American Gods: Come to Jesus

Wednesday: "What do you believe, Shadow?"
Shadow: "Everything."

American Gods finishes its first season strong, but storms brewing both in front of and behind the camera leave us with questions...

Let's just deal with the elephant in the room up front, since it sort of colors everything about this episode. If you're not the sort of person who follows behind the scenes shenanigans in TV production, allow me to introduce you to the elephant.

A few months after the initial airing of the season one finale, word came out that the showrunners, Brian Fuller and Michael Green, were exiting the show. Details were scarce, and those we did get were probably overblown to a degree, but the general reason given at the time was the traditional 'creative differences' with just a dash of 'budgetary concerns.'  The first series had come in enthusiastically over budget, which probably didn't make the network terribly happy but seems unlikely to be a deal killer on its own. Reports that Fuller and Green quit after clashes with Neil Gaiman over the direction of the show seem equally unlikely, as Neil is a profoundly decent human being and I just can't see him doing that sort of thing.

I suspect, and this is purely my opinion, that it was a combination of little things and was probably fairly amicable. It would appear, based on choices that they made in series one, that Fuller and Green saw the show more as an anthology series, with Wednesday and Shadow serving as a vehicle to explore other stories set in the universe. Gaiman was reported as wanting a more direct adaptation of the novel. The network, probably a little irritated with the overspending, came down on Gaiman's side, and so Fuller and Green moved on to other projects.

Again that's just my personal guess. What we do know for certain is that whatever happened behind the scenes led to both Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth deciding not to return for season two, which leaves a curious plot void after the conclusion of this episode.

We'll look at how this was handled when we talk about the season two premiere, but for now suffice it to say that it's impossible to watch this episode without being aware that both of them are about to exit prematurely, which definitely affects watching it now.

Whew. That's a lot of preliminary elephant.

So, after that brief come to Jesus moment, let's talk about 'Come to Jesus.'

As long as I'm breaking my own rules about what we do and don't consider in these reviews, I'll note that Jesus is notably absent in the novel. He gets a couple of mentions, but never actually pops in to have a chat. In the 10th anniversary edition there's a sort of appendix where Neil includes a portion of a chapter where Shadow meets Jesus, but notes that the interaction never felt exactly right for the story and so he kept not including it in the novel proper.

Here, almost as if to compensate, we have a lot of Jesuses. So many Jesuses that we're going to need a collective noun for a group of Jesuses, and I'm going to suggest that we call it a Faith. So, Wednesday and Shadow, and Mad Sweeney and Laura, arrive independently at the home of Ostara, aka Easter. Ostara is one of your 'harvest/fertility/spring/rebirth' sort of deities, and the nominal foundation of the holiday of Easter before early Christianity colonized it. She has the whole place tatted up for her annual celebration of herself, Easter, and is politely ignoring the many Jesuses who have kind of overrun the place.

So, no visual metaphor for the displacement of old beliefs there, no sir.

Easter is kind of a crystallization of a couple of things that have been going on over the course of the first season. For one thing she's the final instance of Wednesday individually seeking out an old god, wherever they might have ended up, and making a sales pitch for them to join his upcoming war. The fact that he appears to be successful in this case is deeply entwined with the other plot thread which she represents. Namely, the various ways that many of the old gods have or have not been co-opted and suborned by the new gods who have replaced them. Czernobog was never suborned, he was forgotten and left to rot. Vulcan allowed himself to be redefined completely, substituting bullets for volcanoes. Wednesday was offered the same deal as Vulcan and turned it down. Sweeney was never important enough for the new gods to even bother with – he'd been co-opted by General Mills long before. And Bilquis... well, we'll come back to Bilquis in a moment.

Easter shows us yet another variation on the theme; instead of being redefined, she's allowed herself to be overwritten. Christianity came along and claimed her special day, and pretended that the bunnies and the eggs had been part of their thing all along. And over the centuries, as the focus on her special day turned more and more away from her and toward whichever Jesus you happened to root for, she became more and more entrenched in her self delusion that it was really still all about her, deep down. They still followed all the old practices with the egg hiding and the rabbits, so she couldn't have been forgotten. Kristin Chenoweth did a great job here showing us a woman whose illusions are being brutally stripped away. She's made herself comfortable behind a layer of artifice, and once that's gone she faces the situation and reclaims her power. That's the point of her elaborate hairstyle coming undone and her hair falling wildly around her shoulders while Media's hat blows away. It's the pagan forces reasserting their power over the forces retraining them.

It's not a subtle visual metaphor

That said, while I appreciate what's happening thematically, and Mr. Wednesday is clearly successful in convincing Easter to reclaim her power and force humanity to worship her again, I'm almost positive that if Kentucky had a huge crop blight humanity's first response probably wouldn't be, 'Oh, I guess we should probably pray to Easter to take care of this.' Call me cynical.

Women being disempowered by men who fear them was a pretty strong theme all around this episode, and nowhere more so than the story of Bilquis, as told to us by Mr. Nancy. The visuals of Bilquis were great, particularly the fade from her ancient face makeup to her disco face makeup. I really like that we saw her in pre-revolutionary Tehran in the 70s. It's a period that American schools say absolutely nothing about, as if we talked about it we might have to discuss our own unfortunate involvement. Generally, I expect that US audiences know next to nothing about what Iran was like before the revolution, and that may be partly what made the incoming revolutionaries shooting up Bilquis' disco such a strong image for the female disempowerment metaphor they were building.

