Shelf to Screen

American Gods Episode Six: “A Murder of Gods”

Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle.  I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes.  I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest.  Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

This week’s “Coming to America” sequence focuses on a group of undocumented Mexican immigrants.  After a fervent prayer, they start across the Rio Grande, which is running fast from morning rains.  One man can’t swim well enough to gain the other side and sinks, but he’s pulled back up by someone unfamiliar–someone who walks on water: Jesus.  Before the group can move on, several vehicles arrive and the men driving them open fire on the helpless people on the riverbank.  Jesus is hit with two bullets and falls to the ground, dead.

Fresh from their encounter with the New Gods, Wednesday and Shadow make their way back to their motel.  Wednesday is all for getting the heck out of town immediately, moreso when Shadow tells him that Laura came back from the dead.  As they drive out of town, Wednesday realizes that Shadow is bleeding from where the tree-creature at the police station stabbed him.  Worse, there’s something left in the wound–a writhing root-like thing that Wednesday pulls from Shadow’s side.

The pair arrive in Vulcan, Virginia, a town ruled over by the god of the same name.  They show up in the middle of a funeral for a man who worked in the munitions factory that is the city’s lifeblood.  Once the crowd is gone, Wednesday and Vulcan meet cheerfully (although Vulcan is noticeably cooler towards Shadow), and they return to Vulcan’s house.  There, Vulcan explains that he has associated himself with guns and ammunition, and as such he’s not hurting for prayers.  He promises to stand with Wednesday and the other old gods, and at Wednesday’s request, he forges the old man a sword.  But things Vulcan says during their conversations tip Wednesday off to the fact that Vulcan has betrayed them to the new gods, and he uses the newly forged sword to decapitate Vulcan and kick his body into the molten iron vats.

Meanwhile, Laura and Mad Sweeney embark on the oddest road trip ever, joined by Salim, whose cab they try to steal in order to leave town.  Sweeney figures that if he can find someone to truly resurrect Laura, she won’t need his coin, so he offers to guide her there.  Salim is searching for his jinn lover, and Sweeney says that if he drives them to get Laura help, he’ll tell him where the gods are gathering.  On the way, they return briefly to Indiana, because Laura wants to check in on her family.  Realizing that she can never talk to them again, she leaves without them ever seeing her.

Commentary:

This morning I looked around online to see what other commentators had to say about this episode, and the majority of them said things like “It was my least favorite episode so far”, and “The episode was unfocused and rambling”, and “It was about as subtle as a hammer to the head”.  (These aren’t direct quotes, but you get the idea.)  And I have to wonder: how much of this is because “A Murder of Gods” tackled subjects that are, at best, uncomfortable in American today?  There are two definite points that might bother people, so let’s look at them in turn.

First we have the opening sequence with Mexican Jesus.  The showrunners talked in a behind the scenes clip about how they wanted the scene to portray the dichotomy between Christianity in its purest form–the immigrants thanking God for the chance at a new life–and the most corrupt form–the men who shoot them down while carrying rosaries.  And where I think this hits a nerve is in the idea that people can so twist the doctrine of Jesus that they can use it as justification to kill.  Worse, they use it as justification to kill the very figure they purport to follow.  With such a radical divide in belief in America today, both religious and political, I’m pretty sure that there are those who were shocked to see that idea staged so directly.

Second is the idea of guns in America.  The scenes in Vulcan put me in mind of the idea that Terry Pratchett so often played with in his Discworld novels–namely, that every bell curve has an extreme end.  Vulcan’s city, where even children and older ladies in wheelchairs carry guns and the symbolism is unashamedly Nazi-ish, is an extreme depiction of a community that cleaves to the Second Amendment.  And of course, the idea of guns (and gun violence) as a religion is sure to put up more than a few backs.  Vulcan’s dialogue in this episode, while possibly somewhat ham-handed, leaves no room for doubt as to where this idea is going.  I was especially chilled by his line “Every bullet fired into a crowded theater is a prayer in my name.”  Having the volcano on your hip may keep you warm at night, but volcanoes can also burn.

Wednesday also says something that gives this sequence a different kind of depth: he tells Shadow that people are devoted to their idea of what America is, even if it crumbles under scrutiny, because they like the “warm, safe feeling” they get from their America.  This doesn’t necessarily have to apply to guns, as there are plenty of other “kinds” of America running through this series.  In a way, the New Gods seem to epitomize the compartmentalization of America.  Where Wednesday is the god of knowledge and storms and sacrifice, each of the New Gods is locked into a single aspect of American life, and while those aspects may have many facets, they still only have one broad encompassing idea.  Vulcan sacrificed his older self, the god of the forge and of volcanoes, to become the god of factory-made firearms.

The theme of sacrifice runs through everything in this episode.  Jesus sacrifices his life for his followers.  Wednesday tells Shadow about Mr. Wood, the god of the forest who had to sacrifice what he was at the advent of industrialization.  Salim sacrifices his old life to follow his jinn and look for happiness.

Speaking of Salim, his presence provides a gentle counterpoint to all the violence of the rest of the episode.  He’s compassionate to Laura and quietly tolerant of Mad Sweeney (who could try anyone’s patience).  The scene at the end of the hour that shows him praying at sunrise is lovely, and it’s a great example of showing a sometimes misunderstood religion in a positive light.  Personally, I’d love to jump into the show and give Salim a hug, because he’s one of the truly good people that we encounter.

Some odds and ends:

Note that the bullet that killed Jesus was a Vulcan-made bullet.  I didn’t notice that until the behind the scenes vignette after the episode.  Does that mean that version of Jesus is permanently dead?  Can god-made weapons kill a god?  Is Vulcan permanently dead after being beheaded by the sword that he himself made?  Supposedly only lack of belief can truly kill a god, so will we see either of these gods again?  (Note that Wednesday talks about Mexican Jesus in the third episode in the present tense, so presumably he’s still around during the timeframe of this story.)

Vulcan mentions Wednesday’s original sacrifice of himself for knowledge, which foreshadows certain other things that are coming down the line, so take note of this.

I wonder who Mad Sweeney is taking Laura to for a resurrection.  This entire episode was created specifically for the show, so we can’t go to the book for answers on this one.

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me.

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