Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on AMERICAN GODS, S1 Ep8; “Come To Jesus.” Now you see it, now you don’t.
Throughout these opening chapters of American Gods, we have watched as Wednesday made moves on a playing field that seemed visible only to him, often offering half-explanations and riddles whenever it seemed Shadow or any other being he encountered was growing too inquisitive. While he has been forthright with many about the fact that he is laying groundwork for war, he had been coy about what battle lines he was drawing. By the end of this episode, his covert actions have become overt–war is openly declared, and openly accepted.
DESPERATE TIMES, DESPERATE MEASURES
The paradigm of the gods as they coexist in America has become defined by intersecting planes of lies and truth; faith and compromise. While we previously saw how Vulcan had seized America’s gun culture for his own devices, in this episode we watch two very different goddesses negotiate the path of their own concessions without necessarily realizing what they have bargained for.
In the case of Bilquis, we witness her millennia-long descent from rapturous Queen of Sheba to forgotten outcast, her remaining temples targeted by Daesh militants for destruction. As Anansi convincingly frames it, her ruin has come about after a concentrated, persistent campaign by patriarchal forces to bring her low. While couched in her temple she enjoyed a certain invincibility, capable of answering such would-be conquerors with the all-encompassing power of her ecstasy. The so-called kings who thought to subjugate her found that confronting her one-on-one, confident in their sense of superiority to her womanhood, was not adequate for the type of woman she represented.
Instead, it took an organized swell of misogyny to finally make her yield, here represented by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. While she fled the Middle East, she did briefly continue to find those who believed in the sexual abandon that gave her power–such as the brief member of the the Mile High Club she meets en route to Hollywood. Unfortunately, she arrives in a United States that was on the verge of Reagan-era moral majorities and its non-response to the AIDS crisis, a social mode that sought to punish promiscuity through acrimony as well as apathy. The resulting barrage of scolding narrative–again, largely told by men of power–can be considered a direct attack on the story that kept her alive, and after a quarter-century of such messaging it’s hardly a wonder that she forgets there was ever anything regal about her.
Which is why the compact she strikes with the Technical Boy is so particularly tragic. Bilquis is granted a way to replenish herself through the idea of worship as quantity and commodity, yet she is also placed yet again beneath the control of men–and certainly, this incarnation of American technology is distinctly gendered as male, feeding as he does off the masculine-dominated spheres of Silicon Valley, of gamer culture, of the science and engineering fields of study. She retains some capacity to ignore Technical Boy’s calls and make him uncomfortable through a whispered overture, but her freedom of choice has been taken from her. She belongs to the new gods, and is required to be grateful to them for her survival.
Ostara, conversely, has convinced herself that her continued vitality is more akin to what we saw of Vulcan’s ability to adapt. She is shown to be comfortable sharing her life with the many versions of Jesus Christ that have come to inhabit America through its pious populace, playing host in her palatial Kentucky estate and accepting that they have co-opted the worship that once belonged to her. She is willing to be Easter instead of Ostara, the name change being one of the most basic ways that immigrants to the country have oft chosen “go along to get along.” Hers has become a state of supposed symbiosis–since the symbols of spring, the colored eggs and blooming flora, remain present, she believes that she is more or less the same goddess of the dawn that once she was.
Both Wednesday and Media approach her with slightly adjacent motives for disabusing her of her illusions. Both new gods and old are aware of the power she wields–a power we later see as something awesome and terrifying–and would prefer the other side not to have it in their camp. However, while Media speaks to Ostara with the same manner of authority that Technical Boy spoke to Bilquis, implying indebtedness and reminding her that St. Nicholas made the same deal; Wednesday’s strategy is to instead tear down the convocation of Christs as interlopers upon her dormant glory. This ends up being more successful in part because Christ’s inherent compassion–his sense of shame at having robbed her of her identity–encourages her to reclaim herself.
Media came to keep Ostara under wraps by reminding her that the life she had was the best she could hope for. Wednesday came to unleash her by reminding her that she had once been so much more. The first truly pitched battle of the war, then, was this one, fought with the force of competing stories. However: Wednesday’s early victory, while decisive, remains fraught and tenuous, since it was bought with both empowerment and deception.
