Friday, June 9, 2017

American Gods: A Murder of Gods

I'm in the middle of training for my new job, so this'll have to be a short one (as well as a belated one).
The show goes very much off the beaten track – and Gaiman's written word – for this episode, which may account for its slightly different vibe. If you hadn't read the book, I wouldn't be surprised if you could guess the material here wasn't derived from the novel, as unlike Git Gone, another largely original story which focused on Laura's state of mind, A Murder of Gods didn't quite mesh with the rest of the show. It's hard to put my finger on why.

The theme of the episode is sacrifice and what it entails, with the opening vignette focusing on the ultimate human sacrifice: Jesus Christ. It's a completely new mini-story (the Jesus in Gaiman's novel had only a fleeting cameo, and only in some editions) but expands on what Wednesday was saying a couple of weeks ago about the variety of Jesus deities out there in the world.
This one is the Catholic-Mexican Jesus, helping illegal migrants make the journey over the border to America. But though he can save one man from drowning by walking on water, he's seemingly helpless to stop some of his other followers – armed with rifles and rosaries – from turning up and mercilessly gunning the immigrants down.
I can't decide whether it's a powerful scene or a too-on-the-nose one, though it does capture the bizarre mentality of many Christians in America: that they follow a god who preached love and non-violence, while at the same time elevating gun culture to the level of a religion unto itself.
It's a paradox I've never been able to wrap my head around, and the show is spot-on in pointing out that Jesus's most hard-core followers would be the first to gun him down if he ever actually turned up and told them to lay down their weapons. Which is exactly what happens here, in a scene that will echo throughout the rest of the episode: a bloody wound, a willing sacrifice, and bullets inscribed with the word "Vulcan"...
Meanwhile Wednesday and Shadow are running from the police station, the latter still grappling with reality and belief – and nursing a bloody wound. A wound which pierces his side. Which was made by a spear-like branch. Now what does that remind you of?
On a more personal level, Wednesday plays the sceptic when it comes to Laura's presence (isn't that profoundly ironic of him?) and puts his foot on the gas when he spots her in the rear-view mirror. If it wasn't obvious from last week, he clearly wants to keep Shadow away from any wife-shaped distractions.
This leads to a new subplot involving Laura, Mad Sweeney and Salim (whose cab they try to steal) teaming up each one in search of something specific: her husband, his coin and the Jinn.
Interestingly enough, Mad Sweeney seems to know all about Laura's experiences with Anubis, casually dropping it into conversation (telling her to "put that on your scales and weigh it"). Was it just a figure of speech, or are all the assorted gods aware of what the others are getting up to? Because he also namedrops Jesus Christ, pointedly raises her arms into a crucifix position, and offers her resurrection.
Again, it could just be Mad Sweeney obligingly weaving the episode's themes and motifs into his dialogue, but there a few other interesting connections between our new trio. All of them have recently exchanged one life for another (Sweeney is unlucky, Laura is undead, and Salim has taken on the identity of a cabdriver) and each has a unique relationship with the divine: one's an atheist, one's a Muslim, and the other is a largely forgotten god.
Perhaps this episode's best scene (in stark contrast to the opening vignette) was Salim praying by the roadside, watched by a somewhat bemused Laura, and – if I was reading his performance correctly – a disgruntled Mad Sweeney. Allah is worshipped as surely as the sun, but leprechauns don't get much in the way of business these days.
In contrast to all this, Shadow and Wednesday's encounter with the god Vulcan was considerably less interesting. There's plenty of blatant imagery when it comes to depicting the good folks of a small town: red arm bands, a rain of bullets, a weapons manufacturing plant, a room of stuffed big game animals... there's no denying that Vulcan has prospered.
As he puts it, people no longer toss human sacrifices into the volcano for his sake, but "accidental" deaths involving citizens work just as well – especially when they're supplemented by their worship of guns. As he puts it, every fired bullet is a prayer to him.
Despite his initial enthusiasm for Wednesday's cause, it becomes apparent that in a bid to stay relevant Vulcan has taken up the new gods on a similar offer to the one they presented to Wednesday. According to him, "I've franchised my faith" and "fire has become fire-power." They're words that echo the events that took place in the opening vignette, but all come back to a simple truth: he's sold out.
Naturally Wednesday has foreseen this eventuality, and after getting Vulcan to forge a big whopping sword of him (hmm, I don't remember this MacGuffin in the novel) he chucks him in the nearest melting pot. It's all a little abrupt and confusing, and with the exception of the sword I'm not entirely sure what it's added to the overarching story.
Maybe that's just my scepticism talking, knowing as I do that this episode wasn't based on anything Gaiman has written, but it felt like an inconsequential tangent in a show that's already juggling  several dozen characters, subplots and a truly bizarre premise.
Miscellaneous Observations:
One particularly poignant scene was Laura going to see her mother, who (from through the window) looked just as empty and hollow as her daughter. Despite her words earlier in the episode, it would appear that Laura's "fuck those assholes" mantra is more of a coping mechanism than something she truly believes in.
The appearance of Jesus was a little strange, simply because he's a god that's still worshipped, as opposed to one of the pagan gods. Would that make him an old god or a new one?
His power levels also throw a spanner in the works: it's been established that the gods thrive on belief, which should make him the most powerful of any entity walking the earth – and yet his whole deal was not about wielding power, but being a sacrifice on behalf of others (as was demonstrated here).
In my opinion it's never a good idea to mix pantheons (believe it or not, Xena Warrior Princess fell into the same trap) simply because monotheism and polytheism are incompatible in so many ways. If Jesus is the Son of God, and God is the only one there is, then how do all the other gods fit into this worldview?
On the other hand, Christ's inclusion raises some pretty interesting questions, and fits in well with the ongoing theme of power and sacrifice. I mean, it was all over this episode: Wednesday claims that the slain police officers were sacrifices to the new gods, and the foreman in the arms factory was sacrificed to Vulcan (in what also doubles as foreshadowing for Lakeside – which we won't get to until season two).
Shadow's wound was situated in a symbolically significant area, and Wednesday himself (if you know your Norse mythology) also has plenty in common with Jesus Christ: he too was hung from a tree as a sacrifice – though in his case, it was in pursuit of knowledge. Shadow's obvious unease at the hanging tree not only spoke of the racial tensions in Vulcan and the ugly history of lynching in America (not to mention Shadow's run-in with Technological Boy's goons), but also the previously established imagery surrounding Christ and Odin (both hung on a tree).  All the iconography fits.
Apparently quite a few people have been shipping Laura with Mad Sweeney, something I can't really see – though it would appear that next week Emily Browning is doing double-acting duty as a woman from the leprechaun's past. Obvious those shippers picked up on something I didn't!
Finally, it would appear that "a murder of gods" is a play on the collective noun used to describe a group of crows. That is, a group of crows is referred to as a murder, much like lions comprise a pride and sheep make up a flock. That makes sense in light of Wednesday's two companions, though surely the correct collective noun for the gods should be "pantheon."

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