Shelf to Screen

American Gods Episode Three: “Head Full of Snow”

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!

We rejoin Shadow in the hours after his disastrous checkers game with Czernobog.  Awakening in the middle of the night, he climbs the fire escape to the roof and meets the final Zorya sister, Zorya Pulonochnaya.  From her, Shadow finds out that the Zorya sisters are guardians, always watching the sky to ensure that the beast trapped within the Big Dipper never escapes.  If he does, the world will end.  Pulonochnaya sees that Shadow has given his head to Czernobog, observing that Shadow believes in nothing (although he is moving towards everything) and that he keeps throwing his life away.  She appears to pluck the moon from the sky, handing it to Shadow in the form of a silver dollar meant to protect him.  He wakes on the couch, realizing it was just a dream, but finding the coin in his pocket.  Emboldened, he challenges Czernobog to another checker game, and when he wins, the old god promises to go to Wisconsin with Wednesday before killing Shadow.

In the morning, Wednesday tells Shadow that they’re going to rob a bank.  Shadow is understandably freaked out by this, having just gotten out of prison, but Wednesday promises that he’ll remain free.  While prepping for the heist, Wednesday tells Shadow to think of snow, which Shadow does, more and more deeply, until Wednesday points out to him that it has indeed started snowing.

Meanwhile, Mad Sweeney appears briefly, having realized through some fairly nasty accidents that his luck is gone.  The coin he gave to Shadow after their night drinking at the Crocodile Bar was his lucky coin, and he needs it back.  Shadow informs him that he dropped it on Laura’s grave, and Sweeney sets off to retrieve it.

Wednesday then commits the most leisurely bank robbery imaginable: he poses as a security guard taking money at a non-functioning ATM.  He’s gotten deposit slips from the bank, made business cards for himself and Shadow, the whole nine yards.  Shadow’s role?… stand by the pay phone and pose as Wednesday’s “boss” when the cops inevitably show up and ask to verify that he’s supposed to be there.

That night, the pair check into another roadside motel, and Shadow enters his room to find Laura waiting for him.

The episode has two side sequences this week, both of them “Somewhere in America”.  The first concerns Mrs. Fadil, a woman who dies in a fall in her apartment and is taken to the afterlife by Anubis.  Although she’s Muslim, he came as a way of thanking her for remembering the old stories that her Tita told her.  After climbing an endless fire escape to a vast desert plateau, he weighs her heart against the Feather of Truth and finds her worthy.  He leads her to five doors that open onto different parts of Duat, the Egyptian afterlife.  After asking Anubis to choose for her, she enters a door and vanishes.

The second sequence follows Salim, a salesman peddling cheap trinkets who waits all day for a meeting with a man who never bothers to speak to him.  The driver of the taxi he hails to take him back to his hotel turns out to be an ifrit, a type of jinn.  The two are immediately attracted to each other and end up in bed.  Although the jinn pointedly says that he does not grant wishes, the next morning finds Salim in possession of the keys to the jinn’s taxi and his licenses, granting him the ability to start a new life.

Commentary:

After two episodes of heavy, almost manic, activity, “Head Full of Snow” slows the pace down to give us–and incidentally, poor Shadow–a little breathing room.  There are certainly things that happen, such as the bank robbery and Shadow meeting Zorya Pulonochyaya, but overall, this episode feels more contemplative.  It even allows for some flights of fantasy, such as the image of Shadow and Wednesday’s car driving on top of a giant marshmallow, or the ice crystals spreading across the glass of a copy machine.

But it also allows for something that I think is important–we get to see the gods being compassionate and gentle.  Anubis comes for Mrs. Fadil out of gratitude, and he leads her almost reverently to the Scales of Justice.  The scene between Salim and the jinn is less a sex scene and more of a love scene, where two souls make a connection beyond just merely physical.  Zorya Pulonochyaya has the innocence and sweetness of a child.  And I had to smile at Wednesday flirting with Zorya Vechernyaya, tenderly brushing her hair and kissing her to remind her of “when they were young”.  Of course, it’s not all sunshine and flowers–Mad Sweeney’s run of bad luck causes a horrible death for a hapless good Samaritan, but moreso than in previous episodes, the gods are not something to be feared.  I had to wonder if some of this might be a consequence of lack of belief in these gods: does waning belief make them closer to mortals, and therefore more able to empathize with them?

A couple of thematic motifs ran through this episode.  One was the idea of ascent.  Mrs. Fadil and Shadow both climb fire escapes to reach the heavens, an image that is firmly rooted in the modern cities of America.  Also, both Mrs. Fadil and Salim recount how their grandparents told them of the old gods and beings, which is what leads to their encounters with Anubis and the jinn, respectively.  Another very powerful idea is that of knowledge and truth being important.  Wednesday even says that he wants knowledge above all else, and viewers get it in the form of pointed foreshadowing.  Those who have read the book know that characters in this episode tell you exactly what’s coming down the road.  Zorya Vechernyaya tells Wednesday that he will be killed in the war.  Mad Sweeney declares that he’ll never make it to Wisconsin.  And Zorya Pulonochyaya gives Shadow “the moon” for protection, and Shadow will soon find out that his wife, Laura Moon, is watching over him throughout his travels.  “The moon” may also reference Shadow taking protection from his very identity, as events to come will shake him and his views of the universe to the utmost.

But the lifeblood of this episode (and of the series) is belief.  Wednesday and Shadow have a very pointed conversation about belief as they drive through the snow-covered night… a conversation, by the way, which is directly from the novel.  Shadow is literally surrounded by his own magical influence on the world–the snow–and yet he still can’t make himself believe what is happening.  Wednesday asks him if he believes in love, and when he answers yes, asks him if he always believed in it.  When Shadow answers “Not before Laura”, Wednesday points out that “you didn’t believe until you did, and then the world changed forever”.  On the one hand, it makes belief sound so simple–just believe and everything is different!  But it also makes it sound incredibly difficult, because what tips you over that cliff into believing?  And belief creates some interesting things.  The conversation in which Wednesday begins listing all the versions of Jesus currently living in America is hilarious, but it also underscores the idea that the gods can exist in many different forms, depending on belief.

A few odds and ends:

Mrs. Fadil’s cat is a Sphynx, which is associated with Egypt.  I laughed when I saw it following her up the fire escape, because that’s so what a cat would do.  I wonder if the cat was channeling Bast or actually was Bast, since she shows up briefly in the novel.

I posed a question in my last recap about the meaning of the picture on the wall at the Zorya sisters’ apartment.  It turns out that it depicts the three sisters as dogs guarding a bear, representing the Big Dipper (Ursa Major).  As another clue to Wednesday’s identity, Zoyra Pulonochyaya gives one of its alternate names: Odin’s Wain.

But now I have a new question: who the heck is the person in the hat seen in the security camera in the bank?

I have to give a shout-out to the Legion of Leia recapper for catching something interesting about the jinn in last week’s episode.  I won’t tell you what, just go here and read it.

Since I’ve been running with the Tarot symbology thus far, I took Shadow’s room number at the motel (55) and looked up card number five.  That’s the Heirophant, the builder of the bridge between deity and humanity.  Shadow is certainly caught between those states of being, as is Laura, caught between living and dying.  Also, Salim is in room 318, and card eighteen is the Moon, which is the card of mystery–and obviously the moon is referenced in other places in this episode.  Other than this, I didn’t see a heck of a lot of hidden symbolism in the episode.  Believe me, I was looking!

And that’s it for this time!  As a note, all pics were screencapped by me.  Comparisons to the novel were made using the tenth anniversary edition of the book.

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