettiness, they are powerfully “normal” in terms of their looks, their bodies, their frames, which lends the scene a sense of verisimilitude it might have otherwise lacked: both actors look like they've been chosen for their roles by actual gay men, rather than by those who feel it their right or business to proscibe what gay men should find aesthetically pleasing.
It is a stunningly powerful, beautiful and erotic moment; explicit without being pornographic, the sense of communion and passion enhanced by the fact that one of the participants is inhuman, the Ifrit's eyes flaring throughout, until a point of climax in which the scene shifts to the deserts of its birth, where it is revealed as the creature it is, its essence pouring into its lover in the form of liquid fire, which seems to fill and transform him.
Awakening some hours later, the nameless man finds his Ifrit lover gone, the hotel room empty, save for the Ifrit's clothes and effects; a gift to his lover, a wish granted; a new life here, amongst the deserts of glass and concrete.
The scene is notable not only because of its deviance and its explicit imagery, but because it presents such things in the manner of poetry or painting; as something beautiful and profound as well as titillating: it is a moment of breathless and stunning significance, despite being incidental to the wider plot.
Despite the episode as a whole being far from incidental or insignificant, the Ifrit scene is so powerful, so affecting for the viewer, it does have the quality of making everything else seem distant and unimportant, which is a great shame, as it's here that the show clearly starts to find its feet and the narrative starts to pick up pace:
Switching back to the exploits of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday, the former finds himself increasingly drawn into the world of monsters, myths and magic from which the latter derives: in a bizarre and beautiful dream sequence following his encounter with the delightfully murderous Czernobog, Shadow meets the third sister of the household in which he is a reluctant guest: Zorya Polunochnaya , her guise far younger than that of her decrepit siblings, as she gazes up at the stars from the roof of their apartment block, telling Shadow a story of the mythical beast they keep watch over, sealed away amongst particular constellations, and whose freedom will mean the end of all things.
Inspired by this encounter, Shadow challenges Czernobog once again (having lost their previous chess match and forfeiting his life to Czernobog's hammer come the morning).
In typically folk-loric fashion, he wins the second game, convincing the fugitive god to join Wednesday's currently oblique crusade (unless you've read the book, it will be all but impossible to discern precisely what Wednesday is up to, and what his obsession with Shadow is about).
Shadow acts largely as the audience's eyes and ears in this episode as the more absurd and fantastical elements escalate: not only does Wednesday convince him to partake in a fairly large scale and gratuitous con, he also urges Shadow to perform a minor miracle of his own (apparently making it snow by will and imagination alone).
As in previous episodes, the more mythological elements are drip-fed into a stark and unwelcoming reality, a contrast that might prove the show's undoing were they hurled together without proper framing and preparation.
As such, Shadow's baffelement at his apparent capacity to influence the weather (coincidence? One of Wednesday's more overt magical tricks? A lie, a manipulation?) is shared by the audience, who begin to question Shadow's nature and his part in things to come.
A crystallising episode; one that will undoubtedly determine whether people continue watching or if the subject matter it provides is simply too strange and deviant for them to handle.
But also one that justifies the show's existence no matter how it transpires from here on out; that demonstrates how profoundly the medium is evolving in certain areas, and how proscribed parameters in media and wider culture are dissolving as people slowly begin to realise how arbitrary and impositional they are.
We can only pray to whatever powers we hold faith in that the show continues to to deliver in its sublime deviance.