American Gods Gets Philosophical on Two Dreamy, Emotionally Charged Road Trips
Though the twin story lines of “A Murder of Gods” clearly delineate two stories headed in separate directions, American Gods clearly begins down the road to its finale in another sonically intense hour of television telling the stories of the black Cadillac and the yellow taxi. A barrage of images and conversations obsessed with the process of transformation and resurrection, “A Murder of Gods” is not the most thematically subtle work of art, but still a powerful, if simplistic, rumination on both the shifting identities of its characters, and the changing loyalties of the world they inhibit.
Following in the steps of the previous two hours, “A Murder of Gods” attempts to strike a balance between its beautiful, indulgent imagery, and the rich narrative of its source material – and thanks to the performances of Emily Browning and Corbin Bernsen (yeah, L.A. Law Corbin Bernsen), it does a pretty damn effective job of capturing it. If last week’s “Lemon Scented You” represented American Gods slowly peeling back the onion of its deeper narrative, “A Murder of Gods” is the equivalent of shredding a banana peel with determination; the presence of Vulcan gave an underhanded rigidity to this hour, both in how it adhered to the visual and audio template of previous hours (almost to a fault, in how perfectly it toes the proverbial company line), and how it explicitly laid out the stakes of the fantastical elements of the series, a thinly-disguised exposition fest that really only works because of how cleanly its central metaphor works.
Piggybacking off the appearance of Mr. Wood (don’t worry; I had to look it up, too) in the last hour, Vulcan’s rise and fall in this hour is a thread that runs through the heart of this series. As we learn along with Shadow Moon, Head Dumbass, Wednesday is putting together an army to fight off his own demise as a powerful being; after all, a god only has the power of the people who believe in him. Since there aren’t people throwing themselves into a vat of lava as a regular sacrifice, Wednesday’s feeling his age and influence slip away from him, met by the uprising of the New Gods, the technological evolution of the Industrial Revolution, and the forces ready to wipe Wednesday and his type from the earth. Wood and Vulcan both represent the faction splitting the collection of gods apart; those whose beliefs have translated into something different and twisted in the new world, selling out their souls in order to maintain relevance in a new society.
As “A Murder of Gods” so masterfully shows, those old beliefs and traditions don’t necessarily translate well to the new world. We literally watch as Jesus is mowed down crossing the border, killed by a group of right-wing militia types parading around, firing the word of their god (or at least, who they thought their god was – as Wednesday tells Shadow Moon, most people can’t handle opening their eyes ‘for real’) – as always, American Gods takes the direct symbolic line from point A to point B here, leaving its characters as the shifting, complex elements in the room, though it works to great effect here. Vulcan, the god of the volcano, needed something to do besides invest in the film industry to make hits like Dante’s Peak (ok, that’s not a canon fact), and decided to become the soul of the modern weapon, the fire that has brought entire nations to their knees.
In a turn that could’ve been The Most Special, Artificially Woke Moment of the year, American Gods uses America’s fixation with god and fire as a great contradiction against itself, wonderfully represented by the collection of worshipers that fire off their weapons freely into the air, then walk away uncaring as the consequences of their actions comes raining down the sky upon them. The imagery here is fierce, and undeniably unapologetic; American Gods‘ critique of cultural and philosophic isolation in small towns is a strong, if (slightly) caricatured look at rural American life and how it can serve as a toxic petri dish for hatred and misunderstanding, all fed by loyalties to feelings and ideas that don’t fully understand. Vulcan, with his penchant for being a leader, employer, and all-around fun dude to have a drink with, is not just a god – he’s a corrupted god, obsessed with the power he wields over his worshipers, to the point he’s literally celebrating the deaths of the dedicated ones openly in the streets.
