Monday, June 5, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x6)

In my first review of American Gods, I quoted Mr. Wednesday as he attempts to explain to Shadow Moon that no one is American, not originally. This week's episode, "A Murder of Gods," more than any other so far is about another of the central ruminations in Gamain's book, right up there with belief: identity. The two are not mutually exclusive, to be sure. As Vulcan, god of firepower and weaponry, tells Mr. Wednesday over a particularly tense drink in Virginia, "you are what you worship." A search for identity goes hand in hand with a search for what you believe in, a journey to find something to claim as your own. It could be a person, a feeling, a coin, a group of followers, a djinn, and sometimes, a whole lot of gun toting nutters. Belief and, religious belief at that, has the power to bring people together but it also has the ability to separate us from "others." We box ourselves and each other into neat little boxes (that are rarely--and hardly ever stay--neat) and we set up a wicked but easy dichotomy of us vs them. And, hey, to be fair, isn't that what Mr. Wednesday is doing as well? New Gods vs Old Gods is just as much an us vs them mentality as other competing religious franchises.  There is one question that is repeated time and time again this episode, and every time it's met with confusion, more questions, and answers bordering on the insane. "What are you?" It might be mostly directed at the gods that populate our narrative but it applies to all of us, human or god, dead or alive. Get your trusty side arm and let's go! 

Everyone in this week's episode is trying to figure out who they are by way of trying to piece together who the people around them are. It's a messy way to find yourself because it relies on you being introspective enough to understand that what you believe you're seeing in the person next to you is a reflection of who you really are. Everyone, that is, except Vulcan who knows damn well who he is because he found his own little slice of American life that freely, eagerly even, worships him even when they don't realize they are doing so. That's why it is so easy for Vulcan to betray Wednesday in the end; like the New Gods urged Wednesday to do last week, Vulcan adapted. He figured out how to get his needed worship (and blood sacrifices) in this new, complicated, and unstructured land by finding the piece of America that would believe in him. If this episode is all about fractured identities--Salim who is neither Salim nor Ibrahim, the six foot Leprechaun who cannot be a proper lucky Leprechaun without his coin, the clinically dead woman who is more alive than ever, the Old God trying to stay relevant in a world that has forgotten him--then this episode is also taking another cue from Gaiman's work of a fractured America. Mr. Wednesday began this discussion in a previous episode that America is the only country that doesn't know what it is because America is more of a whispery idea than an actual tangible concept. America is full of so many different people who believe so many competing things about what America is that the idea of America can never truly settle into itself. This might be a fictionalized world but as we look around at America today in 2017, ain't that the damn truth? As Mr. Wednesday puts it this week while he and Shadow roll into a one select corner of America, "everybody looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face." It's why so many different gods can pop up in America. There is no America.

So if everyone is trying to work out their identity, then what exactly is identity here in this show? It's a way to get wherever you need to be. Vulcan needs to be worshiped, needs those precious blood sacrifices, so he'll turn himself into the god of firepower, turning religious worship into a franchise with factories, time cards, and hailstorms of bullets if it means he gets to keep on keeping on. There's a great line from Gaiman that works well here to illustrate this point: "You got to understand the god thing. It’s not magic. It’s about being you, but the you that people believe in. It’s about being the concentrated, magnified, essence of you. It’s about becoming thunder, or the power of a running horse, or wisdom. You take all the belief and become bigger, cooler, more than human. You crystallize." Vulcan knows that no one is going to worship a god of fire and volcanoes, but a god of guns? Hell yes. Conversely, Laura needs to get to Shadow but is trapped in the past, unable to move on to the future she wants. Her identity is a mix between being a dead person with all the accompanying delightful smells, sketchy appearances, and gung-ho expressions of "fuck those assholes" and being alive, a wife and a daughter who is trailing after her husband and stopping off to see her family one last time. Mad Sweeney tells Laura to "choose one" meaning a car to steal but there's an undertone of choosing which life Laura wants: dead or alive. In the end, Laura settles into the identity that will get her Shadow, the thing she is seeking. This identity is as a dead person seeking resurrection, even if it means losing sight of her husband for awhile. Laura is choosing life and for the first time in, likely, her whole life. This isn't a test of her resolve to see how far she can push herself before she feels that spark of life; Laura's choosing the identity of a woman seeking to live again now that she's discovered how wonderful life is which brings us to Salim, our taxi driver who stumbled his way back into the narrative. Salim is an example of what Laura could be once she lets go of all her past identity issues. Salim used to be scared and timid, having sex with men in back alleys and taking crap jobs with an abusive brother-in-law to make his way in the world. That Salim died after a night spent with a djinn and something new was born. This new creature might bear a striking resemblance to Salim but, as Laura keeps calling him, he's not Salim. He has no real identity except that which he constantly creates; Salim is living a new life after his old one died and passed into the ether. This new life is more carefree, more open. Salim can hold onto the things in the past he loved--like Allah--but he can also incorporate the love he bears for a djinn without feeling torn asunder. He's an interesting character for Laura to interact with since that's essentially what she's trying to do. Salim could be a guide for her, a flashing neon sign telling her that she can have a new life and new identity if she just believes.

Miscellaneous Notes on A Murder of Gods

--In my very first review of American Gods I also posited the question of what exactly was a god. It's something Mr. Wednesday shoots at Shadow as well before trying to explain, "people believe things which means they're real. That means we know they exist. What came first--gods or the people who believed in them?"

--"I got stabbed by Charlie Brown's Christmas tree!"

--My stomach did a whole lot of churning watching Wednesday pull out a root from Shadow's insides.

--“What the fuck are you? I mean, what the fuck are any of you, but first tell me, what the fuck are you?"

--"Did you just name drop Jesus Christ like you know a guy who knows a guy?" Laura and Sweeney's comedic timing is on point and I'm quite enjoying this non-novel insert.

--Speaking of Jesus, RIP Mexican Jesus? That whole scene was darkly funny in that of course the very second the Mexicans get across the river they are gunned down (because welcome to America!) but when the tumbleweed blew across Mexican Jesus and left a tumbleweed crown of thorns, I may have laughed just a little too long.

--"You could sacrifice yourself. You've done it before."

--Know Your Gods: This week's pick is fairly obvious and I think Mr. Vulcan himself spells at the underlying problem with me trying to talk about him: "I was a story people forgot to tell." When we think of the great Roman (and Greek) pantheon, Vulcan isn't one of the gods that readily springs to mind because there are few stories that spark out interest. He's no Jupiter, in other words. He is, as you might have guessed, the god of fire, volcanoes, and metalworking (hence the really cool sword). The Romans adopted the Greek god Hephaestus for their Vulcan and both are associated with the same properties listed above; there are some overlapping myths about both so this is Vulcan by way of the Greek god Hephaestus. As you might expect, Hephaestus is responsible for some of the more legendary weapons and items found in mythology like Hermes' winged helmet and sandals, Aphrodite's girdle, Achilles' armor and so on. One aspect of the god that is mostly consistent is his lameness with a shriveled foot; American Gods picks this up by having Vulcan walk with a limp during the street march. How he came about this injury is another matter; some stories say that Hera threw him out of Olympus while others say it was Zeus. Other stories about Hephaestus revolve around his troubled marriage to Aphrodite who was often unfaithful to her husband, particularly with Ares the god of War. There is one story that says Hephaestus, having learned of this affair, caught the two lovebirds in flagrante delicto in an unbreakable net made by the craftsman god himself.

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