American Gods: Head Full of Snow

"You believe in nothing, so you have nothing."

American Gods goes on a bank heist, in an episode that neatly balances touching sidebar stories with Shadow finally getting some empowerment, both figuratively and literally. Maybe.

The more you dig into an episode of American Gods, the more impressive it becomes just how densely layered the whole thing is. How exactly would one quickly describe this episode? Is it 'The One Where Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Rob a Bank?' Is it 'The One That Separately Introduces Salim and Anubis?' Or maybe 'The One Where Shadow (Possibly) Gets Superpowers'? The answer of course is, 'yes.' It's all of those, deftly interwoven with a number of thoughtful pauses where we contemplate the cultural meaning of Jesus(es), get a glimpse of the afterlife, and discover that Mad Sweeney should keep a better eye on his things.

That's a lot going on, and yet somehow the episode doesn't feel overcrowded, which is as neat a trick as Mr. Wednesday has ever pulled.

So, let's pull it a part a little bit and see how the pieces work. To begin with, we start where we ended last week, with Shadow having lost his head, literally, in a checkers match. Since the beginning of the series Shadow has been a victim of the various forces around him that are influencing his life, and has only been able to roll with the punches as they come at him. But that all changes in the opening sequences here through his dream encounter on the roof with Zorya Polunochnaya, the Midnight Star. Neil Gaiman has always written dream dialogue well, no pun intended, and most of the conversation they have here is lifted directly from the book to great effect. One of the most necessary skills for anyone adapting a written text into visual media is knowing what they need to change to make it work and what they should leave unchanged. Fuller, Green and company made the right call in this case.

The midnight star, a virgin as she herself points out, is about rebirth and renewal, and in that spirit she absolutely gives Shadow the fresh re-start he needs. After this he's able to outwit Czernobog by playing on his vanity and his fear of growing weak into playing a second game of checkers and beats him. Czernobog still gets to bash in his brain with his hammer, but not until after Czernobog comes along with them on Mr. Wednesday's journey. So, there's that hanging over our heads until later on in the story, then.

This metaphorical empowerment then gets a little more literal when Mr. Wednesday repeatedly urges Shadow to make it snow by thinking about snow, and then it snows. Metaphorically, structurally, and possibly literally, Shadow is learning how to affect the world around him, and there's something more than a little insidious about how Wednesday seems to be manipulating things around them to make it happen. It was nice though that both the show and Wednesday chose to leave it an open question as to whether Shadow had really made the snow or whether it was a coincidence. It's about your personal choice as to what you believe, both of them seem to be saying, and as Wednesday explicitly points out, 'First you don't believe and then you do believe, and the world changes because you do.' It's admittedly a little precious as ruminations on belief go, but the show is really drilling down into the way belief affects the shape of the world, so it works in this case. Let's just all agree not to push things by cross stitching it on a pillow.

As for the bank robbery itself, well, robbery is probably a bit of an overstatement. Although I'm sure that would technically be the charge were they arrested for it. Realistically, it's more a case of conning people out of their overnight deposits when they come to put them in the ATM.

The sequence works for what it's setting out to do for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrates that Mr. Wednesday really is a devious and manipulative con artist who's good at playing people. Second, and more surprisingly, it shows us just how smoothly and easily Shadow can roll with a situation and con people himself. What it doesn't do, however, is show us a way of feasibly robbing a bank, as the plan we see wouldn't have worked, even at the time of the book being published, for three major reasons. 1: Night deposits in bags like that don't go in ATMs, they go in night deposit drop slots. Or they did at the time, I confess to having been out of retail for a long time, but I think that's still the same situation. 2: Even when closed, banks have security guards, particularly a bank in Chicago on a busy street like that. At the very least they would have video monitoring that would have investigated the guy sitting in front of their ATM. 3: Most importantly, in that situation the police would call the bank, not the number on a business card they were handed by the man they were suspicious of. I'm just saying; good scene for the purposes of plot and drama, bad scene if you're trying to teach yourself how to rob banks.

We hadn't seen Mad Sweeney since the first episode, and it turns out the reason why is that he's been passed out in a public toilet all this time. We've all been there. What's more interesting is that we gradually learn that his luck appears to have left him with the gold coin he gave Shadow back in that episode. His escalating bad luck while he works that out is pretty amusing, but it's hard not to feel a little bad for guest star Scott Thompson, who takes a pipe first through his windshield and then his face solely for having tried to help out someone staggering down the road. And for a guy with that much bad luck, Sweeney certainly puts on some miles here. He starts at the Crocodile bar somewhere in Missouri-ish, gets to Chicago to find Shadow, and then has to get all the way back to Indiana. That's a lot of travel for a guy who seems to be doing most of it on foot. Did he leave behind a trail of Scott Thompsons, all ghoulishly killed in one manner of bad luck traffic accident or another?