Watching Bilquis slowly deteriorate in the new world was heartbreaking, and it made perfect sense that she'd fall in with the new gods after Technical Boy offered her a new altar in the form of hook up aps. She doesn't seem to happy to be working for them now, however. It'll be interesting to see where that goes.

Which brings us to Laura, yet another woman who men are attempting to disempower. In this case it was Mr. Wednesday, via Mad Sweeney who had her killed, or as Sweeney puts it, 'sacrificed,' for no other reason than that he needed her out of the way so he could get to Shadow. And because it was a god who had her killed, Easter can't give her back the gift of life, which is convenient from a storytelling perspective. It also presented a great opportunity for the story to have Laura find out that Wednesday had her killed and sabotaged her casino robbery. Although I feel like we as a people need to accept that the 'eye holds the last image before it's death' trope is kind of tired at this point. Maybe let's rest that one for awhile.

So, ultimately season one was all about two things. Getting Shadow to a place where he is ready to believe in the existence of Odin and the other gods, and getting Mr. World to a place where he's willing to publicly commit to going to war against the old gods. Thanks to a prodigious sprinkling of Jesuses, this episode accomplishes both. I could have lived without Wednesday running over the bunnies though.

A faith of Jesuses
Quotes:

Mr. Nancy: "We should start with a story."
Wednesday: "Oh Jesus, Nancy."
Mr. Nancy: "I’m gonna tell you a story."
Wednesday: "We haven’t got time for a story. Just do the f**king work."
Mr. Nancy: "Let me tell a goddamn story!"

Mr. Nancy: "So long as I’m still alive, I can adapt. I still know what I am."

Technical boy: "Worship is a volume business. Whosoever has the most followers wins the game."

Wednesday: "Do not confuse confusion for anger."

Shadow: "I love Easter."
Wednesday: "Many do. Some for the rabbits. Some for the resurrection."

Wednesday: "Believing is seeing. Gods are real if you believe in them."

Jesus: "I… feel terrible about this."

Technical Boy: "Hands free, honeypot. I have no intention of spending the rest of my days feeding your soul from the vagina nebula."

Media: "We popularized the pagan. We practically invented brunch."

Laura: "I will squeeze them straight out of the sack. It’ll be like shucking peas. I swear to Jesus. He’s right outside."

Media: "Put a pillow over that feeling and bear down until it stops kicking."

Seriously.  The outfits.

Bits and Pieces:

-- Jesus, sitting cross legged on the surface of a swimming pool with a drink sets his glass down next to him. The glass immediately sinks to the bottom of the pool. I get why they couldn't resist that sight gag, but there was really no reason for him to be sitting on the pool otherwise. Still funny, though.

-- So, after killing Vulcan, Mr. Wednesday and Shadow went directly to Mr. Nancy's place so that he could make them dapper new suits for the Easter party. Nancy knows that Wednesday killed Vulcan, but Easter believes the lie that it was the new gods who did it. That whole plotline is a little muddy.

-- What exactly is Mr. Nancy's relationship with the spiders? Are they his friends? Does he control them? I have so many questions.

-- I really hope Orlando Jones is enjoying his wardrobe for this series, because I certainly am. His outfits get more and more fabulous.

-- Are the bunnies all CGI? They have to be CGI, right?

-- One of the available Easter cookies was a sugar cookie in the shape of a hand, with red jelly in a neat circle in the center of the palm. I watched this episode four times before getting that.

-- I'm old enough that I remember it firsthand, but it seems just unfathomable that there was a point when smoking on airplanes was a thing.

-- Media seemed genuinely sad to lose Easter as a friend.

-- There's an adorable moment when Easter primps herself in her reflection on the sword while Wednesday is giving her his sales pitch.

-- Do ice cream trucks automatically play music when they're in gear? Because TV shows are unable to resist the music playing in inappropriate circumstances.

-- Sweeney still didn't tell Laura what he sacrificed for her last episode, even when she had him four feet in the air by his balls.

-- It was a serious mistake for Media to take the hard line with Easter over Mr. Wednesday's offer. That's what ultimately made up Easter's mind.

-- Technical boy comes up as 'The Man' on Bilquis' phone. You just know that he programmed that himself.

-- Genre fans should note, the primary Jesus we see here is played by Jeremy Davies. He's as good as you're imagining.

A really strong finish for a really strong year. Easter and Media are going to be missed.

Three and three quarter out of four CGI Bunnies. Is that allowed?

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.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I had purchased Starz specifically for this show, and was not disappointed.
When all the announcements were made, I thought, well there goes another show I liked and got invested in, and didn't renew my subscription. Now after reading all these, I'm questioning my decision. I think I may sit back and wait. Maybe when all is said and done, there will be another way to watch without bumping up my already ridiculous cable bill.
Thanks for these great reviews/recaps/analyses so I could relive it. I've really enjoyed reading them.
Sooze

Mikey Heinrich said...

Thanks so much Sooze, that's very kind.
Having watched the first episode of season two now, I feel mostly reassured about the future of the show.

Plus it was renewed for season three already, so there's that to celebrate.
Here's hoping the episodes show up on OnDemand or somewhere for you. I too know the sadness of the ballooning cable bill.