How A Chain-Smoking Corpse Became The Star Of “American Gods”
Laura Moon died, came back to life, and became a leading lady. WARNING: This article contains spoilers.
In the fourth episode of American Gods, the new Starz series based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name, Laura Moon calmly dips into the sickly green water sloshing around inside the hot tub in her backyard. She’s clutching a bottle of Git Gone Household Insecticide. Laura closes the cover on top of herself, creating a tiny, insulated, coffin-like space. She sprays the poisonous mist inches from her face, holding her breath until her body forces her to take a deep, desperate breath. She punches the cover off of the hot tub, painfully gasping for air. But at least she feels something.
When Laura Moon’s alive, all she thinks about is death. Once she’s dead, all she thinks about is life. “Everything she does is informed by her fascination with death,” actor Emily Browning, who plays Laura, told BuzzFeed News at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. However, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green never categorized the character as suicidal. “[That scene] was more about pushing her boundaries and seeing what she could take,” explained Green, noting that one of his own friends practiced a similar form of self-harm in a small attic space. “It was an expression of massive, soul-level dissatisfaction with her life.”
The hot tub scene is one of many expansions Green and Fuller have made on the novel — and, more specifically, the story’s foremost female character. “When I read that [scene] in the script, I thought it was so brilliant,” Gaiman told BuzzFeed News. (He serves as the show’s executive producer and “guardian of the purity of the project.”)
Laura Moon is a key player in the source material — we just don’t get to see nearly as much of her journey. As Browning put it, “it’s all happening off the page.” The 500-page novel chronicles the battle between the Old Gods who once ruled America — Odin, Anansi, and Anubis, among other predominantly male gods — and the New Gods — Media, Technical Boy, and other deities who feed off of the time Americans devote to their phones and computers. The story is told almost entirely through the eyes of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), Laura’s husband, and centers on his journey across the country with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), his mysterious new employer. The two men are the indisputable lead characters.
Laura makes essential but sporadic appearances as she posthumously stalks her husband — popping in and out of the narrative to brutally murder Shadow’s enemies, spring him out of jail, or wait for him in a hotel room so they can talk about the regrettable state of their marriage. Laura’s point of view only splices with Shadow’s blanket narrative near the book’s end — when she, in true Buffy fashion, saves the day by impaling a man. And we never see her alive.
Gaiman understood that a camera lens could afford the storytellers a new opportunity to grow the narrative beyond one male protagonist’s perspective and to include more from the characters who got less page time. “We knew going into it from the very beginning, women become much more important [in the show] because we’re out of Shadow’s head,” Gaiman said. Fuller and Green were “hyperaware that the book was a sausage party” and were eager to “go beyond those first-blush interpretations” of the women in the show — especially Laura. “[Green and I] both love writing for women and female characters, so it was at the top of our agenda in the adaptation to expand the female roles beyond what they were in the book.” That expansion included introducing a surprise third lead in the show’s fourth episode.
The first three episodes of the show portray Laura exactly as she’s seen in the book’s beginning: a soft, disembodied voice on the other end of a phone cooing “I love you, too,” an ethereally beautiful goddess who glows like a beacon in Shadow’s dreams. Then the fourth episode, “Git Gone,” hits, and all that impossible luster fades. American Gods the show suddenly and starkly stands apart from American Gods the book.
“In the first three episodes, the audience is dealing with Shadow’s perception of his wife,” Fuller explained, “and then we have to meet Laura Moon on her own terms to truly understand who she is. Because we’ve only known her through one man’s interpretation of her.” Fuller and Green wanted to lull book-readers into a false sense of security before revealing Laura’s revamped story arc. “We were going to sneak up on them and say, You forgot there’s a third lead in this show, and that’s Laura Moon!” Fuller cackled. “The two most important points of view in this world are Shadow’s and Laura’s.”
Before she dies, Laura does everything she can to feel alive — and we watch it all play out. She gets a cat, names him Dummy, and, when he dies, drunkenly admits, “I never even liked him.” On the day she marries Shadow, she deadpans, “That was fun,” while standing outside the church in her wedding dress, looking resplendent and painfully bored. She tries to stay present during sex, but her gaze keeps drifting to the bedroom window, and the hot tub bubbling outside in the backyard. Everything Laura does is a means to an end; the problem is, she doesn’t know what she wants that end to be. So when her attempts at emotional attachment fail, she convinces her husband to help her rob the casino where she works — a plan that lands him in prison for the three years leading up to the story’s beginning.
“Are you unhappy? Do you still love me?” Shadow asks his aloof wife after she lures him out of bed with coffee, only to reveal she wants him to commit a felony. “Yeah, I still love you,” Laura says too quickly. “I’m just not happy.” The “love” part of that sentence never quite reaches her eyes, and so she returns to the only thing she knows will make her feel: One morning before the botched robbery, Shadow asks Laura if he can pick anything up for her at the store. “Bug spray,” she says, not looking up from her phone as he kisses her forehead.
Browning likens Laura to iconic TV antiheroes Tony Soprano and Walter White — “people doing deplorable things and you can’t help but root for them.” It’s not a far-fetched parallel: Laura Moon is an adulterous, emotionally unavailable criminal. She’s the definition of a doubting Thomas (and not just because she ends up at an Easter party surrounded by various incarnations of Jesus Christ near the season’s end), a pragmatic cynic who doesn’t believe in anything she can’t see. “When you die, you rot. There's nothing to believe. Trust me, I've looked,” she tells Shadow one morning in bed as they debate the existence of an afterlife. “Stories, snake oil — but worse, because snakes are real.”
