Since Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods was published in 2001, the question of “what does it mean to be American?” has obviously changed over the course of sixteen years. The Starz television adaptation has addressed this in small ways so far — mostly in the form of aesthetic updates to characters like Mad Sweeney and Technical Boy. But, in “A Murder of Gods,” the show takes its most explicit modern update yet, by adding in a new god in order to address the current “Make America Great Again” set.
“If you can’t swim, don’t go.’
The cold open follows a group of Mexicans who are trying to secretly cross the border into America. Like the Anansi cold open in “The Secret of Spoons,”, the god in question actually shows up in the flesh. In this case, it’s Jesus. After rescuing a drowning man and walking on water, Jesus proceeds to die alongside his believers when a group of gun-toting Americans shoot at them. The bullets have Vulcan’s name on the side, which ties into the rest of the episode in a far more explicit way than any previous ‘Coming to America’ sequence. As it turns out, ‘on the nose’ and ‘explicit’ is a sound set-up for Vulcan himself.
“Did you just name drop Jesus Christ like you know a guy who knows a guy?”
The best parts of “A Murder of Gods” revolve around the delightfully unlikely alliance between Laura, Mad Sweeney, and Salim. Each has a different goal: Laura wants to follow Shadow, Salim wants to find the Jinn, and Sweeney wants his fucking coin back. The sequence is also show-only, as Mad Sweeney and Laura don’t meet in the book and Salim does not appear beyond his short vignette with the Jinn.
It’s an inspired move, as their disparate personality types play off each other like a weird buddy-cop movie — a genre that’s an American staple. Salim is so earnest and polite he even says “please” when he threatens someone with a gun; Laura wants to bond with him about murder and shut down Mad Sweeney’s whimsey (“what the fuck are you?”) and Sweeney just wants to antagonize Laura and get Salim to shut the fuck up. “I’m sitting back here having a panic attack because I’m genuinely terrified that you are never gonna shut the fuck up,” he says, as Salim waxes poetic about new lives.
“There aren’t just two Americas. Everyone looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face.”
The sequence in the town of Vulcan, Virginia is surreal and cartoonish, like American Gods is taking a detour into Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. It even looks like the setting of Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. Like Vulcan himself, this setting is a show-only invention that is not in Gaiman’s novel. It’s impossible to look at a mob of unsmiling gun-worshipping white people in an insular town and not think of the “Make America Great Again” set. Ian McShane’s delivery and Shadow’s uneasy reactions redeem the sequence, but it’s otherwise too on-the-nose. It’s a sound idea with a too-obvious execution.
Buried within it is an important plot point, however. When Vulcan calls Wednesday “Grimnir,” the show overtly makes it clear that Wednesday is Odin. This happens around the same place in the novel.
“I have no use for shame.”
A dirtbag leprechaun, a dead wife, and a cab driver walk into a bar. It sounds like the set up for a dad-joke, but it’s infinitely more fun. Everything about Sweeney, Laura, and Salim clashes — their personalities, their mission, the way they relate to each other. And yet as they return to Jack’s Crocodile Bar to discuss matters of the heart, this simple scene of different attitudes overlapping captures the essence of America just as much as town full of gun-worshippers does.
“I’ve franchised my faith”
American Gods is not a subtle show, nor does it try to be. But it also hasn’t previously spoon-fed the viewer by having a god literally explain what they are and how their power works (“God of the volcano. Those who worship me hold a volcano in the palm of their hand,” says Vulcan.) He then proceeds to describe how the inscribed bullets from the episode’s cold open are “prayers,” just in case the viewer missed it. Sure, Mad Sweeney has explained his leprechaun status several times, and Czernobog took Shadow down memory lane to his past. But because their goals remained obtuse, they remained infused with an element of tantalizing mystery for the viewer and Shadow alike.
Shadow is clearly living in the American Gods version of Get Out and his reactions to Vulcan lend the scene a much-needed sense of gravity.
American Gods Season 1 is currently airing on Sunday nights on Starz.