That’s some dark fucking shit, and that’s not even getting into the little details like the hanging tree and the constant dirty looks Shadow Moon gets from the locals; the underlying racism barely needs to be touched to be understood, left to a few shots and a couple lines of dialogue. In a way, this episode captures the transformation of racism in America: rather than the loud, aggressive marching of the KKK and the like in the past (though the rise of that once again in 2017 is troubling in its own right), the locals bending knee to Vulcan were apprehensive, quiet, always looking at him with a side eye and one finger on the trigger. The racism built into them was so inherent, so fundamental to the core of their being, that they never even gave notice or attention to it; Vulcan certainly never paused in his disgust with Shadow Moon’s presence, and that reverberates through the town eating his sermons as their daily meals.
Wednesday’s eventual reaction to Vulcan’s obvious betrayal is pretty predictable; turns out it wasn’t just the crows chasing Wednesday down the highway, but some of Media’s not-so-nice cronies, hunting down Wednesday as he heads to Wisconsin to meet with his theocratic destiny. Part of the price of being a new gods is giving up the world of the old gods – and in poetic fashion, the old god doesn’t let Vulcan go without sacrificing him to the bullets he used as his communion, his blood resurrected in the violence his guns were about to commit, just as the spirit of the Holy Ghost in the religion which Vulcan attached his congregation to. As Vulcan’s head rolls down to meet his body in the boiling lava (a vat Wednesday would soon curse by pissing in it), the metaphors of transformation find poignancy in both the technological and naturalistic sides of the War of the Gods; ashes always return to ashes, just as dust returns to dust. The dead may never die, but the immortal may not live forever; no matter who wins this war, everybody will lose, until someone rises to win again, powered by rediscovered faith, or rendered extinct by a newfound deity, immature and deadly, the evolutionary process played out once again, on the grand scale of the people whose sculpts we are imperfectly cast from.
I’ve gone the entire review without mentioning the other half of this episode, where the lava turning molten steel into a powerful weapon gets a lot more visually intricate with Laura Moon. I’ve already lauded over how this show has stitched her (pun intended) into the heart of this series in my last review and most recent podcast, and the love fest continues here: I’ll be damned if Emily Browning isn’t delivering the best performance on the show, turning the tropes of Damaged But Don’t Fuck With Me Girl into something more emotionally nuanced; Dead Wife is happy to leave her family behind, but still hangs onto the regret she has by letting them go, just as she’s happy to realize her true love for Shadow while dying with another dude’s dick in her mouth.
Faith often requires compromise, and Laura Moon refuses to compromise to almost anyone: to Salim-not-Salim’s platitudes about life and its beauty and not to Mad Sweeney’s shots at her character. He is able to poke holes in her when talking about Shadow, but that’s the beauty of the one element of her world where she shows dedication. She’s willing to overlook anything in pursuit of him and what she perceives to be their shared truth; it’s the one area of her life she’s willing to throw every bit of logic into the wind, and all because she thought she felt her heart beat for a quick second. She has faith in her love, an emotional undercurrent of her story that is slightly lost among the dead person smell jokes and kicking a dude’s spine out of his body – but it’s an important tenet of this show that comes out in satisfying bits and spurts throughout the hour, especially when Salim is involved and her sarcastic pessimism shifts towards a more earnest, heartfelt (litereally) approach to living. American Gods understands the deep, complicated temptations of desire; both in how satisfying it can be to chase, and how it can inspire and damn us all at the same time. The desire to love, be it by a person or a god, is perhaps the strongest of them all; how it filters that idea through characters like Laura is the kind of fascinating material I’d hoped for from this show all along.
As we’ve seen, one fleeting moment of bliss, peace, or enlightenment often becomes the definitive driving force in our lives. This can be a person, an experience, or the written word; but the beauty and dangers of how that transforms us is ever-present. We are always seeking to improve or change ourselves in an attempt to be loved and accepted, but we often are blinded by what we seek, and lose the thread along the way: like Laura and Vulcan, trying to feel relevant and wanted can lead down a dark road of temptation and consequence that can’t be walked back, lest the price of death be paid once again. Featuring a group of people really into sacrifices, this could lead to a lot of extremely intentional deaths and in the last two hours of American Gods‘ first season; while the narrative climax is certainly welcomed, it’s really the intersection of thematic ideas and tangible character development that elevates “A Murder of Gods” into something more fully-formed and individually satisfying than earlier episodes.