Every religion begins as a single, charismatic leader with a vision. When the leader dies, the cult either disappears or syncretizes other rituals and becomes a new religion that has little to do with the nutjob who founded it. In the case of America, a land of immigrants, enslaved people and genocide, what we think of as religion — with some exceptions — has been torn from its foundation and has lost some if not all of its original animism. It has the appurtenances of the supernal without the transcendence. Thousands of years later, we are still strangers in a strange land, casting about in the dark for anything that glitters. We pretend to rationalism yet we curse at stoplights. We pray when we want a new bicycle. Call out, “Oh my God!” when we get into an accident. If Buddhism has Four Noble Truths then Americanism has three: We are pagans. We have no idea what this means. God is dead.
“American Gods,” Neil Gaiman’s epic novel adapted into a new series for Starz by Bryan Fuller (“Hannibal”) and Michael Green (“Heroes”), is a reminder not only of America’s immigrant and enslavement roots, their far-flung reach and pull, but also this great country’s pagan stock and tendency to fall for the long con. The gods are brutal, violent con artists; the goddesses no less archetypal. They are the manifestations of fertility in all its man-eating, envaginating glory. (Some more so than others.) They beckon from TV screens, represent ancient rites, exhume themselves like zombie Eurydices. Death is a cold, empty, star-lit desert, a vast nothingness in a lonely, godless universe.
Even the opening scene of Episode 1, that of a boatload of Vikings stranded on the shores of a hostile America, demonstrates the war god Odin’s power and caprice. He is both there and not there, yet everywhere. Following a particularly gruesome sacrificial battle, the warriors flee, agreeing to speak of America’s shores no more. The message is clear: America sucks. Also Odin is no ordinary candidate. He demands a lot from his constituents, but that doesn’t always mean he’s going to make good on his promises. This is the nature of god in “American Gods” and perhaps in America itself: a shell game of the soul where no one wins.
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The picaresque dreamscape of “American Gods” follows laconic, gloomy ex-con hero Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Wednesday (the always excellent Ian McShane), the Bob Hope to Shadow’s Bing Crosby, as the pair roadtrip across the country, rounding up recruits to fight in a holy war between the forgotten old gods Wednesday, Anansi (Orlando Jones), Easter (Kristin Chenoweth) and Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), to name a few, and the new gods Media (Gillian Anderson) and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) in a last-ditch effort to claim ultimate power before it's lost forever.
Shadow learns right before his release from prison that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died in a car accident — he will later discover that she was fellating his BFF and orally amputated the guy’s penis on impact — and, as a result, he re-enters the world as a free man, extremely ripped, numb and proficient at coin magic due to the expert tutelage of his cellmate. It is in this state of abject need that Shadow the amateur magician meets Wednesday, a charismatic con man — could it be? God? Is that . . . you? — and does what any lost soul does in the face of a possible cult leader: hops right in the proverbial white van.
Shadow becomes Wednesday’s bodyguard and accompanies him on a series of eerie, portentous missions, some of which include a barroom brawl with an enraged leprechaun by the name of Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a Bergmanesque game of checkers with a sledgehammer-happy Russian and meeting Cloris Leachman. Throughout, there’s a liminal quality between life and death, dreaming and waking, reality and fantasy — Gaiman’s métier with an additional Jungian visual grammar. The firmament appears dreamlike. We are simultaneously in Shadow’s mind and the collective unconscious, wandering the vast unknown like lost lambs in a dystopian theater of the absurd. But aren’t we always? Or is this only what happens to the godless? It kills the dream, or rather turns it into a waking nightmare where the gods are like petulant children manipulating our inner as well as our outer lives in some sort of petty power play.
“The dreaming layer is part of the human experience,” said Neil Gaiman. At a press junket interview, he was dressed in all black, looking like a thinner, intellectual, Jewish Jon Snow. “The quest for identity is part of the American experience. Being in a country where the mythology says you start in a log cabin and rise to the level of the place you have dreamed. The ultimate message is in that coming to America in 14,000 B.C. story where people are greater than gods because it’s from our hearts where they begin and to our hearts that they return.”
It’s this battle over hearts and who has them that forms the core of “American Gods.” Having morphed from a union with the divine that was personal and profound, the religious ethos has evolved into either fundamentalism or secularism. While the two sides probably don’t want to go on a cruise together or vote the same color, both occasionally dream of a well-meaning Canaanite, worship iPhones and call it monotheism.
In Gaiman’s America, if God is dead, then he is also alive and well and schtupping a busty young blonde in a grimy roadside motel. Fans of the novel know that Wednesday, played by Ian McShane, is Odin. The word Wednesday is named for the Germanic god Woden — the ruler and war god who loves a relentless quest as much as chicanery or any sort of artifice and he eschews law or rules. Thus, the long con.
“I grew up with the Church of England,” said Ian McShane, his voice resonating as though we were in an amphitheater. “I have faith in certain things. I’ve been sober for 20 years. Faith is very important; otherwise you die an old cynic. But every religion is worthwhile. ‘You shall have no other gods but mine' and all that.” He paused. “I think Wednesday just wants you to believe, but I’m playing the long game.” He laughed, his eyes sparkling. I can see why Shadow violates parole to travel with him across America. “It’s a long game.”
