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Thursday, May 18, 2017

American Gods: Head Full of Snow

Obviously this episode left everyone buzzing over that love scene, but I'm going to take a step back and look at the wider context, as by this time it's becoming clear that certain ideas and images strewn through the first three episodes are linked in significant ways – even if we can't see the pattern yet.


Shadow wakes up and meets the mysterious third sister: Zorya Polunochnaya, who star-gazes on the rooftop in a scene straight out of A Winter's Tale (the weird Mark Halprin novel, not the Shakespeare play). There's even a little Frozen thrown in when she tells him: "the cold doesn't bother me."
In keeping with the triad goddess imagery, Polunochnaya appears as a young maiden who has never been kissed (in contrast to the mother and crone downstairs) and she elaborates on the Slavic myth that was hinted at last week: she and her sisters watch over the doomsday hound that is chained to Ursa Minor, lest it get free and devour the universe.
Her ensuing conversation with Shadow comes across more as an exchange of riddles than any coherent discussion: "you are on a path from nothing to everything", and ends with her giving him the moon. There's dual symbolism at work here: her act of plucking the moon out of the sky is yet another coin trick, but this coin is the diametric opposite of the last he had in his possession: Mad Sweeney's golden coin. (Or as she puts it: "you had the sun itself" – recall that there was in fact a sun depicted on the coin that was thrown on Laura's grave). 
The experience seems to inspire Shadow to challenge Chernobog to another game of checkers. It's a bid to delay the inevitable, since he still lost the first game, but now requests a second "back-up" swing just in case Chernobog is out of practice and fails to kill him the first time.
I doubt it surprised anyone that Shadow wins this round, though it was interesting to note that Chernobog could only make the exact same moves with his checkers as he did the first time they played. I'm not sure if it was a deliberate nod at folklore, but isn't it an established bit of wisdom that fey creatures cannot create things for themselves, only copy or mimic human beings? If so, it makes sense that Chernobog would lack the flexibility and imagination to change his tactics and win a second time.
So he's outwitted by Chernobog, who agrees to meet Shadow and Mr Wednesday in Wisconsin, where he still fully intends to kill Shadow when their business arrangement comes to a close. Still, a stay of execution is better than nothing.
And while all this is going on, Wednesday is doing his level best to seduce Zorya Vechernyaya, who is wise enough to see through his bullshit, but charmed enough to enjoy the attempt anyway. But not before giving him a rather dire fortune in the midst of a lightning storm...
The road trip continues with Wednesday's announcement that they're going to rob a bank: this is certainly not to Shadow's liking, but it turns out it's just more con-artistry. (Apparently someone actually attempted this con after reading Gaiman's novel and got away with it – of course, I could check this story to see if it's true, but considering the themes of belief and storytelling that permeate the show, maybe it's best to leave it as an urban legend).
What's more important is that Wednesday changes the weather itself by instructing Shadow to think of snow. Sure enough, a snowfall begins. Our agnostic protagonist is still grappling with the reality of supernatural forces at work in his life, though you'd think that everything he's already seen would have awoken him more to the idea of gods and their abilities than a (relatively) simple snowstorm.
In any case, he's well and truly down the rabbit hole when he returns to his hotel room to find Laura waiting for him...
***
It turns that that Shadow's act of throwing Mad Sweeney's gold coin into Laura's grave has had unforeseen consequences. Not only is she back from the dead, but Mad Sweeney is rendered extremely unlucky to anyone in his vicinity, as a poor driver who was giving him a lift found out when he was impaled with a pipe that wasn't properly secured to a passing vehicle. Ouch.
***
This episode gives us two "Somewhere in America" vignettes, the first focusing on an elderly woman's journey into the afterlife. Her death itself is underplayed: we see her balancing on an unsteady stool and hear a brief Scare Chord, but it's not until she opens the front door to the Egyptian god Anubis that she (and we) even realize her dead body is laying on the apartment floor.
The fire escape becomes a massive staircase leading to a vast desert and five stone doorways, one of which she's expected to take after her heart is measured against a feather. Anyone who knows their Egyptian mythology will recognize this ritual, though she seems a little uncertain in approaching the door of Anubis's choosing (and ultimately has to be pushed in by her cat).
What do we learn from all this? Mrs Fadil is initially confused about the arrival of Anubis to a Muslim household, though he tells her she believed in the stories of the Egyptian gods as a child, and so comes in remembrance of that. It appears that the gods can circumvent a lifetime of belief and worship in order to pay homage to sentimentality – or else Mrs Fadil's commitment to the gods of her childhood ran deeper than she ever consciously realized.
But did she end up in the right place? We’ll never know.
The second vignette is about two Middle Eastern loners, one of which is the Jinn from the previous episode, who we saw meet fleetingly with Mr Wednesday, the fire of his eyes leaping out from behind his sunglasses.
He's working as a taxi driver here, and picks up a man called Salim who is trying to make ends meet as a salesman. Again, the show doesn't spell things out for you: the Ifrit tells his passenger that he comes from Ubar, the Lost City of Towers (considered the Middle-Eastern version of Atlantis) but doesn't confirm that he was part of the excavation team that uncovered it ... Salim's first clue that he's perhaps a lot older than he appears.
The show doesn't quite capture Salim's sense of desperation and self-loathing; in the book he was losing money and ashamed of his failure and convinced he was going to end up in jail – but he catches on quickly as to the taxi driver's true nature. They head back to his hotel room and ... well.
To be honest, I didn't think the sex scene was any more or less explicit than what we've seen on Penny Dreadful or Spartacus, but as others have pointed out, it was the race of the men rather than their orientation that made it so ground-breaking.
So is the Ifrit's blazing eyes connected in any way to those of the buffalo? And is the desert we glimpsed the same as the one Anubis leads the dead to?
These are questions we might get answers to later on, but for now all that matters is the conclusion (or continuation) of Salim's story. He wakes up to discover the Ifrit's clothing and IDs have bene left behind, allowing him to take over his identity as a taxi driver (if you'll recall last week, the Ifrit was wearing Salim's blue suit).
Perhaps it was commentary on the fact no one can or will tell the difference between the two men, but in any case, Salim's wish has been granted.  
Miscellaneous Observations:
You may not have noticed, but the "previously on" segments at the beginning of the episodes are nicely done. They're not just a series of clips, but a smooth montage of scenes: the coffee grains on Shadow's saucer fade into the shadow of the raven flying above Wednesday's car, and the imagery of a lighter and cigarettes are strewn throughout.
My memory is a little vague on some of Gaiman's "somewhere in America" vignettes, but I really hope we get the one about the Neolithic Native American legend.
The Ifrit story reminded me of the tale of the cursed boatman who could only stop his rowing when he passed the oar to another unsuspecting traveller (variations of this have popped up in Jim Henson's The Storyteller and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). In this case the exchange of lives worked out well for both parties, but it's still an interesting reflection of a much older tradition.
Neat visual with Shadow's concentrated focus on snow becoming a dream about the car driving across the marshmellows.
Wednesday's musings on the range of different Jesus-figures wandering about deserves at least two viewings. As I recall, Gaiman did something similar with Johnny Appleseed. 
The road trip ends with Shadow and Wednesday coming to a halt when a wolf darts out in front of the car. Hey, straight outta Storybrooke!
Although things are still very strange and trippy, this episode (and the promo for next week, which depicts Laura meeting Anubis in the desert) suggests that things are connected under the surface. There are images and motifs that keep popping up in unexpected places, well in keeping with my experiences of the book: a long time thinking: "does all this mean anything?" followed by the satisfied: "aahhhh" when it all came together.

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