Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on AMERICAN GODS, S1 Ep2; “The Secret of Spoons.” The following may contain nudity.
Prayers Offered, Prayers Answered
The second chapter of this story continues to explore the role of sacrifice in the relationship between mortals and gods, while also expanding on the question of what the mortal gets in return. We see this happen repeatedly throughout “The Secret of Spoons” in various shapes–Shadow having his salary doubled by Wednesday for “hazard pay” after nearly being lynched for his loyalty, the blank check that Media offers him to switch sides, the ecstasy of Bilquis’ many lovers. This is no more powerfully rendered, however, than in the episode’s volcanic prelude.
Anansi is called to by the slave ship’s captives because he is revered for his cleverness; he is the avatar of wit, the god of close escapes. They call for help and to be freed from their troubles. And Anansi does hear the plea of the captive, and he does come to the men in the hold. But here we also see in demonstration the unbounded realities of what makes a god a god, for Anansi does not appear to them only in his usual arachnid form, nor does he appear to them in a guise and garb with which they are familiar.
For Anansi exists outside of our perceptions of the time period directly in front of us, and so he chooses a suit and a cadence beyond the experience of his adherents because it pleases him to do so. And Anansi exists outside of our perceptions of the pattern, which is why he can roar with authority about the centuries of suffering that will follow in the narrative of their race in America.
It’s not even so much that he has divinely seen the future. It’s that Anansi has such multi-dimensional expertise in the nature of power dynamics, deceit, and high-stakes enterprises that he can predict with painstaking detail exactly which way every single chip will fall.
So Anansi comes to these men who are calling for the power to escape, and Anansi, for his part, gives them escape as it occurs to his perspective. In his eyes they are dead already, so he spurs them to end their mortal shells as an act of completion, while observing that they at least become a story of something greater. He provides them with an escape beyond their understanding, for he not only helps them escape their chains, he also helps every one of their never-born descendants escape slavery, and then their descendants escape the racist laws and social conventions that follow even after slavery has ended.
But Anansi is a trickster, which is why he leaves out the most important part of the transaction–that the deaths of these men and the slavers they kill ultimately sustain him, and provide him with what he needs to escape the conflagration himself and arrive, unscathed and free, upon America’s shores. This tale is then immediately followed by the image of Shadow hanging from the tree–Anansi’s foretelling proven true up to the story at current.
Shadows and Lights
Perceptions and labels work as the other major theme of this episode. We begin with Anansi’s lecture on how the Dutch have named themselves white and defined its parameters, while chastising the captives for not yet knowing that they are black. This then mirrors the story Czernobog shares about himself and his brother in the old country, about how he was perceived as “black,” as the god of evil, and so he chose to make himself so. We see Bilquis silently musing on who she is, who she was, and who she was perceived to be–with all three forms occurring at once in the room at the museum–an ordinary albeit lovely human woman, a crumbling white stone statue, or a goddess adorned with magnificent jewelry, nonetheless trapped inside a glass coffin. She says nothing about how she exists but it seems clear that she has been caught in an act of deciding.
The black/white dichotomy shows up as often in this episode as circles and nooses showed up in the prior episode, culminating in the checkers game between Shadow and Czernobog but also beforehand in the form of the goddess Media, who literally enters the story in a confined black-and-white format and then proceeds to break every boundary set upon her, starting with the fourth wall imposed by the sitcom she’s inhabiting. She makes a point of expanding the screen width, then shifting herself into full color, and then breaking the propriety of the 1950s morality codes by offering to show Shadow Lucy Ricardo’s breasts. Part of what she’s doing here is trying to sell Shadow on the idea that the new gods are unlimited in scope and influence, and stand in stark contrast to the rigid codes of the older beings. Shadow’s future interactions with the Slavic entities he then meets in Chicago do not necessarily prove Media incorrect.
Checkers plays out as an interesting contest then, not only because of the color conflict–which one could also have found with chess–but because of Shadow and Czernobog’s observation that the game is “fair,” with every piece on the board being equal. Checkers is also a game of thorough domination; unlike chess, your opponent must be rendered extinct for victory to occur, and there is a much simpler calculus for how much one can sacrifice while still achieving a victory condition. It is, moreso than chess, a zero-sum game, which makes it apt that it then becomes a matter of life and death.
We see again that part of what drives Wednesday is his slippery relationship with chaos and free will, specifically in how much he is willing to indulge. He occasionally commands Shadow–such as demanding that they stay off the highways–but also seems ready to let Shadow make dangerous choices, such as wagering his own skull on a checkers game. Whether or not Wednesday expected or in some other way persuaded Shadow to engage Czernobog in this way remains up for debate, but Wednesday was clear at the outset that he usually gets what he wants: “Over time, on average.”
Of additional note on the subject of free will and sacrifice–unlike many other gods of many other pantheons, including his own, Odin is associated significantly with the notion of sacrifice for gain, most famously for gouging out his own eye in order to be granted a drink from Mimir’s well, which imparted the wisdom of the cosmos. (Similarly to Anansi existing outside of time and space, we see Odin briefly and erotically consorting with the universe as he sleeps, a reminder that power may mean less to the quality of divinity than understanding–omniscience, over omnipotence.)
Amending The Compact
In Shadow, we are watching a story of bonding and servitude, not only to Wednesday but to his corrupted memories of his dead wife. Shadow can remove his wedding ring and be shown repeatedly that Laura betrayed him, but he remains attached by slowly fraying threads to the dream they once had. He packs up the house in Eagle Point out of a sense of duty, he scrubs the bathroom floor until his hands bleed, he forces himself to check the text history on Laura’s phone before he can believe what everybody has insisted. In his heart he still lives by a need to honor his vows, no matter to whom he makes those vows.
But considering again the episode’s prelude–what is Shadow right now to Wednesday? Is he an employee, an acolyte, an adherent, or a slave? How much does he do for himself, how much does he do for Wednesday, and is he even aware of which is which? And if not, is that Wednesday’s fault, or his own?
Peripheral to the story itself–this cast continues to be an embarrassment of riches. Ricky Whittle continues to exude a quiet but utterly human strength, Yetide Bakadi a combination of both power and vulnerability, and Ian McShane a compelling inscrutability. Add to that four very different yet vibrant performances from Orlando Jones, Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Stormare, in one episode alone.