Sunday, June 4, 2017

REVIEW: 'American Gods' - Wednesday and Shadow Visit a Very Patriotic Town in 'A Murder of Gods'

Starz's American Gods - Episode 1.06 "A Murder of Gods"

On the run after the New Gods' show of force, Shadow and Mr. Wednesday seek safe haven with one of Mr. Wednesday's oldest friends, Vulcan, God of the Fire and the Forge.

Gods have frequently been depicted as immortal beings. They are physical representations of something greater than humanity. They are gods who don't live and die like humans do. They are something greater. They have powers that affect our lives. And thus, when we pray to them, good fortunes may come our way. American Gods has a very different approach to these all-powerful beings. It does not envision them as immortal. In fact, they can be killed just as easily as human beings. But more importantly, they get their powers from people believing in them. It sets off the eternal question of what came first: the gods or the people who believed in them. It's a question that Mr. Wednesday poses to Shadow when he's deflecting from providing him with any definitive answers (yet again). All it takes is one person to believe in the power of a god for that god to be alive. Being forgotten is the worst possible thing. It's something that Wednesday wants to avoid at all costs. He doesn't want to be irrelevant. The "Coming to America" sequences this season have shown how some gods were successfully able to come to this country with their people and flourish while others were destined to die off. The last two in particular have been marked by death. Gods fall when no one believes in them anymore. Or they die when a more powerful force rises up to replace them. Even though people can claim to believe in the same things, those beliefs can be vastly different as well.

The "Coming to America" sequence in this episode shows how people can use religious beliefs in different ways. It's centered around Christianity. That's a potent and poignant subject matter. It's very topical because Christian beliefs and the warping of them to fit a specific agenda are coming to define so much of America in 2017. This sequence pictures a group of immigrants crossing the river in order to enter the country illegally. It's a journey that the audience sees from the beginning. It's a near wordless sequence. These people are risking their lives for a potentially better life. They are praying to God to deliver them safely through this journey. When they land on the other side of the river, it's worth celebrating. They praise God. They belief so strongly that Jesus even appears to help save a man from drowning. But then, border patrol agents arrive. They are armed with bullets and a belief that it is Christian and American to protect our borders by killing anyone who wishes to enter in this way. It's a horrible display of violence. But both sides believe in the same God. They just have a different way of looking at things. The Americans see their actions as right and noble. They don't see it for the monstrosity it is. As such, there are two separate versions of the same religious belief. One dies on the shore that day while the other is allowed to prosper and even grow in its notoriety.

American Gods is essentially a road trip show where these two characters - Wednesday and Shadow - visit different places throughout the country to recruit different types of people to their cause. As such, it gets to play around with the fantasy and the tone of the story. Last week's episode amplified the stakes of this main narrative. It showed just how powerful the New Gods can be. They understand how severe the threat from Wednesday is but chose not to kill him when he didn't comply with their demands. They are the gods in power because they represent the views and beliefs system that dominate society in the modern-age. Meanwhile, Wednesday and his friends and allies are the past. They are no longer as strong as they once were. People still believe in them. But those beliefs are waning with each passing day. Wednesday is steadfast in his quest for war. But right now, he and Shadow are on the run. The New Gods made their presence and power known. It's forcing Shadow to question everything about his life. It seemed like some clarity was coming to the situation because Wednesday could no longer simply deny or question what Shadow saw. What Mr. World, Media and Technical Boy did was too grand to say it didn't actually happen. And yet, the show is still playing it for the ambiguity. As such, Shadow is still coming across as a very passive character who doesn't seem to be driving the story at all. He just seems to be along for the ride but not actually doing anything. That's been a very frustrating part of this season.