Then we have the Somewhere in America sequences, both of which are beautiful in their own way. Mrs. Fadil, dying alone only to have Anubis stop by and kindly taste her dinner before escorting her to a gorgeously filmed afterlife was just lovely. But the longer sequence of Salim, the lonely salesman and an equally lonely Jinn who unexpectedly find a loving connection to one another was one of the most profoundly moving love stories I've ever seen in film or television. Also, wow that was a lot of graphic sex. I appreciated that the way it was filmed was neither exploitative nor apologetic about it being a same sex couple. The beauty of the interactions between Sadim and the Jinn, two beings so lonely that they've given up on even the concept of finding a connection or love, can be summed up in one exchange:

Sadim: "I wish you could see what I see."
Jinn: "I do not grant wishes."
Sadim: "But you do."

Just beautiful.


Quotes:

Anubis: "Your Assaf will marry in a year and name his daughter for you."
Mrs. Fadil: "A bullshit middle name?"
Anubis: "A bullshit middle name."

Zorya Polunochnaya: "Kissing is disgusting, but in a nice way. Like blue cheese, or brandy."

Czernobog: "All right, I’ll go with Wotan to his Wisconsin. Then I’m gonna kill you. Is good?"
Shadow: "Is good."

Shadow: "Storm died."
Wednesday: "No it hasn’t. We’re gonna rob a bank. Want some coffee?"

Jinn: "You try and sell shit?"
Salesman: "I sell shit yes."
Jinn: "And they will not buy it?"
Salesman: "No."
Jinn: "Strange. Cause when you look in the stores here, that’s all they sell."

Jinn: "They know nothing about my people here. They think all we do is grant wishes. If I could grant a wish, do you think I’d be driving a cab?"

Wednesday: "Come on, learn. It’ll be fun."


Bits and Pieces:

-- If you are reading this later on, or are not from the Midwest, we just spent a week at thirty below zero. Before the windchill. This was not a great week to think 'snow.'

-- I'm not very clear whether Mrs. Fadil's skinless cat was actually Bast, or if Bast is just part of all cats and so that's why the cat got to go with to the afterlife's foyer.

-- Lots of climbing up balconies this week.

-- Zorya Polunochnaya is entirely a creation of Neil Gaiman's. I'm fairly certain she's the only instance of that in the entire book, but I might be wrong. Feel free to correct me in the comments if so, it's the only way I'll learn.

-- When Zorya P. referred to the constellation as 'Odin's Wain,' I misheard it as 'Odin's Wang.' That's a very different constellation.

-- I could watch Ian McShane seduce Cloris Leachman all day. Now there's a sentence I didn't expect to be typing today.

-- I have a great anecdote about Scott Thompson, but it's not relevant to the show, so I'll throw it in the comments if anyone's interested.

-- Despite the fact that Mr. Wednesday uses them interchangeably, hot chocolate and hot cocoa are categorically not the exact same thing. This is important.

-- What was the deal with the wolf they almost hit?

-- So apparently the inference is that Mad Sweeney's lucky coin brought Laura back to life, and that's how she ended up in Shadow's motel room at the end. The bigger question to me is how did she get out of her grave without disturbing the ground? And is that the most poorly monitored cemetery in the world, or what?

-- No sign this week of Media, Technical Boy, or Bilquis. Also, three episodes in and still no sign of Crispin Glover's Mr. World.

-- This week's amusing behind the scenes story: Both the actor who plays Salim and the actor who plays the Jinn are heterosexual. As, apparently, was all of the film crew in the unit that recorded their love scene. This, the legend goes, led to Bryan Fuller receiving the rushes for their love scene and having to tell everyone involved, 'Yeah... That's not how that works...' After which they had to stage a remount. That last part was not intended to be a joke, but I can't bring myself to erase it. Let's all just be adults and move on.

A solid episode with a lot of good stuff in it, but it still suffers a bit from feeling like it's all setup for more important stuff later on.

Three out of four ATM deposits

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

5 comments:

Mikey Heinrich said...

Hairless. The cat is hairless, not skinless. Big difference. Sorry about the error

Billie Doux said...

Thank you. My cats found that section of your review extremely disturbing.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Sincere apologies, I can't imagine what I was thinking.

magritte said...

I found this episode so beautiful, it didn't bothered that there wasn't a huge amount of forward movement of the plot. The scene with Salim and the Jinn may be the hottest gay sex scene ever in a mainstream film or TV; I've never seen anything like it.

On the subject of Zorya Palunochnaya, what I've read suggests that the name is his, but the third sister exists in Slavic mythology. There's probably some relationship between them and the three Fates in Greek/Roman mythology. Slavic myths have some commonalities with Greek and Germanic ones, suggesting a really ancient Indo-European source.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Oh my God, this episode was beautiful. I really regretted in this review not having more time to talk about just how simple and beautiful and moving Mrs. Fadil's death was. I seriously spent about a half an hour online trying to figure out what she was cooking, just so I could mention how great the moment was when she regretted that no one would taste it after finding her body.

Salim and Jinn... So hot. So... so hot. Then it cuts to the shots of the look in Salim's eyes while he looks at the Jinn and I think, wow... I don't think anyone has ever looked at me the way he's looking at him, and now my life feels wasted.

Sigh.