Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x3)

Does God exist because there is a physical entity somewhere in the universe with independent thought and agency or does God exist because we believe that He exists? Conversely, if everyone in the world stops believing in God, does He (or She!) stop existing? Yeah, "Head Full of Snow" is that type of episode. Belief is a powerful thing; it fuels cultures and societies. It doesn't have to be religious belief per se, ie: belief in a specific deity or deities. It could be a belief in a code or series of laws, belief in what the culture stands for. This sounds cut and dry but anyone living in any sort of society will know it's not. The problems are several fold, most notably the variations in strength of belief. In this week's episode we saw just how powerful belief can be as Shadow literally made it snow just because Wednesday asked him to believe in it. It might be one of the more laid back episodes but at its heart is the crux of American Gods: if you believe in it, it becomes real. Hold on to your hearts (Anubis wants them) and let's go!

How do you get to the top of a roof when there is no ladder? You climb the one your mind conjures up, of course. It's powerful image to start off this episode; Shadow, during another one of his powerful real-but-also-maybe-not-real dreams needs, for whatever reason, to get to the roof to meet Zorya Polunochnaya. It's all very mystical and otherworldly as the youngest Zorya, the "Midnight Star," explains that she keeps watch over the great bear in the sky because if it ever escapes the world is over. She then proceeds to give Shadow the moon in the form of a coin. It all seems absolute nonsense, all metaphors instead of reality. Maybe, for instance, Shadow mythologizes his meeting with the youngest Zorya sister because it stood out as special and when we have an encounter that changes our lives, we cast it terms of myth. Colors become richer, people speak in a higher language. For example, in reality, after the ill-fated checker game, Shadow and the youngest Zorya had a weird conversation in which she revealed how to defeat her mean relative and it possibly lead to a more romantic moment and in Shadow's tired, confused, grief-stricken and terrified head it turned into a midnight roof time excursion where a woman in a long white nightgown looked at the stars with a stuffed bear perched on her telescope. After all, the idea that this encounter didn't really happen the way Shadow remembers matches the reality of the world around him. There is no ladder from the window to the roof; we still have yet to see Zorya Polunochnaya in the house during the daytime. And yet...and yet there is a coin, another game of checkers, and a reversal of fortune. Somehow Shadow comes out victorious because whatever the encounter with the youngest Zorya really was, and wherever it really was, Shadow believed in it enough to take Czernobog on again and win a game of checkers, cocksure and just a little bit arrogant. This is very much a prelude to what happens with the bank robbery--a near perfect recreation of what Gaiman wrote in the novel, as a brief aside. Shadow's role during the robbery, something he's dreading given his recent incarceration, is simple. He answers the phone when it rings and pretends to be the head of a security company who employs Mr. Wednesday. Shadow's belief once again comes up, this time twofold. First, Shadow has to believe and think "snow." That's all. It's a weird mindless task but one that Shadow manages to fall headfirst into, staring at his marshmallow laden cocoa. Suddenly, it's a small blizzard in Chicago. Now, logically, you could say that this is simply a weather pattern; the dark clouds were already on the horizon, Wednesday even points them out to Shadow. Shadow's belief had nothing to do with moving the clouds closer and causing the water vapor inside to freeze to the point of fluffy white flakes. But doesn't it seems passing strange that the moment Shadow really starts to believe in snow, puts all his mental efforts into imagining hilly banks of white powder, Mr. Wednesday jokes that "that's enough. We don't want close down the city" because that imagined snow? Oh, it arrived. And just in time. Second is Shadow's other task, to answer the phone. Again, it's a very simple act. But like all method actors, it'll help the performance if Shadow really believes that he works for this security company, that he really is some put-out boss worried for the safety of his lone man sitting out on the streets of Chicago monitoring the ATM. And suddenly, Shadow really gets into his performance. He creates a bit of drama behind the scene, lamenting the cheap bank that won't pay for another worker; the conversation becomes personal as he offers a job to the cop on the other end of the line. In the novel, the conversation is quite a bit longer and we see just how much Shadow really puts into this banal and simple con man role. Again, it's the power of belief. Shadow must believe in the lies he's spewing and suddenly that story becomes just a little bit real because of his belief. The question becomes what happens if people stop believing?

