Why Was Shadow In Jail On 'American Gods'? The Protagonist Has A Troubled Past

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The Leftovers, Westworld, Mr. Robot, Legion… Prestige dramas are more confusing than ever these days, making audiences work hard to keep up. Bryan Fuller's new Starz series looks to continue that trend by bombarding viewers with hallucinogenic imagery, dense mythology, and burning questions like, why was Shadow Moon in prison on American Gods?

OK, so maybe that's not the most pressing question viewers will be asking themselves in a show that also features immortal gods masquerading as humans, dead wives who mysteriously rise from the grave, and a long-brewing clash between the old gods and the new that threatens to turn the vast landscape of America into a battleground for jealous deities. But the backstory of the show's mortal protagonist, ex-con Shadow Moon, is still something that audiences will be interested in. If the fantastical proceedings aren't grounded in some sort of recognizable realism, then it may become hard to hold people's interest.

Good thing, then, that Shadow is such an intriguing character. Unlike most protagonists these days — who seem to be either brooding anti-heroes à la Don Draper and Walter White, or motor-mouthed narcissists à la Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes — Shadow Moon (as played by The 100's Ricky Whittle) is neither of those things. He's both a good man… and unusually quiet for a leading man.

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But if he's so "good," then what exactly did the taciturn bodybuilder do to land himself in jail? The show — and the novel by Neil Gaiman on which it's based — both start with Shadow on the verge of being released from prison after serving a three years on a six-year sentence. (He's being released early on account of his good behavior.) In sort of an ultimate good-news-bad-news situation, he actually ends up being let out a day early… because his wife was killed in a horrifying car accident on the eve of their happy reunion.

The question of why Shadow was in prison in the first place lingers for a while; there are vague references made to Shadow having hurt some people, but the book makes the reader wait a bit before learning the whole truth. Three years before the story begins, Laura had talked her husband into taking part in the robbery of a VCR repair store, so the couple could use the money to kickstart their life together. Shadow's role in the crime was meant to be negligible; he was just the getaway driver. But when it became clear that his two co-conspirators planned to rip him off and take his cut for themselves, he lost it and beat the crooks to a bloody pulp. Ironically, Shadow ended up being convicted not of the robbery itself, but of aggravated assault and battery.

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Of course, given the mysterious puzzle-box nature of American Gods' plot, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that there is more to the story of Shadow's incarceration than a petty heist gone wrong. Upon his release from prison, the ex-con quickly becomes a pawn in the war between gods… and in fact, some of them may have had a hand in steering his life to arrive at that specific time and place. Just who is manipulating Shadow — and why — is another mystery that will reveal itself in time.

See if you can solve the mystery yourself when American Gods premieres this Sunday, April 30.