The tale of a voyage to America is told as episode one of Starz’ American Gods begins. The year is 813, the Vikings are hungry, and the ocean is inhospitable. When they reach the shore, their fortunes don’t improve. Biting insects and snakes greet them, and they’re immediately fired upon with arrows when they attempt to leave the beach. They’re unable to sail away as the wind refuses to help, and they begin sacrificing their eyes to their god. The wind remains elusive so they sacrifice members of their party by burning them alive. When their god still doesn’t show, they engage in bloody, incredibly gruesome hand-to-hand combat. The wind finally arrives and those who’ve survived flee the New World, and none will ever set to sea again.
We’re told when Leif, the son of Erik the Red, arrived 100 years later, his god was waiting on the shore where he’d been summoned.
The story shifts to the introduction of American God‘s lead character, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). He’s in prison pumping iron, just trying to make it through each day. Shadow tells fellow inmate “Low Key” Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker) he feels as if an axe is hanging over his head. Later, he calls his wife and tells her “something feels weird.” He can’t quite figure out what’s off, and Laura (Emily Browning) reminds him he has 120 hours left before he can come home. She assures him everything is fine and that they’re planning a surprise party for him to celebrate his return home. They exchange I love yous, yet Shadow remains on edge.
He’s restless in his cell, but finally falls asleep. He dreams of his wife and then the dream changes to one of him walking through a strange forest littered with human bones (the Bone Orchard of the episode’s title). Trees reach out and strike him in the face and a noose hangs in his path. The following morning a guard wakes him and he’s brought to see the warden. His prison term ends a few days early because his wife has been killed in an auto accident. Shadow goes through the motions of dressing for the outside world, slipping on his wedding ring and then he’s escorted from the jail by guards.
Shadow arrives at the airport but he’s told he can’t change his flight to Eagle Point without paying an extra $200. The ticket agent is less than helpful, not even sympathetic that he needs to get to a funeral. As he considers his options, he recalls some sage advice from Low Key in jail: Do not piss off those b*tches in airports. Keeping his cool, he asks for a ticket to fly out the next day.
After a sleepless night in the uncomfortable airport chairs, he leaves a message for his friend Robbie and tells him he’s on his way home. He hangs up and then listens in as a disheveled man (Ian McShane) tries to convince the same ticket agent that he has a first-class ticket and needs to get to his newborn son’s christening. She thinks he might be off, and decides to help him out by upgrading him to a first-class seat.
Shadow boards the plane but finds his seat is taken. The flight attendant points him to an empty first-class seat by the disheveled man who it turns out is completely sane and not in the least bit impaired. He’s such a smooth talker he even convinces the flight attendant to pour him a drink instead of collecting the one he already holds in his hand. Shadow admits he’s never flown before and the man tells him to pretend he’s a bird. Shadow congratulates this stranger on finagling a first-class seat, and the stranger tells him he’s already figured out Shadow is fresh out of prison, saying he has an eye for these things. Shadow Moon introduces himself and the man replies, “Oh my boy that is one outstandingly improbably name. Shadow Moon? Moon shadow, goddamn hippie parents.”
The stranger asks the day of the week and then calls himself Mr. Wednesday since it’s Wednesday. Shadow and Mr. Wednesday discuss their circumstances, with Mr. Wednesday wondering whether it’s fate or Mr. Newton keeping their plane aloft. Mr. Wednesday offers Shadow a job for good money, but Shadow claims to already have a job waiting for him. Mr. Wednesday doesn’t give up, offering bonuses and a pension. He even says Shadow could be the next king of America. Shadow continues to decline the offer and Mr. Wednesday falls sound asleep.
Shadow covers his eyes and once again sees the Bone Orchard. This time there’s a White Buffalo with smoke coming out of its eyes. He’s jarred awake by the flight attendant and surprised he slept through the entire flight and is the last passenger on the plane. Unfortunately, the plane made a detour and it will be one more day until he’s able to make it to Eagle Point. Needing to get home, he opts to rent a car for the remainder of his journey home.
Shadow makes a pit stop at Shakamak State Park where frustration, anger, sadness, and despair cause him to let loose with a blood-curdling cry.
We take a break from Shadow’s story for a brief interlude set in Hollywood. A woman (Yetide Badaki) looks at a photo of the man she’s meeting in person for the first time after connecting online and watches as he approaches. They chat and he admits he’s been on three dates with people he met online, but he’s still not sure about this method of finding romance. He compliments her and she shyly asks if he likes her. When he shakes his head yes, she leads him upstairs to a room lit with dozens of candles. The room is completely red – the bed spread, curtains, and candles – and the man is reluctant to have sex because he wants to see her again. When she reassures him they will be together again, he gives in, calling her the sexiest thing he’s ever touched for free. They make love and she asks him to worship her. “Pray to me like I’m your god, your goddess,” she hisses, switching places and climbing on top. She demands he say her name, Bilquis, and he does, repeatedly. He tells her he worships her and he asks for her unpure gift, promising to give her everything. As he says I love you, she absorbs him into herself, pulling him into her through her vagina.
Shadow kills time at a bar, asking what he can get for cheap. Jack (Beth Grant) suggests the buffalo burger and chili, but he can’t afford both. Strangely, Jack tells him he can and when he visits the restroom, guess who’s already there? Mr. Wednesday emerges from a stall, spouting facts about things that can and cannot be rushed into. Shadow tells him to f*ck off – again – but Mr. Wednesday is persistent. Shadow turns down the job offer – again – and Mr. Wednesday shocks him into continuing the conversation by mentioning Shadow’s friend Robbie’s “condition.” Mr. Wednesday informs Shadow Robbie is dead.