This is a rare episode where the "Coming to America" sequence has a direct parallel to the journey Wednesday and Shadow are on. In that opening scene, the guns are riddled with religious quotes and the bullets all have the same corporate name on them. And now, Wednesday and Shadow are headed to the town that worships the factory that manufactures those bullets. It's an unsettling environment. The first impression the audience gets of the place is seeing an overly happy factory manager going about his day, having good interactions with his employees and then falling into the molten metals in the vat below. It's a horrifying sight that no one seems to notice or care about. In fact, it's a celebration in this community. The entire town celebrates this sacrifice because they see it as for the greater good. Someone died so that these bullets would be even more exceptional. It's sick and twisted. It paints an ugly picture of America. One that is predominately white and conservative. One that sees being able to walk around with a gun as the most patriotic thing in the world. This corner of the world really does exist. The show may be satirizing it to the extreme but the parallels are there. It's all an effective rebranding for one of the old gods. Vulcan is like Wednesday in a lot of ways. He was outdated in this new world but given an opportunity from the New Gods to be relevant once more. He just had to change the way people celebrated him. So instead of being the god of the forge, he is now the god of guns. In 2017, that's very relevant and powerful. It also shows the life that Wednesday could live if he took the New Gods up on their offer from last week.

As such, it could be complicated for Vulcan to join Wednesday in his quest to wage war with the New Gods. He has created a happy life for himself. He lives in a community that worships him. He makes products that will travel throughout the world. Every splatter of blood spread by a bullet is a sacrifice to him. It makes him powerful. Wednesday still sees him as an ally while Shadow is incredibly suspicious the moment he enters this town. That's because he stands out from this community. He's an outsider simply for being a black man. That visual is important. But the story is ultimately about what Wednesday does to Vulcan in order to get what he wants. He trusts the Vulcan of the past. But this new version has aligned himself to the New Gods. He has power and may not feel the pressure some of the Old Gods still feel. He's comfortable with his life and sees no point in fighting. He agrees to help Wednesday while also alerting the New Gods to his location. And then, Wednesday takes him out of the picture for good. Vulcan falls victim to the same form of sacrifice he has enjoyed over the years. Now, he is the one pushed into the vat of molten metals. His body will now infuse the bullets his company creates. And now, they will no longer be as special as they were before. Now, they are cursed simply because Wednesday peed on it as well. It's a completely over-the-top sequence. One that gets a big reaction out of Shadow. But more importantly, it shows just how far Wednesday is willing to go in order to emerge victorious.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A Murder of Gods" was written by Seamus Kevin Fahey, Michael Green & Bryan Fuller and directed by Adam Kane.
  • Wednesday and Shadow are a unique and odd character pairing for a road trip adventure. And yet, the pairing of Laura, Mad Sweeney and Salim may be even more random and delightful to watch. It's just so unexpected. It's three characters coming together for the first time with their own experiences informing the others' journeys as well.
  • Mad Sweeney exists largely to be a pain in the ass everyone comes into contact with. He's blunt and vigor. No one wants to put up with him. However, his luck isn't as bad as it once was. The people on this journey with him are still alive. It's just a little too silly that Laura and Salim are willing to put up with him for as long as they do. He may have information to help them but they really shouldn't trust him.
  • The parallels between Laura and Salim's experiences are quite interesting. They have both been given new lives. Salim has been in his for a little longer. He's actively seeking the Jinn out because he wants to thank him for the new life. Plus, he wants the Jinn to be a part of it. It was one magical evening for him. Meanwhile, Laura is still fixating on the past. She's no longer a part of it. She's on the outside looking in. But she also has no way forward because she's obsessed with Shadow.
  • The many different narrative threads from the start of the season are starting to come together. And yet, it's been a long time since we've seen Bilquis. She hasn't appeared since the second episode. So, how does she connect to all of this? Will she be as important as Yetide Badaki's series regular status would suggest?
  • Wednesday is actively trying to keep Shadow and Laura apart. He sees her running after them and drives faster and turns up the music. He's then filling Shadow's head with stories and images about her saying goodbye to all of her loved ones before returning to the grave for good. So, he clearly wants Shadow focused for some reason.