Monday, June 19, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x8)

Every religion or code of faith is a story. It has all the hallmarks of a good narrative; there's a plot with a beginning, middle, and end; there are heroes and villains, quests for redemption and falls from grace. There are deeds of valor and actions of woe; magical creatures, far off places, larger than life characters who work their charms alongside any other talents or gifts the world has given to them. And like all good stories, faith is asking for only one thing: belief. Since the beginning of the series, I--and American Gods--have pounded home the idea that at its center, this show is about belief. Testing belief, finding belief, expanding your belief, losing belief, discovering all the unique ways that belief and faith manifest in our world--and in worlds unseen--are all at the heart of American Gods and perhaps no other episode quite captures that essence more than the season finale, "Come to Jesus," a fairly apropos title given that, on the one hand, there are several Jesuss' that are wandering around a villa in Kentucky on Easter and, on the other hand, the term means to have a conversation that leads to an epiphany, a reckoning, or an understanding. Shadow Moon, welcome to belief. It only gets weirder from here. Grab your bunny rabbit that poops jelly beans and let's go!

Every character in this episode has a story to sell and they are really hoping that you'll believe in it long enough to get whatever it is they want. Let's start with one of the more complicated stories to parse out: Shadow Moon and the problem of disbelief. Maybe the most frustrating--but necessary given the medium of TV where revelations are best served up in a climax--thing about Shadow is that after seven episodes of bat guano crazy twists and turns--from Laura coming back to life, to Not-Really-Lucy-Ricardo talking to him out of a TV, Marilyn Monroe floating and revealing herself to be in cahoots with the likes of Technology and Mr. World, to six foot plus leprechauns, to Slavic sisters and their cow killing family member--Shadow still doesn't know what to believe and worse still doesn't know if he believes in anything. It's a bit preposterous given that his confession of non-faith is given to a version of Jesus with a literal glowing halo who is literally floating on water. I'm not sure how Shadow, at this point, manages to avoid belief of any kind given all he's seen except to handwave it away as the magic of TV needing our hero and protagonist to come into belief by way of something explosive. However bizarre and frustrating, Shadow's disbelief serves a purpose in that it helps to illustrate how ordinary Americans manage to fall out of belief due to circumstance of life or the absence of gods that they can touch, feel, see, and interact with which in turn leads to the likes of Mr. Wednesday and his war. The ever present multiple Jesuss's (Jesi? Jesuses?) are a good example here. They are not the real McCoy; they're a specific image of an image, almost a magic trick meant to fool the observer. The reason why there are so many is because belief in Jesus takes many different forms from Catholic to Protestant to Greek Orthodox to Coptic and, I mean this quite seriously, the list could go on for quite awhile. Lists within lists. Jesus, a lot like Vulcan, can be adapted for whatever the believer needs: King of Kings, prophet, humble shepherd, fully human, fully divine, son of god, messiah, savior, or guy down on his luck. For Shadow and others it's hard to know which one to latch on to because while they all present a similar image, the up close version is distorted. Notice how the various types of Jesus have precious little to say that is meaningful; the one interaction we get between Shadow and the main Jesus is a platitude: "I am belief. I don't know how to be anything else." That's not super helpful and because it's so very opaque and Shadow is looking for something he can hold on to; it's no wonder that it takes Wednesday with a lightening storm, screaming his various names for Shadow's eyes to truly open and believe in something real. Wednesday feels real; he's tangible in a way that the other ephemeral Jesuss' aren't. The other part of Shadow's story that he's trying to sell (and failing at every turn, poor guy) is that he's so angry at Wednesday for how massively weird his life has gotten that he doesn't care about the truth, about what's really going on. The story Shadow himself wants to believe is that he can walk away from Wednesday at any time. But, of course, Shadow can't because a big part of Shadow wants to believe; he wants the surety of faith that everything that has happened has some sort of explanation. Shadow's story is one from disbelief and heavy skepticism to belief; because seeing is believing, he has finally witnessed that the gods are real and that there actually might be a reason behind all the crazy happenings around him.