Shadow reads the newspaper article which reveals his wife and Robbie were both killed in the same car accident. They were together in Robbie’s car when Robbie swerved into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Shadow doesn’t have a job (he was going to work for Robbie) and his fate is soon decided by the flip of a coin. He promises to work for Mr. Wednesday if he correctly guesses whether it will be heads or tails. Shadow rigged the toss but even still it came up heads, just like Mr. Wednesday predicted. Despite the fact Shadow thinks this stranger who’s intruded into his life is creepy and despite the fact he doesn’t like him, he’s now obligated to work for him.
Shadow tosses the coin a few times and it continually lands on tails. One toss is intercepted by a passing stranger who takes the coin, flips it in the air, and it disappears. The stranger is named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and he introduces himself as a leprechaun. Given that Mad Sweeney’s taller than most men, Shadow finds this hard to believe. Mad Sweeney calls that a stereotype, and Shadow’s coin finally falls from the air onto the table. He asks if Shadow knows who Mr. Wednesday really is and then Mr. Wednesday joins them with a tray of mead (honey wine). The drinks seal the deal and now Shadow is Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard/aide-de-camp/driver. If necessary – but only if necessary – Shadow will “kick the asses of those whose asses require kicking.”
Mad Sweeney tosses darts, chiming in that Mr. Wednesday is a hustler. Mr. Wednesday admits that’s true, and Shadow says all he wants is to go to his wife’s funeral. He agrees to work for Mr. Wednesday for $2,000 a week after that, but says he won’t hurt anyone for fun or profit. Two more shots of mead and the deal is sealed.
After Mr. Wednesday walks away, Mad Sweeney shows off his own coin trick, pulling gold coins out of the air and from behind his ear. He even spits one out of his mouth, and Shadow’s freaked out by this gigantic leprechaun. Mad Sweeney says he simply plucked them out of the air, offering to fight Shadow for the details on how he pulled off this mysterious gold coin trick. Shadow refuses to fight, but Mad Sweeney keeps egging him on, calling him a coward. He slaps Shadow with the newspaper open to Laura’s obituary while calling his dead wife a fine-looking lady. Shadow loses it and punches Mad Sweeney in the nose. Mad Sweeney tosses Shadow around, but Shadow manages to get in a few good licks. Mr. Wednesday looks on smiling as Shadow bloodies Mad Sweeney’s face. When Mad Sweeney asks him if he can feel the joy of the fight, Shadow declares the fight is over. It’s not, and Mad Sweeney attacks again.
The scene switches to the following day with Mr. Wednesday driving a hungover and sore Shadow. He asks if Mad Sweeney taught him the gold coin trick and Mr. Wednesday says he did, but Shadow’s new boss didn’t hear the details.
They pull over so Shadow can clean up for his wife’s funeral. They finally arrive in Eagle Point, check into a motel, and Shadow heads off to say goodbye to his wife. He finds an empty seat at the funeral service next to Robbie’s wife, Audrey (Betty Gilpin), and she says the funeral home did a good job of reconstructing Laura’s face for the open casket. After Shadow talks about how much Robbie and Laura loved her, Audrey breaks the news Laura died while performing fellatio in the car on Robbie while he was driving.
Shadow remains seated by Laura’s grave after the funeral is long over. It’s deep into the night when he finally speaks out loud, asking if it was a one-time thing or if it was love. He had a surprise for her – he read 813 books while he was locked up – because he wanted to come back better than when he left. He pulls out the gold coin and it lands on Laura’s grave.
Audrey stumbles up, either high or drunk, angry over attending two funerals in one day. She’s not sure how long Laura and Robbie were together, but she believes it was a long time. She also reveals Robbie’s penis was severed in the accident and she told the coroner to leave it where he found it. She adds that although that was Laura’s mouth, she actually had them put it “somewhere special.” Audrey suggests closure for both would be if she did to Shadow what Laura was doing to her husband when they crashed. Shadow keeps telling her no and demanding she stop, and finally Audrey collapses in his arms and cries.
The gold coin sinks through the dirt on Laura’s grave and disappears.
Shadow walks away from the cemetery, keeping to the middle of the road. He hears weird sounds coming from behind him and sees little white lights flying a few feet off the ground. They disappear as he approaches and he finds some sort of metallic box with lights emanating from inside on the ground. It transforms into a small robot-like thing and flies up, attaching itself to Shadow’s face.
Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) materializes and Shadow asks to be dropped off at a motel in Maryland. He’s hit by two incompletely formed faceless bodyguards, and Technical Boy tells Shadow not to f*ck with him. Technical Boy confirms Shadow’s working for Mr. Wednesday and blows smoke in his face from synthetic toad skins. He asks what Wednesday’s game plan is and Shadow replies that he’s just an errand boy. The toad skin-smoking stranger says Mr. Wednesday and his ilk are forgotten and old, and as the smoke affects Shadow the stranger pixelates. Technical Boy asks again what Wednesday is up to and Shadow again says he doesn’t know. Technical Boy commands his bodyguards (now there’s more than just two) to kill Shadow and then pauses their attack to advise Shadow that he won’t just be killed, he’ll be deleted. He presses a button and Shadow flies out of the car (or whatever vehicle he was in) with the robot-like thing still attached to his face. It falls off and Shadow lands and is immediately set upon by more faceless bodyguards who continue to beat him. They fasten a noose around his neck and hang him from a tree as he desperately tries to get free.
Shadow’s body stops moving and blood suddenly fills the air. The noose breaks and Shadow falls to the ground where’s he’s quickly coated with blood. American Gods season one episode one ends with Shadow looking out over dead bodies, all of whom have been chopped into pieces.