The gods of American Gods, old and new, have one thing in common with each other: they speak in vague generalities. Mr. Wednesday never answers a question with a direct answer. The Technical Boy spews anger and vitriol, but little of it makes sense outside his own head. Media is direct and straightforward, but it’s fairly clear she’s weaving a bit of a word spell when she speaks, hypnotizing and anesthetizing with her voice and image, in the manner of a television god. Zorya Vechernyaya speaks in the foggy tones of a fortune teller. Czernobog, in the bitter, rambling tones of a washed-up drunk. Bilquis barely speaks and Zorya Utrennyaya doesn’t speak at all. We half-wonder if deities, being composed of stories and allegories themselves, find it impossible to be specific in what they’re saying. Gods, it would seem, are indirect by their very nature.
Except for Anansi. What separates the West African/Caribbean trickster spider god from his cohorts – at least in this tale – is the horrifying specificity of his words. That is at least partially due to the nature of Anansi himself, a folk tale taken flesh through the power of the African oral storytelling tradition. That which is created solely through words becomes a wordsmith himself. But the real reason Anansi is so precise in his descriptions of three centuries of the African American historical experience is because that’s exactly what his power needed to be for his introduction to the audience. There is no drama in a trickster god appearing to captured slaves, shrugging, and saying “That sucks.” But a trickster god bringing the full weight of a half-millennium of subjugation down on a ship of enslaved men by delineating not only what will happen to them, but what will happen to their descendants, for centuries to come? That’s not just powerful, that’s devastating to watch.
“You all don’t know you black yet. You think you just people.”
Attention must be paid to Orlando Jones, who was given a spectacularly written piece and then did everything humanly possible to make the blood pulse like fire underneath the words, spitting out a vicious monologue of 300 years of African-American history set to a jazz beat. It was scene that took your emotions and stomped on them repeatedly, with no thought of nuance or delicacy. You will sit there and you will be ravaged by the facts of history. This is why American Gods has the potential to be so much more than merely a tale of warring superhero teams dressed up in mythical finery. As we noted in last week’s review, like all myths, American Gods is more about the people telling the story and the people hearing the story than it is about the people inside the story. And when the show cut directly from Anansi’s devastating truth-telling to the sight of a black man hanging from a tree while a literal river of blood flowed underneath him … well. Let’s just say the point was not remotely subtle – nor did it need to be. American Gods is about America first, gods second. In fact, the gods of the show’s title basically serve the same purpose here as they always have. They are a conduit to deeper truths.
Which brings us to our second sensory overload this episode, the introduction of Media, the god of screens and monitors. Gillian Anderson, like Orlando Jones, was given one hell of monologue about the nature of media and how the mindless worship of it has become “more powerful than lamb’s blood.” Like Jones, Anderson spun the words given to her like a web, mesmerizing Shadow (and, in turn, the audience) by making him deeply uncomfortable.
“You ever want to see Lucy’s tits?”
This was one of our favorite scenes of the series so far. Anderson looks and sounds amazing in it, but it’s the words that really make it powerful. Just as Anansi vilified centuries of colonialism and enslavement in a 5-minute speech, Media lays bare the mindlessness and submission of the modern American media audience. American Gods is determined to make you very uncomfortable about the America in which it’s set.
The third major introduction to the story is the Slavic family of gods in Chicago, composed of the Zorya sisters and Czernobog. Cloris Leachman is … well, we were going to say “a revelation” as Zorya Vechernyaya, but if you know anything about her career, there was nothing revelatory about her flawless performance, because it was just another in a very long line of them on her C.V. The accent work was probably a bit off, but as an old, tired, DGAF goddess far from her glory days, she was perfect.
“Here, there are no servants… and learning is beneath me.”
Peter Stormare as Czernobog was not nearly as hypnotic, but that was probably by design. He’s meant to be a repulsive boor of a character, so if his scenes and monologues tended to drag a bit or to bring the room down, they were probably working as intended. We just wanted him to shut his bitter, foul mouth up for ten seconds. Czernobog may be an old Slavic god of evil, but for that scene, we’re pretty sure he was the God of Racist Loudmouthed Uncles.
In other news, we got to see a couple of massive hardons this episode, which is always fun from where we’re sitting. We also got to see the inside of Bilquis’ vagina, which was not high on our list of things we wanted to see, but at least paints a picture of her victims’ fates that isn’t nearly as horrifying as we first thought. Apparently, they float in space, orgasming forever. It’s not what we’d have picked for ourselves, but we suppose it’s a nice consolation prize for being vagina-eaten. Bilquis later visits a museum in a scene that indicates that she is a goddess of the Aksumite empire of Ethiopia and shows the kind of sadness a goddess feels when there is no one left to worship her.
Anyway, these are very rambling thoughts on our parts, but we think there’s no other way to talk about an episode like this one, which had very little plot and was almost entirely about scene-stealing introductions of seemingly major characters. And it may never truly be a plot-driven show, given how its first couple of episodes have played out. Just like myths, the story so far is more interested in making you feel difficult things and making you imagine amazing sights. As such, it tends to come across sometimes like an ode to visual storytelling. Whether it’s an extreme closeup of a pot of coffee boiling, or dandelion seeds turning into lightning bolts, or even Bob Dylan singing about a hard rain just as the scene shifts to show a man’s hardon in all its glory, this is a show made by people who love the art of filmmaking and are doing their best to be witty in their words and jaw-dropping in their visuals.
American Gods is a show about American history, about what Americans find important in their lives, about the immigrant experience, and about the magic of stories – and so far, it’s hitting all those beats flawlessly in its first two episodes.