Apologies for such a late posting—writing about the second episode three days after episode three went up is rather more than tardy, but I plead a particularly recalcitrant piece of writing I needed to get done for this past Sunday that occupied all of my attention. So, without further ado: episode two!
First, a review.
My first impression of this episode was essentially meh. It started well with Mr. Nancy’s magisterial speech aboard the slave ship, but from that point on was rather uneven—the pacing was odd, and it lacked a cohering through-line, thematically or otherwise. There were some stellar stand-out moments, to be sure—Mr. Nancy, Gillian Anderson as the god of Media in the guise of Lucille Ball, Wednesday’s many little brilliant moments, Cloris Leachman!, and of course Peter Stormare’s vituperative, chain-smoking Slavic god Czernobog—but at first glance, the episode felt like a patchwork of unevenly-paced set-pieces interrupted by a montage of Bilquis’ equal opportunity predatory sex.
My second and third viewings made it clear that this is a series that rewards rewatching. That’s not necessarily what television execs want to hear, but it speaks to the depth of material on display here, the quality of the writing, and the brilliance of the performances.
On this last point: can we sing songs of triumph for Orlando Jones, Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Stormare? I’m particularly hung up on Cloris Leachman, whom I’ve loved since first I watched Young Frankenstein. I want to single her out because the other three are given virtuosic text—and they all rise admirably to it—but she manages to bring remarkable gravitas to a part that could easily be played as a one-dimensional stereotype. Considering the dark threat Stormare brings to his role, it’s a testament to Leachman that she makes it clear this is her home.
Second, my thoughts.
As I said above, there’s no clear unifying theme in this episode, with the exception of Czernobog’s comments about race, which close a circle with Mr. Nancy’s speech aboard the Dutch slaver (about which, more below). Rather, the episode unfolds almost as a trio of one-act plays—or four, if we include the wordless montage of Bilquis consuming her lovers/worshippers, and then having a wistful moment at a museum where she looks upon a statue of her old self and the jewelry her acolytes would wear.
I cannot say enough about Orlando Jones’ impassioned rage as the trickster spider god Anansi, appearing in flamboyant twentieth-century garb on a Dutch slave ship. Did I say last week that American Gods seems to be leaning into the racial politics of American history? The raw rage he communicates here is mind-numbing, and strips away whatever platitudes and obfuscations we might employ to euphemize the brutal, inhuman reality of slavery and its legacy:
“Shit! You all don’t know you black yet!” he says, a line that will resonate later in the episode. “You think that you’re just people. Let me be the first to tell you that you are all black!” As much, however, as he inspires and channels the anger of the slaves—and as much as his speech communicates his own rage at what has been done to his people—Anansi ultimately goads them into a blood sacrifice that will benefit him. When one of the prisoners protests that they will be killed if they rebel, Anansi sneers, “You already dead, asshole. At least die a sacrifice for something worthwhile.” A sacrifice, it turns out, for Anansi, whose incarnation crawls ashore amid the flotsam of the destroyed slave ship, an African god transplanted to America.
It is a reminder of something we’ve already been learning from Mr. Wednesday: gods in the Gaiman firmament are not deities who exist prior to humanity, on whom we are dependent; they are the product of human belief, and are therefore dependent upon us for devotion, worship, and above all, sacrifice. As such, they are grifters, reliant upon trickery and prestidigitation to goad us into giving of ourselves. Mr. Wednesday, we have seen, is quite the accomplished con man, playacting his way into a first-class seat in the first episode; in episode three, he employs an even more elaborate grift to rob a bank (but more about that in my next post). On one hand, his roguish behaviour is entirely in keeping with the Odin of Norse myth, who delighted in outsmarting his enemies even more than he took pleasure in battle. But his grifting is also what passes for worship in his new reality, as he feeds on the gullibility of everyone he cons. In a speech to the other old gods in the novel—which I will be very surprised if it isn’t repeated verbatim in the series—he says,
We have, let’s face it and admit it, very little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods.