Mr. Wednesday more or less dances around the answer to this question in a frank and weighted conversation with Shadow after the bank robbery. He doesn't even use the word belief, but instead talks about remembrance. The two--belief and remembering--go hand in hand. When you believe something, you automatically remember it. When beliefs pass out of practice, they likewise pass out of remembrance. They become antiques of yesteryear; archaeologists find mementos of these remembrances scattered in long forgotten cities, like the city in Oman where the djinn/taxi driver hailed from, and those are only the lucky belief systems. There are probably countless belief systems that are, simply, lost to time. This is Wednesday's greatest fear. "We remember the things that are important to us," he tells Shadow and of course he's right. If a thing is forgotten, it's because it is no longer important and it usually follows that, whatever is being forgotten, has been forgotten in light of something else. Something more important, something that can give the people believing it more than the thing forgotten. A shiny toy came along and people placed it first in their hearts and memories. Not-Really-Lucy-Ricardo said as much to Shadow last week from the TV set: these new entities, these new gods--Media, Technology--that people are sacrificing their time and each other to, are the new wave of belief. Whatever things like Wednesday and Czernobog and Anansi are, they don't stand a chance when people, quite simply, no longer remember or believe in them.

Miscellaneous Notes on Head Full of Snow

--I have to applaud the djinn/human sex scene in this episode. It was deeply erotic, but also deeply passionate, without being pornographic.It was not meant to titillate nor was it meant to be seen as unnatural. There was a sense of connection and intimacy that is usually not found in cable TV sex scenes.

--Kissing, according to the youngest Zorya, is like blue cheese.

--"You'd rather die than live in a world with bears in the sky."

--"We're gonna rob a bank. You want some coffee?"

--Ricky Whittle's delivery of the line, "Yeah, I like marshmallows" was damn near perfect. For a guy best known for a CW teenager centered show, he's doing some amazing and next level work here.

--"That's a lot of Jesus."

--"The fuck is this?" "You the fuck is this." Wednesday and Shadow could theoretically have their own comedy sitcom in the vein of The Odd Couple.

--Without giving anything away, I would start making note of anytime Mr. Wednesday enacts or speaks of cons, con-men or how to pull off a really convincing con.

--Oh dear; Mad Sweeney lost his coin. And Laura Moon appears to be out walking about. Hm, that's troubling.

--Know Your Gods: Again a lot of different gods to pull from this week, but I'm going with a personal favorite, Anubis of Egyptian mythology. I'll also talk a little bit about the ritual we see him perform with the dead woman. In popular culture, Anubis gets wrapped up as the god of the dead, but this isn't exactly right. He's more of a guardian than an actual lord of the dead, that right is most commonly reserved for green-faced Osiris. Anubis is depicted as a jackal-headed god and along with being the protector of the graves, Anubis also played an important part in embalming and ushering souls into the afterlife, a role we see him fulfill here in this episode. The ceremony we see with the old woman on the slopes of the desert is the weighing of the heart and, if you're of the western influence, it probably looks and sounds a lot like St. Peter tallying up your deeds and deciding where you ought to go (up? or down?). If it helps to think in those terms, then okay, but the ceremony of Ma'at is a bit more complicated. The scales of justice and truth are brought out and on one side goes the feather of Ma'at. We translate Ma'at as truth but it's richer than that. The concept is wrapped up in truth, justice, order, harmony, and balance. I don't even think we have a word for it in English. If you've maintained these principles during your life then your heart should be light, as light as the feather of Ma'at. The scales should balance and thus you've proved that you've upheld Ma'at. Note that the woman in question begins to speak of some of her misdeeds while the scales are settling so it's not as if you had to live a perfect life but rather everything in balance. If your heart was as light as Ma'at (or lighter) then, congratulations, you get to go to a sort of heavenly paradise. If you're heart was heavier, not in balance with Ma'at, then so sorry for your luck but you're about to meet with Ammit, a female demon who is a third lion, a third hippopotamus, and a third crocodile. She is called the eater of souls and because you have not lived a life in balance, Anubis will toss your heart to her and Ammit will gladly and happily devour it up. Sorry for you luck!

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