At the center of Shadow's journey into belief is Mr. Wednesday who sells stories better than anyone we've met so far. The New Gods offer too much flash, too much pizzazz in their stories to make us receptive; they offer almost nothing concrete. Like Mr. Wednesday has told them twice now, they are mere distractions from any existential crisis of faith. What he offers, by contrast, is inspiration and, more importantly for the Old Gods he's trying to recruit: meaning. I should pause here to point out a few things; first it's worth noting that Wednesday lies a lot. He flat out lies to Easter (sorry, Ostara) about Vulcan's fate, claiming it was the New Gods who killed the lord of firepower. Second, the Old Gods understand that Wednesday is a tricky fellow. Several times gods have called him fraud, a deceiver, a liar, and outside of verbal cues we have many instances of Wednesday selling a story that simply isn't true from acting like a senile old man to get on to a plane, to pretending to be a bank guard taking people's deposits. The idea that Mr. Wednesday lies hovers around our story, even as it asks us to believe everything he is saying. It's a nice push/pull between wanting to believe and put faith in Odin despite what our eyes are telling us. The show has made clear several times that the motivation behind Mr. Wednesday's lies and trickery is desperation. He has been forgotten over time; his name (or names) no longer have any meaning in America except as a myth long since replaced by something newer, shiner, and prettier. If belief is the life blood of these Old Gods, prayers and sacrifices the appetizer and main course, then Odin is--essentially--starving. No one lifts up their voice in song to him anymore, no one beseeches him, no one offers up the fated calf, and so he'll spin his tale in whatever manner he can so that he can feast once more. His interactions with Easter demonstrate that he's not willing to go gently into that good night; he can't sell his soul--for want of a better term--and change his story to suit the new world; Easter can, though it's not the same. Easter's story offers up a chance to see how hollow Odin and the other Old Gods would be if they accepted the New Gods's way of life. Her high holiday has been overtaken by a different religion but also become a mass product that can be sold, not just to the religiously minded but to atheists as well. Peeps, Cadbury eggs, bunnies and chicks, it doesn't matter if you're of the faith or not, Easter has become a holiday that all participate in, though it's sugary sweet and doesn't fulfill anyone, Ostara least of all. The story Ostara is selling is one of peace through accommodation; hair pinned up, a beautiful picture but simply that: an image of an image. The real Ostara is spring itself; wild, beautiful, full of life and rebirth, and utterly powerful. What's interesting about Wednesday in all this is that it takes lying and manipulating Ostara to bring her back her muchness, to borrow a phrase. Does that make her return to self false? Or less powerful? Does it mean that, should Ostara find out what really happened to Vulcan, that she'll regress? Or does it not matter how one gets to belief and fullness just so long as they get there? Questions for season two, I suspect.

And finally, we have a few other stories being sold by various peoples and gods. The New Gods really like their narrative that you can't stop progress and that progress in and of itself is good. They are good because they are new, different, and longer lasting (or so they imagine). I don't know that progress itself is bad, but it is the way these New Gods want to go about doing it, which is to say destroying the old and offering something less substantial in their place. Wednesday is right; Media and Technology are distractions for the most part. We offer up our time, our energy, our attention, and sometimes each other for our computers, our phones, our TVs and I have to wonder if we really get anything in return (this is a deep piece of irony given that I spend several days a week writing a TV blog, parsing out one of the more prolific types of media for deeper meanings). Laura's story is that she has so much to live for, having finally realized that Shadow makes her happy to be alive and surely someone can help her; Mad Sweeney's story is that he can undo his past mistakes of killing Laura in the first place by resurrecting her with the help of Ostara. Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Hollywood, Bilquis tells herself the story that selling her soul to the New Gods is worth their price because she feels like a goddess again. All of these stories from Shadow to Wednesday to Easter to Laura to the New Gods to Mad Sweeney to Bilquis have belief at their center. The belief in love, in power, in sex, in progress, in life, in strength, in reverence, and in belief itself. We started off American Gods with a simple commandment: believe. Now as we move into the next phase of the story, a question arises: what do we do with all this belief?

Miscellaneous Notes on Come to Jesus 

--The art director for this show deserves all the awards not only for every single shot of Easter's house but also for the carefully constructed sewing room at Mr. Nancy's. Talk about gorgeous!

--"Once upon a time...see it sounds good already. You're hooked." Anansi doing what Anansi does best, telling a tall tale.

--Can we start a petition to have Ricky Whittle dress in grey and lavender all the time? Damn.

--"Worship is volume based; whoever has the most followers wins the game."

--I don't think I'd welcome Wednesday into my house either if he kept running over my bunny rabbits.

--"What are you pissed off about?" "You just cut off your friends head!"

--"People create gods when they wonder why things happen. Why do things happen? Because gods make things happen."

--There is a great power in sacrifice, most religious texts and traditions will tell you that. Notice that Laura was a sacrifice to get Shadow to where he is now, literally and mentally. Also, take note that Odin dedicates the deaths of the faceless men to Ostara which seems to give her some sort of power that she previously lacked.

--"Do you believe, Shadow?" "I believe." "What do you believe?" "Everything."

--I have enjoyed every single second of this show and reviewing it this season. The writers, actors, the producers, and everyone else have done Neil Gaiman and his magnificent work proud. Thanks to everyone who read! See you in season two.

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