And Browning relished playing all of it. “It’s more important [that] she’s relatable. I’m not going to play her like, I hope everyone thinks I’m pretty and I’m nice and I would make a good wife,” she said with an eyeroll. “Fuck no. We have a show with some really complex, interesting, flawed female characters.”
But Gaiman wrote Laura — who he categorizes as the second most important character in the book, after Shadow — like he would any other character, regardless of gender. “I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and gone, Hm, flawed women. I’ve gone, Hm, whole people. Whole people is always the point where you start from.”
When Fuller and Green first approached Browning about the role, she refused to play a woman who had to be, above all, likable. “I hear it in every single audition or meeting: the audience really has to love her,” Browning said. “And I’m always like, Oh, fuck you. People are not idiots, they don't only love a woman who is sweet.” Fuller, however, assured her that Laura wouldn’t serve as the heart of the project, but more as the spleen — a parallel Gaiman agreed with. “She is the splenetic heart of the show. There is spleen in there. Also, bile.”
Fuller believes Browning saw the character of Laura “as a very particular role model for young women — to not give a fuck about what other people think of them.” He and Green were both keenly aware of the actor’s feedback about “social microaggressions against women” that they, as men, were not aware of, from broad strokes to smaller details like body hair (Browning chose not to shave her armpits for the duration of production). “It was a fascinating experience for us,” Green said. “It would never have occurred to us, as two men, that because of her size and how she looks, she’s constantly [told], Hey, I’m doing this dark thing but I need a heart and soul, I need someone to redeem everyone else. And her point is, I am sick and fucking tired of redeeming you assholes.”
Fuller also touched on how he and Green tackled Laura’s “fridging” — a popular term used when a female character is killed off in order to give a male character motivation. “We talked about the un-fridging or de-fridging of the character,” he said. “After Episode 4, the series and season are much more balanced toward Laura’s journey having as much real estate as Shadow’s,” Fuller explained.
Gaiman never saw the character as fridged. “No, Laura isn’t fridged. Laura, for me, is the classic dead wife. Laura does not give Shadow motivation. The whole point is that Shadow and Laura get the closure in death that they did not get in life.”
Fridged or not, Laura Moon dies: She’s thrown from the passenger side of a car during a wreck while giving a man (who wasn’t her husband) a blow job. But through the magic of a mysterious gold coin her husband later drops on her fresh grave, Laura’s brought back to life. She meets Anubis while deposed to her personalized purgatory — a sprawling, desolate landscape of stars and sky (which Fuller, Green, and director Craig Zobel designed to signify her absence of attachment). “In life you believed in nothing,” the god tells her stoically. “You will go to nothing.” Laura almost finishes enunciating her “fuck you” when she’s yanked skyward, back to the realm of the living. So long as it stays burrowed deep in her embalmed chest, the coin will continue to tie her spirit to her body, giving her superhuman strength — even as her flesh continues to rot.
“She has a very interesting relationship with her dead self,” Green said. “She enjoys her freedom, [but] she finds that saying goodbye to her old life is more complicated than she thought it might be.” Throughout the first season, we watch Laura tirelessly chase down the promise of a god who can resurrect and restore her body, suck down an inhuman number of cigarettes, and even steal an ice cream truck. In many ways, she learns to love her life in death more than she ever did before — which includes realizing that she did, and does, truly love Shadow.
“He's the light of my life,” Laura tells her friend Audrey (Betty Gilpin), another female character who's gloriously expanded from the book — and the wife of that guy Laura died blowing.
“You did not love him while you were alive,” Audrey laughs bitterly. “Not love him love him.”
Laura considers this. “Yeah, well,” she says, “I love him now.” And the “love” part of that sentence finally reaches her eyes (which are turning milky blue with decay).
“In death,” Gaiman explained of Laura’s awakening, “the idea is that you’re not lying to yourself. You’re very clear-eyed in death. The emotion went with the living and the breathing and the blood.”
Beyond the fourth episode, Laura’s arc (and screen time) keeps pace with Shadow’s through the eight-episode season’s end. “I signed on thinking [Episode 4] was going to be my one big episode and then I was going to be a small character,” Browning said, “but I was there for six months and I worked every day.” She begins an entirely new plotline with the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (which Green describes as a “long-scale arc”) and even gets the last line in the finale, setting her up for a strong, continued presence in Season 2.
Laura Moon’s story might last even longer than book fans are expecting; she might get a different, less Buffy ending altogether. “We’re in love with Emily Browning,” Fuller said. “She will be on the show for as long as she wants to be on the show.” The series has been picked up for a second season on Starz, and there’s the tentative promise of an American Gods sequel from Gaiman should the show surpass its source material. “Hopefully, by the time we got to that point, four, maybe five years from now, there would be another American Gods novel,” Gaiman said.
Green and Fuller believe the first book may take years to tell in its entirety — the first season makes a small dent in its formidable timeline — but they have already discussed the prospective second book with Gaiman. “It was kind of really weird for me,” Gaiman said, “because it was like taking somebody into your secret places, explaining things that would be in the next novel to Bryan [Fuller] and Michael [Green]. I’m going, Look, these apparently inconsequential lines of dialogue are really important. They set up for something that happens way down the line.”
Whether those secret places include more Laura Moon is anyone’s guess. “The book comes with an ending, and we’d like to do justice to that,” Green said cryptically. But no matter how her story ends — in life or (final) death — it feels safe to bet that Laura will continue to split the spotlight with her male costars next season. “Our show allows women to be full people,” Browning said, tapping her palm twice for emphasis as she pointedly pronounced full people. Perhaps Laura was always, as Gaiman said, a whole person — she just wasn’t really seen until now. And if Laura’s story teaches us anything, it’s that seeing is believing.