Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on AMERICAN GODS, S1 Ep3; “Head Full of Snow.” Terms and conditions do not necessarily apply.
What You See Is Not What You Get
This third chapter focuses almost exclusively on the nature of patterns, perspectives, and perceptions, which have been examined before now but not with the same level of scrutiny. In the telling, “Head Full of Snow” provides a series of images or interactions in which something is shown or discussed from multiple angles, and in many of these instances the angle we are shown belongs to a being whose ability to see transcends what we fully understand.
There are two separate “Somewhere in America” interludes in this episode, and in both cases the immortal beings in question originated within Arabia and northern Africa–lands that were once revered for attaining the pinnacle of human grandeur and innovation, delicately mastering the coexistence of barrenness and fertility. When Anubis arrives to shepherd Mrs. Fadil to her next life, we witness a series of human errors. Firstly, there is the assumption that he is there to visit “the black family upstairs,” secondly, that he is there to rob her, and finally, the initial error of judgment and misfortune represented by the rickety stool that killed her. Mrs. Fadil cannot even perceive her own death until she sees it herself, cannot accept the story of her death, discovery, and the future lives of her loved ones until it is told to her by somebody she trusts to have insight. Conversely, Anubis by virtue of function appears instantaneously at the moment of death for a woman who may not have worshiped him, but who harbored a measure of belief that he had once been real. Anubis cannot help but see and then arrive at the final journeys of these increasingly rare specimens. We also see, before Mrs. Fadil ascends, the way any of us might obsess over certain minor details within the final portrait of our mortality. She adjusts her corpse’s dress for the sake of propriety, she demands that the god in her home taste the meal she was preparing because nobody else ever will. And even this last act leaves us with questions. Was the dish in fact “perfect” as Anubis described it, or did he simply refer to it as such to be gracious; does Anubis even understand what makes a mortal meal achieve perfection? If the meal was perfect, was it such because of the 68 years Mrs. Fadil had lived and the number of years she had practiced her art, or was it perfect because it was a thesis statement; the very last thing she ever made?
Immediately following this exchange, we entertain another theme of the episode in which everyday appearances gradually transform into the fantastic. The fire escape outside the Fadil home has always been a stairway that led both up and down. In the presence of Anubis it becomes not a stairway but an ascension through time and space. There is not a desert in the sky; there is very much a desert, and very much a set of doors, beyond our senses. A feather may weigh as much as a beating heart, a beating heart may weigh as much as our choices, a scale may determine whether one moves beyond to an unknowable new world or whether one’s heart is tossed to Ammit, the crocodile-headed devourer of souls (unseen in this episode, but this is the ancient process of the trial). Mrs. Fadil, until this moment, believes she has done honorably in this life, but she finds herself faced with the awareness that her viewpoint is no longer required, much as her body no longer uses its heart. She relies on Anubis to tell her, as he does, that her best has been good.
With the tale of Salim and the Djinn, we are shown two variations on themes both within and outside of the story. The Djinn is modeled after a heartbreakingly typical story for American immigrants, particularly those who escaped the constant civil wars and border battles of the modern Middle East–“I was somebody of respectable occupation once, and in America I drive a cab.” Similarly, we see the bitterness in Salim as he vents about his inability to sell “shit,” even as the Djinn observes that “shit” is all they sell in America. This bond between them blossoms quickly into their erotic encounter, but Salim’s statement before they go to bed is telling: “I wish you could see what I see.” In the morning, however, the Djinn has departed, having been clear the night before that he does not grant wishes. Instead, he grants Salim a wish he did not realize he had, a wish to live instead as somebody who is not the failing salesman Salim. By switching identities, the Djinn does not see what Salim could see, but he is now walking in the world inside Salim’s clothes, and both beings remain much the same while remaining drastically different. This development was itself foreshadowed by the use of the subtitles during their first conversation, which were displayed in both English and Arabic simultaneously–another means of showing how two things that appear very different can in fact mean exactly the same thing.