Except, as we’re coming to realize, America isn’t entirely without its own gods. For those who haven’t read the novel, last episode’s encounter with Technical Boy might have been somewhat baffling; Shadow’s latest run-in brings things into slightly more focus, as Media—played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson as Lucille Ball (sorry, Ricardo)—makes her pitch for Shadow’s defection:
“The screen’s the altar,” she tells Shadow. “I’m the one they sacrifice to … Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood.” The battle lines are being drawn: the old gods versus the new, the transplants from around to the world to this “new land without gods.” Religious devotion has changed, shifted, to the deities of secular modernity. Media’s crass little proposition to Shadow—“Ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?”—provides a striking contrast to the kind of desire at the root of religion most obviously, and explicitly, manifested in this episode with the extended Bliquis montage. Religion, or more elementally, belief, is rooted in desire as much as anything else: desire for knowledge, for safety, for plenty, for health, for children, for another year of life. There is a dual critique built into Gaiman’s novel, and it will be interesting to see how much of it the series realizes: a very humanist critique of religion itself, and a critique of the postmodern moment’s monetization of the needs and impulses that led people to create gods in the first place—a critique that is as much about America itself. There’s something vaguely pathetic in Bilquis’ serial seduction of willing victims, both on her part and theirs—her need degrades the rite, as does the obliviousness of her lovers. Her moment of nostalgic longing as she looks on her statue evokes a time in her past when she was worshipped openly and her acolytes were willing sacrifices, which reflects poorly on her need to employ internet dating to feed her needs.
By the same token, one of the novel’s unanswered questions, which has come up whenever I’ve taught American Gods—if the New Gods have so much of America’s attention, why can’t they just crush the Old Gods?—speaks to the degraded nature of worship itself in the present moment. “Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood,” claims Media, but how powerful is a sacrifice when it is partially a product of indifference? “They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me,” Media tells Shadow, but “Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or in the palm of their hand, so they don’t get bored watching the big one.” Obviously, Media seems to think of this as a good development for her, but it is hardly exemplary of worshippers’ focused devotion. Her offer to show Shadow Lucy’s breasts degrades the understanding of “icon,” with all of the word’s religious connotations, and sets itself squarely in a media environment of hacked cell phones and nude selfies.
But, onward to Chicago, where Wednesday means to acquire his “hammer.” It’s worth acknowledging the little head-fake here: by this moment in the second episode, viewers will undoubtedly have grasped the central conflict between old and new gods; which of the old gods Wednesday is might still be unclear to some, and his mention of a hammer followed by images of lightning might lead some to wonder if he’s Thor. That question is cleared up, however, when Czernobog calls him Wotan—the Germanic name for Odin (and those who know their days of the week know “Wednesday” is derived from “Woden’s Day,” Woden being the Old English name for Odin). And the hammer is question is Czernobog’s, a relic of his days working in a slaughterhouse before the introduction of the captive bolt gun (used to such devastating effect by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men).
Czernobog is an old Slavic god—the “black god” of death (whose brother Bielobog, the god of light and sun, is alluded to but never named), who came to America with the Zorya sisters (more on them in my next post). I’ll admit to being a little skeptical of Peter Stormare’s casting in this role—in the novel he is described as being much older, but I was not accounting for Stormare’s ability to play a dissolute and embittered old man who wears the threat of violence on his shoulders like a thundercloud. I loved everything about this sequence, from Zorya’s first ambivalent greeting of Wednesday (“You are worst man in the world!”), to her response to Shadow calling Czernobog her husband (“Family is who you survive with when you need to survive … even if you do not like them”), to the final scene in which Shadow loses a game of checkers, and with it the wager of his life, to Czernobog. “A shame,” he sighs, “You’re my only black friend.”
I freely admit to laughing out loud to this closing line, which would have been funny under any circumstances, but was particularly poignant after Czernobog’s dinner conversation with Shadow. When he observes that Shadow is black, and Shadow tightly asks whether that’s a problem, Czernobog essentially shrugs:
We never cared so much about skin like the Americans. Where we’re from, everyone is the same colour. So we must fight over shades. You see, my brother had light hair and beard, and me dark … like you. I was like the black man, over there. As against my brother, the white. Everybody thought he must be the good one! So I became me.
This little speech resonates with Mr. Nancy’s revelation to the African slaves: “The moment these Dutch motherfuckers set foot here and decided they white, then you get to be black, and that’s the nice name they call you.” It’s a reminder that the very idea of blackness is an imperial invention: a distinction that drew lines between those with power and those without, between those who arrogated to themselves the innate right of rule and those unfit to rise in American society; between the “worthy” nations and countries of origin (i.e. Anglo-Saxon and Protestant Christian), and those whose people possessed the taint and degradation of lesser blood. While we should never equate the immigrant experience with that of African slavery, it is nevertheless important to remember that the waves of immigrants in the nineteenth century from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe—the Czernobogs of America, in other words—were not considered “white” in the way their descendants are today. Czernobog’s words to Shadow—and Mr. Nancy’s words to the men in the slaver’s hold—speak to the contingency and constructed nature of race.
Who is “white”? Who is “black”? Who decides? Those to whom we give power. And if Neil Gaiman’s inversion of our relationship to the gods teaches us anything, it’s that we hold the power ourselves.