While the premiere episode of American Gods was all about introducing us to a world beneath our world, and last week’s episode was all about old vs. new ideas and race, this week’s is clearly about delving deeper into the magical, while challenging conceptions of what is real and what is not, as well as addressing themes of morality and, again, race. And then there’s the sex scene, which somehow manages to make Bilquis’s sex scenes from the last two episodes appear to be rather tame, certainly by what has become the standard of what we expect to see on television, even the premium television shows we get from subscription services. But more on that below.
[Content Warning: Due to the nature of American Gods, there is frank discussion of adult themes in this review – read at your own discretion.]
[Spoiler Warning: The following article is a review and discussion of this week’s episode, and as such will discuss plot points of American Gods S01E03, “Head Full of Snow” – read on if you wish.]
The episode opens on a “Somewhere in America” scene, and this one is much more muted than the last two weeks’ cold openings. We meet Mrs. Fadil, a woman just the other side of middle-age, who is teetering precariously on a stool trying to get a jar down from the top shelf. There’s a knock at her door – it’s Anubis (Chris Obi), who gently tells her she’s died, and that due to her belief in the old gods when she was young, he’s come to take her to the scales. After she’s deemed worthy of a reward, we get to experience an interesting conundrum through her eyes. She’s given a choice of five afterlives, and her first concern is that she not be in the same one as her father, because he used to beat her. Anubis helps her choose one that she will enjoy. But then, as she’s about to enter through the portal, she suddenly worries that she’ll never see her loved ones again – she comes from a Muslim household, but her beliefs are in the old world. Before she can recant, her cat (Bast, perhaps?) pushes her through the portal.
This raises questions about the compatibility of belief systems in this world where everything believed in exists. Does it then necessarily mean a permanent separation from those you love? Are there different afterlives depending on the faith one has? And what of people that believe in more than one god or thing – do they end up torn between possibilities, or is their faith somehow, like Anubis and his scale, weighed? Gaiman has certainly created a rich world for Fuller and Green to explore.
Back in Chicago, Shadow is having a hard time sleeping. He walks to a window, and climbs a ladder to the roof, where he finds the young Zoraya Polunochnaya (Erika Carr) observing the stars through a telescope. We get a wonderful image of her eye looking at Shadow from the large end of the telescope, which further emphasizes the three sisters’ position in mythology, or at least the way that Gaiman has chosen to imagine them here (in Slavic mythology, there are only actually two sisters, with Polunochnaya being an invention of Gaiman’s – here’s a link to the Wiki page about them).
She tells him what her job is – to watch Ursa Major to ensure that he doesn’t escape from his starry chains – and she tells him that he’ll be given another chance. She then tells him to take the moon – he looks at her with some incredulity – but she reaches up and literally plucks the moon from the sky, handing it to him, now become a silver dollar. She tells him she is powerful because she is a virgin, and all that she asks of him in return for her aid is a kiss – her first. She leans in and kisses him, and she tells him it is gross, but in a good way – she plays like a flighty nymph who is experiencing everything for the first time, lending her an air of innocence that contrasts nicely with her obviously supernatural powers. When Shadow suddenly wakes – was this whole thing a dream? – he finds that he still has the silver dollar.
He talks Czernobog into a rematch by questioning the old man’s strength – can he really kill Shadow with a single blow? If he loses, Czernobog gets two hits; if he wins, Czernobog will help Wednesday, and then still get to hit Shadow with his hammer. Shadow wins, and the old man is angry, but he stays true to his word.
This scene serves to show that the gods, although supernatural in nature, still have human lusts and foibles, that they can be negotiated with and fooled. Czernobog is clearly unhappy at this turn of events, but he has no power to change them, despite being a god.
As if to prove just how ungodly the divine are, the next morning Wednesday greets Shadow with the news that they’re going to rob a bank. Shadow is understandably hesitant, but his bargain seems to hold him to Wednesday despite his misgivings. Wednesday, for his part, has an interesting (if implausible) scheme in mind: wait until after hours, pretend the night deposit bin and the ATM are closed, and pose as a hired security agent there to collect deposits from businesses and people looking to put money into the bank. Of course, this wouldn’t work in the real world – but maybe Wednesday uses just enough of his dwindling god-powers to help obfuscate what he’s doing. When a police officer does pull up, Wednesday implicates Shadow in the plan by having him pretend to be the security company boss, fielding a call from the curious cop.
This shows us a couple of things about Shadow’s character. He doesn’t seem too concerned about his own well-being (reference his willingness to take on the terminal bet from Czernobog), but going back to prison? Forget that – he’d rather be dead than go back inside. On another note, the whole time Wednesday’s planning his heist, he tells Shadow to think of snow. He tells him to look at some clouds on the horizon, to imagine them getting dark and heavy with moisture, and to think of snow coming down to help mask the bank robbery. Shadow scoffs at him, but oddly goes off into a trance each time Wednesday brings it up – it’s almost as though one of two things is happening: either Wednesday is hypnotizing Shadow, or Shadow is tapping into some heretofore hidden source of magic within himself, urged on by his master. And sure enough, by the time they’re ready, snow has started to fall heavily over the city.
Between the planning and the execution, we get another Coming to America sequence. Unlike the previous two, this one takes place in the current time, in New York City. An Omani man – Salim (Omid Abtahi) – meets a Jinn (Mousa Kraish) who is driving a cab, and has been working for 36 hours straight. This is, in fact, the same Jinn we briefly saw meeting with Wednesday last week. The two men are sympathetic to each other, Salim feeling compassion for the down-and-out spirit. When he leaves the cab, he leans back in the window and tells the Jinn his hotel room number.
