Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on AMERICAN GODS, S1 Ep5; “Lemon Scented You.” Line forms to the left.
The essence of drama is conflict and the essence of conflict is its stakes. For as present as the gods have been throughout, up until this episode we had a very murky sense of their investment in the looming battle. In “Lemon Scented You” we do not necessarily discover what either new gods or old stand to gain from the war, but we are given a very specific sense of what they stand to lose.
WHAT LITTLE REMAINS
The prelude of this episode–rendered in a dreamlike, facsimile stop-motion animation as if to underline how far the beings depicted are removed from our own memory of humanity–serves as a wellspring for more current developments, offering literal commentary on one of the series’ running plotlines and allegorical commentary on another. In the first case, the tale of the migrant tribe that crossed over the land bridge from Siberia with their own god in tow shows us what could be described as the very first American War between old god and new, the manner in which it was fought, and the price of defeat. Mr. Wednesday once referred to his greatest fear as being forgotten, but while this is an nebulous concept for mortal minds to consider, here we are shown that for a god it represents the truest form of death.
However, the story also functions in parallel to the reunion of Shadow and Laura Moon. Laura, like the migrant tribe, has traveled across an unknowable and impossible terrain between death and un-death carrying with her what she most strongly believes in–her new perception of love. Like the migrant tribe, she travels with a whispered promise that upon her arrival she will find what she needs, and like the tribe, she learns that it is not that simple. Her marriage was the old god, a god she treated poorly, a god for whom her faith arrived too late. Shadow’s new perspective and loyalty to Wednesday is the new god, and his love for her–his willingness to be “Puppy”–is being forgotten.
Laura’s treatment of Mad Sweeney therefore reads as something of an act of desperation. She has returned to the world without returning to life, is discovering that her new existence lacks meaning, and is made painfully aware by the leprechaun that she is on borrowed time, that the charm which keeps her alive will only be hers for as long as her fragile body remains intact. Without love as anchor, she revives her default state of selfish challenges and defiance simply to feel alive–even if, in this case, she can no longer be so.
BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END
Key to the world of American Gods is that while the deities we encounter maintain agency over certain aspects of reality, they are not themselves creators of these aspects. The gods are stories, and stories are the dominion of storytellers, which is why Mr. Ibis describes the hierarchy as one in which people are more powerful than gods–for gods emerge from the hearts of people, and into their hearts they one day return. Humanity created the gods to explain the unexplainable, and by granting them such vast abstraction they also granted them a form of free will, which they then use in turn to influence the fates of the humans who created them. They are a story told that then attempts to tell the story.
The unsettling cadences of Mr. World are the music of omniscience arranged as madness. He is the god of information and of algorithm; he is the collected state of all our stories including all of the irrelevant details that neither we nor anybody else would ever tell. Mr. World sees and accesses all of it at once, sometimes without intention or purpose, and for as much as he’s considered the fearsome leader of the new pantheon, he’s also somewhat dysfunctional on his own. He feels a clear connection to Wednesday once he finally decides to notice him, a respect that feels nearly familial. Wednesday, as a god of wisdom, is a distant cousin to World, a god of knowledge. But knowledge without understanding is noise, and World, for all his ominous demeanor, can tell that there is something Wednesday has over him by way of advantage.
Mr. World compensates for this deficiency, however, by maintaining the uneven triumvirate of himself alongside Media and the Technical Boy. With the understanding that power comes from the well-told story, the three fulfill different roles in the modern machinery–Mr. World as supply of raw material, Media as form and shape, and Technical Boy, as overseer of the digital age, in charge of distribution. World is attempting to do with belief what most of America’s corporations are attempting to do with marketing–itself a narrative-based form of influence–which is to systematize and automate, in order to optimize return on engagement and investment.
World doesn’t stand in opposition to Wednesday because Wednesday is an old story. World opposes Wednesday because Wednesday is an unpredictable story. This also feeds into his lingering disrespect for Technical Boy, who he recognizes as a necessity but who is also a god of self-importance, a god of shortsightedness, and most vexingly a god of poor impulse control.
Wednesday, for his part, makes his way as a grifter because he also understands what can be accomplished when the story is presented to the correct audience. We have seen him talk his way into a first-class ticket and into ill-gotten bank funds, and after his arrest we see him manipulate his interrogating officer with two different tales–first, that he is old and senile and has no recollection of how he could have become mixed up with a bank robbery; and secondly, the truth about who he is, who he knows, and what he is up to. He sizes up his conversation partner’s cynicism and determines that there is no danger at all in being honest, that indeed there is more danger in crafting a lie, and he acts accordingly.
On the other side of the wall, however, we watch Shadow–who we have already established as lacking in the necessary storytelling skills to make him either a decent magician or a decent con artist–broken down by his interrogator despite his initial steadfast resolve to call for a lawyer. The officer carefully chisels away at this wall by sharing the details she knows, one at a time, and then executing the ingenious trick of baiting Shadow to finish the story from his own end. Simply put, Shadow is unready to face the tactics of better storytellers than him. He does not recognize when he is the audience, because he continues to think of himself as the protagonist–an illusion that others, including his own boss, exploit at whim. When Mad Sweeney confesses to Laura that Wednesday, or Grimnir, is not to be trusted, it’s because he knows that Wednesday’s skill at making one believe in something is exceptional and hazardous.
Wednesday’s understanding of audience also informs his decision to reject the surreal offer by the new gods to have his essence delivered via warhead–either literal or figurative–to North Korea. While Media and World express that they are trying to broker a truce by connecting him to his audience, he is canny enough to understand that America itself is the valuable commodity. He could not hope to be Mr. Wednesday in North Korea–a state where narrative is tightly controlled and flows towards the head of state–in the same way that he can be Mr. Wednesday in America. He is, like the other old gods, a particularly American knockoff of the original, a flickering neon version, an ethnic ideation that is slightly askew and slightly assimilated into the larger culture. He must remain American to mean anything at all.
Of the three new gods, Media is the best equipped to trade lies with Wednesday, but by choosing the form of Marilyn Monroe to sell the deal, she essentially gives away that she’s selling a fantasy. Wednesday has much loftier goals in mind than mere fantasy.
When Laura casually quips to Shadow that “next to every cemetery, there’s a motel,” in the moment she is trying to say that her tryst with Robbie was inevitable, because grief leads to a desire for feeling joy. What she is also saying, in that moment, is that some stories cannot help but write themselves. There is an encroaching implication that the extinction of old gods is inevitable, a “storm moving across the country,” as Shadow puts it. As Wednesday prepares for war, he isn’t simply thinking of it in terms of physical battle. Wednesday is offering suggestions and notes in order to draft a revision that better suits him.