With its third episode, American Gods clicked into place; as a story with underlying themes and motifs and as a TV series with all the maddening idiosyncrasies that tend to accompany that form. On the latter point, there comes the realization that the plot will progress only in fits and starts (and may even loop back on itself, to the point of forcing the viewer to sit through the second life-and-death checkers game in a row). Also, the show is an entity far more interested in presenting visual excitement than it is in progressing events. To sum up the plot of this episode is to talk in broad generalities. A woman dies and goes to heaven. A goddess gets her first kiss. A checker game is won and lost. Old lovers reconnect at the end of their lives. Fleeting, temporary lovers pass each other, trading a bit of themselves along the way. A heist is planned and executed. Our hero has a surprise visitor from the land of the dead. These things all happened – and when you write them out like this, it sounds like an incredibly epic hour of storytelling, but it’s all mostly a series of small vignettes and conversations accompanied by stunning things to look at. You’re so lured into it, so hypnotized by how it’s all presented to you ( a man in a reception area superimposed over a gigantic clock face just to get the universally understood experience of waiting across to the viewer in an eye-catching way) that you don’t even realize how much the story is bouncing around, even if it rarely ever feels like it’s moving forward.
As for our first point, the story itself is becoming fully realized by now, with its own themes and motifs set out for exploration. There’s a form to it and a sense of where it wants to go and what it wants to say. This episode gave us the sense that the full breadth of interactions with the gods was starting to form, allowing the viewer a sense of wonder and beauty to co-exist alongside the ominous, deadly and doom-laden tones such interactions have had so far in the story. For every Bilquis there is a djinn; for every Czernobog there is an Anubis; for every unlucky Good Samaritan that crosses Mad Sweeney’s path when he’s without his good luck charm, there’s a doomed man getting a kiss from a pretty goddess, willing to pluck the very moon out of the sky to protect him. Doom and beauty coexist with the gods – and they make every interaction with one tense and awe-inspiring. All of Shadow’s interactions with the gods have felt this way. Mr. Wednesday scares the hell out of him, but weaves such pretty sentences and does such fun tricks that he’s irresistible. Zorya Vechernyaya reads his fortune. Mad Sweeney challenges him to a fight. The Technical Boy tries to kill him and Media tries to seduce him with promises of power. Every god he comes in contact with wants something from him, takes something from him or gives something to him – and every single old tale about gods indicates that such interactions rarely come without a heavy price. Zorya Polunochnaya may have pulled the moon down to protect Shadow, but we winced when she kissed him. Beauty and doom, hand in hand.
This duality of doom and beauty was found in the story of Mrs. Fadil, who faces death and uncertainty, but still saw beauty in her journey. Anubis came to her as a solemn, but not at all unfriendly figure; capable even of a genuine warmth and affection we had yet to see from any of the other god characters. The sequence offered little in the way of answers – after all, you don’t know where her path led or whether it was the right choice for her. But it was all so beautiful and peaceful; such a relief to her that you could feel it yourself, in the “I hope this is what it’s really like when you die” sense. A wish for more in the face of death, which is what the worship of gods actually is, after all.
Or take Zorya Polunochnaya, the very essence of the dewy, virginal maiden in the mother/maiden/crone manifestation of the Zorya sisters, showing Shadow all the beauty to behold in the night sky as well as all the beauty in a young woman, while at the same time lightly informing him of a universe-devouring evil that glares down at them, forever seeking a way to escape, even teasing him about his lack of faith. “You’d rather die than live in a world with bears in the sky.” But if there’s an arc or progression to be found in this tale, it’s clearly Shadow’s journey from total lack of faith to total wonderment at the idea that he may have made a snowstorm just by thinking really hard about it. Wednesday has been slowly and methodically making his case to Shadow all along, and while all the interesting beings they met along the way certainly helped push Shadow along, in the end, what truly made him a believer was watching Wednesday pull off a brilliantly simple bank heist without even working up a sweat. For a former wannabe con man, it was like seeing the face of God for the first time – except in this case, it’s meant literally. That sense of wonder – I can make it snow and he can magically rob banks! – came crashing down to earth, as all interactions with the gods must. For all the beauty, there must also come horror, and for Shadow, nothing could sum those twin feelings up better than the site of his dead, unfaithful wife sitting calmly on his bed, waiting for him. Beauty and doom, hand in hand.
And finally, there was the scene that provoked the strongest feelings of all, even if the beauty vastly outweighed the doom, assuming you’re the type that thinks watching a man ejaculate into another one can be beautiful, of course.
As gay male TV reviewers who’ve been known to have sex with each other, we had a reaction to the Salim/Iffrit scene that we’re still trying to work our way through. It was shocking in its explicitness but it was beautiful in its intimacy and power. And at the heart of our reactions to it, if we’re being honest with ourselves, was the fear that such an explicit representation of male-on-male sex, coupled with a completely unsubtle but nonetheless fantastical way of depicting male orgasm, would be met with jeers and revulsion. When the dominant culture rarely depicts your love life in anything approaching an emotionally, let alone physically realistic way, you find that fantastical depictions of it tend to raise your blood pressure and stress levels. Admittedly, part of this fear came from the show’s depiction of heterosexual sex, which ended with poor Freddy Rumson getting eaten by a giant vagina. Since we were already treated to a scene of giant genitalia before the sex even started, we couldn’t even begin to fathom what horrors might be unleashed in the sex to come. These feelings were partially of the show’s design (which did treat the sex with an underlying sense of ominousness that eventually gave way to wonder) and partially arose out of our own experiences and fears about how people view two men fucking. In other words, it did what good art does. It tells you something about itself while also telling you something about you. Is there doom in Salim’s future? As we said, there tends to always be a downside to interactions with gods – especially when they ejaculate fire into you, we would think – but it was far, far outweighed by such a wonder and awe-filled way of depicting the ultimate act of male-on-male intimacy.
[Photo Credit: Starz]