This leads to an intense tryst between the man and the spirit, as the two of them have a long scene of love-making up in the hotel room. There’s a high degree of vulnerability here – both man and spirit come from a culture and place that not only frowns on sexual intimacy between men, but which would see them imprisoned or killed for it, so the scene becomes a commentary on the cultural openness of America, the fact that two men can share an intimate moment without fear of exclusion or worse.
The sex, much like Bilquis’s scene in Episode 101, is bordering on explicit, and is highly erotic while stopping just short of full on porn. As the two reach the consummation of the sex act, the visuals switch into a CGI representation that shows the Jinn’s true form, and allows us to see inside their bodies. As the Jinn climaxes, we see his essence travel into the other man in the form of flame, much like the flame that comes from the Jinn’s eyes when we first meet him. The next morning, the Jinn is gone, only his clothing left behind, and Salim takes the Jinn’s ID – which, coincidentally, looks nothing like the being Salim slept with – and goes to take over the cab job. He has, in essence – in fact, in literally taking in the essence of the Jinn – become the Jinn. The most haunting part of the whole scene are the words spoken by the Jinn: “I don’t grant wishes,” and Salim’s response: “Yes, you do.” His wish is to be himself, to be able to share an intimacy forbidden him – the Jinn has allowed this for him in this place, in this time. And we know that, based on the mismatched ID, that this is a wish Salim/the Jinn will fulfill for someone else, as well.
The final sequence of the episode takes us back to Mad Sweeney. He wakes up in the bathroom of the same bar he met Shadow in back in Episode 101. When the bartender holds a shotgun on him and tells him to leave, he predicts that her luck won’t hold, and that the gun will either jam or backfire – she proceeds to shoot the beer bottle he’s holding. The look of incredulity on his face is complete – he’s a leprechaun, his luck never runs out.
Cut to Sweeney marching along the highway, looking a little worse for wear. A car pulls alongside him, a good Samaritan (played by Kids in the Hall‘s Scott Thompson in a nice little cameo) offering him a ride in exchange for Sweeney’s time listening to his AA testimonial. Sweeney can’t be bothered, only insisting that the driver not fool with him while he sleeps. The driver looks him up and down, and tells him he’s not his type.
A few moments later, as they gather speed on the highway, a truck carrying pipes has a small accident that dislodges part of its load, and the pipe thus loosed flies back and through the windshield, spiking the driver right through his face. He’s still alive for a few moments, and struggling to maintain control of the car. Sweeney sits up, looks at the driver, and then rolls his eyes. After the car crashes to a halt, we see Sweeney wandering around the accident scene. Suddenly, a look of horror flashes across his face. He starts going through his gold coins, dropping them from his sleeves and pulling them from his pockets – and he realizes why his luck has gone.
Catching up to Wednesday and Shadow sitting in a diner (this is just before they rob the bank), Sweeney demands his coin back. When Shadow points out he gave it to him, Sweeney claims he gave him the wrong coin – it’s his lucky coin, in fact. Shadow tells him where it is – in Laura’s grave. At the end of the episode, we see him at the grave, digging it up, desperate. These shots are interspersed with shots of Shadow returning to his hotel room for the night. Sweeney gets to the casket, and finds the lid has a coin-sized hole burned through it. Inside, nothing. Flash back to Shadow, unlocking his door and walking inside. “Hello, Puppy,” says Laura, sitting up and looking very much animated, if not alive, in Shadow’s hotel room.
This is another excellent episode that does for sex what last week’s did for racism: address a contentious and difficult issue head-on, without pulling any punches. I’ve seen plenty of shows with more or less explicit sex in them, but what Fuller, Green, and the Starz network is doing here goes far beyond what others have attempted. Certainly, we’ve seen a fair bit of sex in shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, or Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, but it is almost exclusively focused on two seemingly accepted sexual variants: heterosexual sex, and lesbian sex. The idea of gay male sex is hinted at (think Renly and Loras in GoT), but it is usually implied rather than explicit. Here, in the scene between Salim and the Jinn, very little is left to the imagination. Yes, Theon and Hodor may have shown their penises on TV first, but neither of them ejaculated fire into his partner. And it is done in a mature, loving manner, showing two beings connecting on levels of true intimacy that are too often overlooked in favor of the titillation factor in sex scenes made for media consumption.
There are interludes of humor and wisdom galore interspersed with the more serious moments, as well. From this episode, my favorite was Wednesday’s discussion of “White Jesus,” and how each group needs their own Jesus (to paraphrase: “There’s white Mormon Jesus, there’s brown Jesus, there’s Mexican Jesus. He came here illegally, too,” to which Shadow reacts with shocked sensibility at Wednesday’s apparent racial insensitivity). Wednesday explains that a lot of people believe in Jesus, so there’s a lot of need for Jesuses. A close second to the Jesus discussion was a rare moment of candor from Wednesday. He comments on Shadow’s lack of fear, and tells him something intensely private: “The only thing that scares me, is being forgotten.” As a god whose strength is dependent on faith, being forgotten is a death sentence.
Steve’s Rating: (9 / 10)
Another excellent episode, breaking taboos and dealing with adult subjects in an adult manner, while still maintaining it’s sense of wonder and beauty.
Airdate: May 14, 2017
Directed by: David Slade
Showrunners: Bryan Fuller & Michael Green
Written by: Neil Gaiman (based on the novel by); Bryan Fuller, Michael Green (written by)