In both cases, the other significant recurrence is in the idea of transit and transition. Both Anubis and the Djinn concern themselves with travel and changing one’s form, which is a notable detail since many of the first societies of the desert, over whom these beings are set, were nomadic.
The Shapes of Things
Shadow spends his time within “Head Full of Snow” gaining, often without his knowledge, a deeper comprehension of multidimensionality, which manifests in a tension that what he is learning and seeing is simply “impossible.” When he meets the third Zorya sister, she is observing constellations, and discussing matter-of-factly that what we consider an amusing sketch of a soup ladle she looks upon as the imprisoned end of all life as we know it. There is not an angry beast in the sky; there is very much an angry beast and an encroaching doom beyond our senses. That she turns the moon itself into a coin and then hands it to Shadow as a totem for his own protection–a totem that is his own last name–not only demonstrates a new way of seeing, but also seems to grant him inspiration. When he challenges Czernobog to a checkers rematch, he knows he can win, because he has gained wisdom in terms of how to deal with a more rudimentary god. He realizes that a god who values the strength of his consistency lacks the tool of inventiveness. Czernobog plays his second game exactly as he played his first, while Shadow changes his tack, thereby exploiting his opponent’s weaknesses with ease. It is not a perfect gambit, of course, as Shadow has not yet bought his way out of the first hammer blow to come. He has, however, bought himself time.
Later, we watch Shadow create snow from his mind, in part because of Wednesday spurring him to consider and reinterpret the similar states of both clouds and marshmallows. This is then followed by Shadow taking the smallest of prompts–“write down the number for this phone”–and running boldly away with it once the police officer calls him to check on Wednesday’s credentials.
We are watching, throughout, the continuing tutelage of Shadow as he evolves into Wednesday’s ideal protégé–he pursues knowledge and then utilizes it for his survival at least, his gain at best. He is diagnosed by the third Zorya sister as having no beliefs, but he continues to serve a man whose greatest fear is being forgotten, which implies the nuance between faith and worship, which is similar, in its way, to the nuance between a criminal act and an ethical act. Shadow does indeed help Wednesday rob a bank, but he maintains the word of honor he gave him. This then implies that for as little as he believes in, he is willing to believe that much within himself.
Making Heads and Tails of It
If the sum total of reality is the collection of every chance that went one way instead of another, then luck is the conscious ability or unconscious quality of being able to influence these moments as needed. Mad Sweeney, the embodiment of good fortune, spontaneously finds himself unmoored from his own nature, surrounded by the kind of luck that fails to harm those who transgress against him and kills those who offer him aid.
In many ways Sweeney is similar to the Djinn–he’s not a divine being as much as he is classified “other” in his respective mythos. But he is also revealed to be more similar to Shadow, a man who has allied himself to Wednesday and who has relied on a singular coin to act as much his personality as his protection. Shadow could not have realized this about the coin he threw onto his wife’s grave, but if he has gained any wisdom from seeing how ragged Sweeney looks with his own coin lost, he will be much more mindful of the warning Zorya Polunochnaya gave him to hold tightly to the one she handed him.
The presence of coins, and their influence on life and death, also follows a number of other belief systems, for which bodies were buried with a toll for the ferryman in order to grant safe passage beyond this world. In the story now, in the case of Laura Moon, we are witnessing an instance of a coin being used to ferry somebody back.
As the lightning storm hits Chicago, Wednesday admits to Zorya Vechernyaya that it is the overture to war. A war tends to rewrite borders; a war among gods, whether older or newer vintage, has much more significant borders that are bound to be demolished. The partition between life and death feels somehow the simplest of these, once the separation between possible and impossible becomes insecure. The gods of this story immigrated to America under a number of means and under different types of duress, but they were moving from one earthbound land to another. The war to come seems to promise that immigration and escape may take place across entire planes of being, instead.