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!
Our “Coming to America” story this week takes place on a Dutch slave ship. In a hold packed with people, a man prays to Anansi, the trickster god, to help him get out of his captivity. Anansi actually appears in the hold, a tall man in a purple plaid suit, and proceeds to inform the slaves of their fate–and the fate of Black people in America for hundreds of years. He feeds their anger and encourages them to burn the ship. His reasoning?… they’re all dead already anyway, so their sacrifice might as well mean something. Some time later, wreckage from that ship washes ashore in America, and a spider crawls off onto his new land.
We catch back up with Shadow in the hospital after his near-lynching. After getting patched up, he limps back to the motel to confront Mr. Wednesday, who is currently keeping company with a half-naked woman and a pizza. Angrily, Shadow demands answers, only to be brushed off calmly by Wednesday, who then doubles his salary as “hazard pay”. He also informs Shadow that his calm doesn’t mean he isn’t angry and that “an assault on you is an insult to me”. That night, Shadow has a disturbing dream that Laura is still alive.
The next day, Shadow goes to the house he shared with Laura to pack his belongings. He avoids looking at Laura’s personal effects from the morgue for a while, but ultimately opens the box, finding her ring and her cell phone. Opening her chat app, he finds that her last conversation with Robbie included a dick pic. Wednesday bluntly tells Shadow that he’s only obligated to feel bad about Laura for so long, which Shadow furiously takes in silence.
A side trip to check in with Bilquis shows her continuing to take victims, both male and female. In a museum, she studies a statue of of the Queen of Sheba in a display about the Aksumite Empire. A display case of ceremonial jewelry subtly rearranges itself to lie as if the pieces were on her body.
Off on a road trip to Chicago! On the way, Wednesday stops to meet with someone, and he sends Shadow off to the local superstore with an odd shopping list. While filling his cart, Shadow passes a bank of TVs and is somewhat freaked out when Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy begins speaking directly to him. She offers him a job, which he rejects, thankfully with no immediate negative consequences. Upon returning to Wednesday, he confesses that he thinks he’s going crazy, and Wednesday is less than sympathetic.
Their destination in Chicago is the home of the Zorya sisters and Czernobog, Slavic immigrants who make a living reading fortunes (for the sisters) and killing cattle for a meat company (Czernobog). Wednesday tries to convince Czernobog to come to a meeting with him saying that “everyone will be there”, but Czernobog refuses. After dinner, though, he challenges Shadow to a game of checkers, with some unusual stakes. If Shadow wins, Czernobog goes to Wednesday’s meeting. If he loses, Czernobog will crush his skull with his hammer. And as Czernobog sings a Slavic folk song, he takes Shadow’s last piece.
Let’s start with that angry, in-your-face speech by Anansi as portrayed by Orlando Jones. If you have any doubt that this show is going to take a no-holds-barred look at race in America, those doubts should be gone by now. Neither this speech nor this scene are in the novel, but the writers knocked it out of the park, giving Anansi some of the best lines in the show. I actually gasped out loud when he said, “You all don’t know you’re black yet. You think you’re just people.” There is so much summed up in that statement that it would take a whole separate article to unpack it. Suffice to say, Anansi doesn’t pull any punches, and it occurred to me that this is the first look we’re getting at a god who is, in role playing parlance, chaotic neutral. He’s willing to sacrifice the captive Africans if it serves a greater purpose, and he has no qualms about manipulating them so that they willingly participate in their own destruction.
In fact, willing sacrifice is a major theme running through the episode. The Africans willingly die to send a message to others to resist captivity. Bilquis’s victims may not know what awaits them, but they willingly go to her bed and offer themselves up to her in their pleasure. And of course, Shadow gambles away his life to Czernobog, who even states baldly that Shadow will kneel willingly before him to receive the blow that will kill him.
So, what are we to make of all of this? If you’ve read the book, you know where Shadow’s path is leading him: to Yggdrasil, the world tree, and his willing acceptance of Wednesday’s vigil. A sacrifice gains more power if the subject does so of their own accord. It’s a point made by Media (played by Gillian Anderson) when she says “Time and attention–better than lamb’s blood.” People are more than happy to sit in front of the TV, or obsessively look at their phones or tablets. “The screen’s the altar, and I’m the one they sacrifice to,” Media gloats.
Speaking of Media’s first appearance, I liked that they set the scene in the store rather than in Shadow’s hotel room. The ability hop from screen to screen, filling them with her image, and surrounding Shadow with her voice, underscores the omnipresence of media in our modern lives. It’s not something you can get away from–not easily, at any rate. Who knows if Media can see through security cameras, hear through phones, or other creepy possibilities? As much as Technical Boy, she’s a deity of information, and of disinformation, which makes her powerful.
Jumping to Shadow and his growing exposure to the supernatural world, Whittle has a line during his checker game with Czernobog that gave me a hint as to the purpose of a couple of scenes in these first episodes. In “The Bone Orchard”, we see the workings of the jukebox as it selects a record in the bar. In this episode, we see the inner workings of the door lock on the Zorya sisters’ door. Shadow makes reference to a world under our own, which one could translate as seeing “behind the scenes”, as it were. Each of these glimpses precedes a major interaction with an old god, so they could be metaphorical and/or symbolic references to the fact that there are things that we don’t see about how the world works.
And on the subject of symbolism, I decided to run with the Tarot imagery when I noticed the room numbers at the motel. Wednesday is in room 109, and the ninth card in the Major Arcana is the Hermit card. On one level, this fits Wednesday at that particular moment, as he hid in his motel room as things went down for poor Shadow. But another meaning is that of guidance or mentoring, which he certainly is for Shadow, and in a way for the gods he wants to gather. A card that stands in opposition to the Hermit is the World card, and as book reader’s know, Mr. World will become a major character very shortly. Shadow’s room number is 113, and beyond the “unlucky” nature of the number thirteen, the thirteenth card in the Major Arcana is Death. This card rarely means physical death; rather, it’s a card of endings and transitions that cannot be ignored or sidestepped. And a couple of cards later, you get the Devil card, which can signify confronting darkness and ignorance… and by the end of the episode, we have Czernobog, a Slavic god of darkness who will make major steps towards curing Shadow of his ignorance of the supernatural world.
Some more symbolism to ponder. In front of Shadow’s house, there are dandelions growing, which symbolize love. You may be laughing at that, given Laura’s infidelity, but we know that Shadow did love her, and when she comes back from the dead she tries to protect Shadow out of love. Later, Wednesday releases the dandelion seeds out the car window, symbolic of letting go. Laura’s phone background seems to be storm clouds, which definitely fits the theme set down from episode one. While in his old house, Shadow is wearing a t-shirt with a bison on it, calling back to his vision of the bison in episode one. Shadow’s reading by the Zorya sisters shows the figure of a bird, which could be a raven, but knowing what I know about the book, could be the Native American thunderbird. And speaking of birds, Wednesday’s two ravens Hugin and Munin both appear: one of them on the weather vane on Shadow’s house (possibly, it could be an eagle), and the other seen merely as a shadow flying over the car.
And finally, the showrunners have said in interviews that STARZ was cool with equal opportunity nudity, and boy, did they mean it. All I can say is, holy hard-on, Batman!
A couple of stand-out quotes: “Strange is the new language and what we’re doing here is vocabulary building.”–gotta love Wednesday. “It’s a shame–you’re my only black friend.”–oh, Czernobog, you wonderful politically incorrect being.
A couple of questions: Who saved Shadow from the lynching? (This is different from the book.) I’m sure the old fashioned star chart in the Zorya sisters’ house means something, but what?
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.