The best stories are timeless because they contain universal truths or insights into the human condition. American Gods is one such story, dealing as it does with enormous concepts such as belief, belonging, and mortality. What’s magical about this adaptation is that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have taken Neil Gaiman‘s evergreen book and tweaked it so that it is not just a tale for our times, but an outspoken work of socio-political commentary, increasingly pertinent and prescient week on week as life in 2017 continues to be stranger than fiction.
While the Coming to America segments in previous episodes have stood in isolation from the present day action, “A Murder of Gods” broke the mould by linking the tale of modern Latin American Catholic migrants trying to cross a river to enter the US, accompanied by their very own version of Jesus, complete with ability to walk on water, to Wednesday’s mission to recruit a new ally. While Jesus was able to save one drowning man, he failed to protect his believers from a hail of bullets, courtesy of the border militia who would claim to worship the same Christ. In a poignant creative decision, and reversal of the real life narrative we see played out time and time again, the camera lingered on the individual migrants – many of them women and children – as they died of gunshot wounds, while their killers remained faceless, recognisable only by their uniforms and ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ engraved on their weapons, from which rosaries also dangled.
Picking up where we left off last week, Wednesday and Shadow fled the police station after Mr. World’s visit, Shadow having been stabbed by the malevolent tree god. No longer able to deny the decidedly odd events since his release, Shadow demanded answers from Wednesday, and received them in a roundabout way when Wednesday removed the poisoned root from inside his wound, and healed him. For those unfamiliar with the novel, this scene between Wednesday and Shadow may have seemed strangely intimate, with the older man reaching inside Shadow’s flesh to remove the foreign body, whispering to him, and planting a kiss on his cheek.
But there were hints throughout this episode that Wednesday’s seeming tenderness might not be all it appears. The crows, which have been subtly present throughout the series, were prominent this week, foreshadowing what’s to come, and Wednesday’s speeding away from the motel, blasting music to mask Laura’s voice as she chased them down, suggested his desire to keep Shadow completely under his control. Indeed, Mad Sweeney underlined the shift in their relationship, telling Laura that Shadow isn’t her puppy anymore, he belongs to Wednesday. And the choice of track – “I Put a Spell on You”- after Wednesday stated that he knows charms and curses, cemented the idea that Shadow is now his. And in more ways than he realises.
The introduction of new character, Vulcan, was a great example of how this show has taken the source material and expanded it to make it even more relevant and up to date. Based on a real experience Gaiman had whilst passing through Alabama, Vulcan was an example of an old god rebranded, the realisation of Mr. World’s proposal. A Roman god of fire, Vulcan was the embodiment of modern day America’s obsession with guns, a successful foundry owner who’d made his fortune manufacturing bullets. His insistence that every bullet fired in a movie theatre was a prayer to him which spawned more prayers was a chilling indictment of US gun culture. His outward Southern charm, belied by his racist mockery of Shadow and refusal to share a drink with him, was a stark reminder that there are a pockets of the country where these characters are flourishing, emboldened by recent events, their far right ideology unchallenged by the current administration. And the episode becomes even more haunting when you consider that the munitions factory, the ‘sacrifices’ to the melt, and the idea that the townsfolk routinely accept payouts for the dead that are ultimately cheaper than making the foundry safer, are all based on reality. Wednesday’s slaughter of Vulcan with a sword forged by him, the King Leonidas style booting of the body into the molten metal, and subsequent pissing into the flames – all witnessed by a comically horrified Shadow – felt as cathartic as you might expect.
While Wednesday and Shadow were on their quest, another unlikely road trip trio was formed when Sweeney, determined to get his coin back, told Laura that he would help her find someone who could resurrect her so that she’d have no use for its magic. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised when the car they tried to steal turned out to be Salim’s taxi, and the three of them set out, all searching for different things, all pulling in different directions, but somehow drawing together at the same time. In all honesty, I would happily watch an entire episode of these three characters chatting. Laura and Mad Sweeney are both bona fide assholes with just enough redeeming features to keep you on side, and their antagonistic relationship is a joy to watch. Adding Salim into the mix was a stroke of genius. His vulnerability was just the foil the other two needed to bring out their wistful, sympathetic qualities, and they helped him bring out his inner badass.
While Wednesday and Shadow were tackling the south’s inherent racism, the conversations between Laura, Sweeney, and Salim focused on love in all its forms, spirituality and sexuality. Laura’s mantra of “fuck those assholes” took on a double meaning, and an air of empowerment within the context of their discussion about shame and anal sex, while Sweeney’s declaration that shame was the one thing which prevented Salim being thrown from a window long enough to make it to the USA was a real sucker punch. While Laura and Salim seemed to find strength and hope in one another, Sweeney was there to act as the voice of harsh reality, mocking their desires. Laura’s insistence that she was happy to be rid of her family was undermined by her detour to watch her mother through the window of her old home, while Salim was chasing a fix of spiritual and physical ecstasy. Both are pursuing an ideal, something made all the more precious by its absence, while poor old Sweeney just wants his luck back.
Subtle it was not, but this overtly political episode demonstrated perfectly why American Gods is not just an ingenious and visually stunning adaptation of a fantastic book, but possibly one of the most important series in recent memory. By turns funny, shocking, and poignant, it said things very few TV shows would have the guts to say, and all while looking gorgeous. With only two more episodes left of this season, I’m started to dread the god-shaped hole it will leave in me already.
Final Grade: B+
+ I’m ALWAYS down for a sexy Jesus.
+ Sweeney getting a righteous nose pinch for calling Laura a ‘leprec*nt’ made me laugh out loud. As did Emily Browning‘s ad-libbed line about liking anal.
+ The design of the town of Vulcan was truly spectacular. Creepy and immaculate, it was like a nightmarish chocolate box painting.
– While the Vulcan visit had a lot to say about the fetishisation of firearms and showed how old gods could adapt, it did little to move Wednesday’s plan along, and hopes of seeing a reckoning this season are fading fast.
– In terms of pacing, this episode felt a lot less frenetic than previous installments and lagged very slightly in places.
– There was some lovely writing going on, but the long, Tarantino-esque blocks of dialogue added to the pacing issues.
Extra Thoughts: Do gods die once and for all if killed by other gods? Or can they be reinstated by belief?
What did you think? Was this episode as sharp as Sweeney’s tongue, or did it have more flies on it than Laura Moon? Sound off in the comments or on Twitter!