“Shadow and Wednesday have great chemistry,” Ricky Whittle added with a smile. “He very much has a spiritual awakening. He’s a shadow of the man we want him to become. He’s looking for the smart answer. The question you keep on asking is: Is he going crazy or is the world going crazy?” McShane chuckles.
“I just wanted you to believe but I’m playing the long game, my friend,” McShane said.
“The reason Michael and I both wanted to do ‘American Gods’ was we both have respect for religion and also a cynicism,” said showrunner/executive producer Bryan Fuller. “Michael’s Jewish and I was raised Catholic. Coming out the other side of it, Catholicism was anti-gay and that proved to me there was a hypocrisy. You have people who call themselves conservative Christians but they don’t know the first thing about Christianity.”
“Some Christians believe that it should be a Christian country,” added showrunner/executive producer Michael Green. “In the show, there’s religious Darwinism to the fight. The further you get into it, the more you realize that the old gods got to be the old gods because they fought dirty. It begs the question of what do you worship: your family, religion or the media?”
Peppered throughout show are interstitial myths in which gods and humans vie for control in the land of of the powerless. Some of these scenes embody ancient copulation rituals and esoteric mystery religions. Watching them, one feels almost voyeuristic. Not because they are dirty, per se, but because cats and dogs are living together and it’s either the world as it should be or the end of days. On an enslavement ship, the god Anansi, played by Orlando Jones, delivers a stunning, proleptic soliloquy and incites revolt. Yet again, we are reminded of the roots of worship, the experience of worshippers and America’s dark past. Where is god when you need him?
“Mr. Nancy’s journey is not an immigrant’s journey,” Jones said. “His worship is real rage. All of the gods are relegated to the circumstances they came from. The power is cyclical. The gods are not as powerful as they once were. He understands that the narrative is thought control. If you control the narrative, you enslave their minds.”
“Corporations don’t want people to think that they have control,” said Crispin Glover (Mr. World). “Because then they will realize that they are serving the corporations, but really their days are numbered.”
“There’s a war going on,” added Jones.
In the midst of this American jihad, this Hero’s Journey writ large where you’re not always sure who’s zooming who, lives the female archetype, in a somewhat beefed-up status here than the in the original source material. If god is a con man and religion his con game, then the goddess is the battlefield and bedroom upon which the con is played, won and lost. If god is reborn then the goddess is rebirth. Embodying this conceptual rebirth is the goddess Easter (the amazing Kristin Chenoweth), whose character appears only three times in the books but has a larger presence in the show. Forget the ascension. If Bilquis is the undercarriage of fertility, Easter is the above-board kind of egg hunt a country can sink its teeth into.
“Things aren’t always as we’ve been taught,” said Chenoweth. “I started re-examining America. I thought — gulp — this is exactly where we are. Where are are we going? Is there a limit? Is the internet (Media) the Anti-Christ? Easter has been around a lot longer than Jesus. She’s the goddess of all things Earth. When I look at these women, it’s more about the choices they have made than about being sorry for them. She doesn’t take any crap.”
“One of our chief goals was to do with the female character what Neil would have done if he’d had 500 more pages,” said Fuller. “There was a sense of expanding Laura and giving her a real purpose. Bilquis in the book is a prostitute. In the series, we couldn’t have this.”
By “this” Fuller means that, in the book, while the god controls the narrative with his mind, the goddess attempts to subvert it with her vajeen. If she doesn’t eat men, she betrays them. She might instigate the hero’s journey (by dying) and provide a few spiritual blankets along the way, but once Shadow is on the journey, it’s Wednesday/Odin who dictates who goes where, not the female consort or any goddess counterpart. As my former analyst would say, “This is the world we live in!”
“So often in TV women are represented as rivals and bitches,” Green said. “We wanted Laura and Audrey to to heal as friends because there’s a nuance there and a truth. We didn’t want the anger to be what you saw as much as the pain. Also, you can love someone you fucking hate.”
The pain of each of these characters is the identity crisis and pain of America, waiting as usual for Godot and getting Trump. The polytheism the series portrays is a mirror of something larger that is sometimes challenging to penetrate and identify. You get the sense of something both ancient and modern and more than a little sad. For this I left the old country?
“The feeling you get through Norse myth is that there is a long con,” Gaiman said. “What did Odin whisper to Baldur’s corpse when it lay upon the fire? His deal is never quite explicated. He can see a little bit of the future and he can see complex dreams. We never know exactly what we have and we have to take it on faith. Wednesday is playing a long con that has been going on a long time.”
When I ask him if this was part of the inspiration of the book, all these years ago, a desire to restore enchantment to a country that is a patchwork of cultural traditions and create a new American mythology, Gaiman looks bemused and says.
“If anything, American mythology, brought from the old country, lost something in the retelling. For instance, ‘The Jack Stories’ like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’ When the English settlers went to Appalachia, the magic died and that fascinated me. The idea that you had stories that came from somewhere but they took out the magic and the kings and reinvented them for America. They left the magic behind and that was very, very striking.” We lock eyes. “Is America the long con?” he says with a morose shrug. “I don’t know. It definitely keeps reinventing itself.”