DEVILS IN DETAILS
Anansi, storyteller and trickster, capable of speaking with both silver tongue and forked tongue, is first seen in this episode surrounded by countless spools and bolts of his own silk. He wears a custom suit that evokes images of ripples in ponds or poor television reception and deftly fashions two new suits for both Shadow and Wednesday to wear before they go to entreat Ostara. As a spider as well as a tailor, he knows acutely that each strand of a design is important, that choosing the proper length, location, and orientation of a single thread can influence every thread around it. And he knows the same is true of each detail in a story, especially when the story is being used to sell something.
Wednesday and Shadow arrive in Kentucky in their Sunday best not only to fit in with the genteel aristocratic atmosphere Ostara has created, but to make an impression on her that they had not needed to make with any other god they encountered. Vulcan, Czernobog, the Zorya Sisters; these were all gods of a working class. Ostara is a being of pageantry and beauty, who has at this moment become more tied to the surface of her own meaning–the “duckies and bunnies” that Media refers to–than to the root of her being.
But as this is a battle for Ostara’s allegiance, Wednesday has also arrived dressed for war. Shadow’s handsome figure and polite nature is in many ways a weapon for Wednesday; while Ostara is nonplussed to see the “old fraud,” she finds herself more amenable to his pitch after indulging her sense of marvel and curiosity with Shadow. She doesn’t simply like how good he looks in the suit, after all, she likes how smitten he seems to be in her presence. And while we know that Wednesday is more than capable of using his Vulcan-forged sword for its deadlier purpose, here we also see him use the sword as a prop for an outright lie. By claiming that the new gods killed Vulcan for providing him with the sword, Wednesday plants the seed of doubt in her. By supporting Wednesday’s fiction, Shadow–who earlier had been declaring the compact between them broken–makes a choice to stick with this strange new story he’s riding with to see where it goes.
One of the key themes of the series so far has been the use and function of aliases. Several of the characters exist with multiple identities for themselves, whether in the shifting forms of Media, the many faces of Jesus, the exchange of the Djinn and Salim, or the sideways translations of names like Easter, Ibis, Jacquel, Nancy, Wednesday. We also discover for the first time that Shadow is not his given name, that it is instead a nickname given to him by his mother due to his penchant for following her around. This notion reaches a peak when Wednesday, after forever being coy about it, finally reveals himself as “Glad-of-War, Grim Raider, and Third; One-Eye, Highest, and True-Guesser, Grimnir, and the Hooded One; All-Father, Gondlir, Wandbearer” before declaring in high dramatic fashion that he is “Odin.” This final name, this true name, above all others, seems to command the most might and fearsomeness; it has been given an ominous quality and mystery that kept all others from speaking it aloud. Mr. World, who could see all, still referred to him as Wednesday; associates such as Czernobog and Vulcan used other monikers; even Mad Sweeney, under pain and torture, would only ever refer to him as Grimnir. Whether by design or force of will, Wednesday has engineered this specific revelation for this moment, to be given straight into Shadow’s eyes only after Shadow has finally asked to be told, in front of the queen he has charged himself with courting.
Media had warned Technical Boy while in the guise of David Bowie–himself a being who had adopted several names and forms–that for Wednesday to achieve his aims he might need but one true believer. In Shadow, now, after everything he has witnessed, Odin has that believer, and shortly afterwards the weight of that accomplishment helps convince Ostara to make her own presence felt, with devastating consequences and ramifications that leave the collection of new gods genuinely concerned.
And yet, for all this careful storytelling, Wednesday finds himself suddenly under threat of unraveling with the arrival of Laura Moon, now fully cognizant of the events that led to her death and to Shadow’s falling into Wednesday’s employ. She has become Wednesday’s second-act problem, his incongruous detail, the hair that dances at the edge of the projection. It makes his triumph short-lived, putting him again on his back foot. How he chooses to respond next, with his engines of war now in motion, will determine how that war proceeds.
TURNING POINTS OF NO RETURN
There seems a sadness in Mr. World as he admits war has commenced, for in the acknowledgment of any war beginning there is born a question about what will be left after the war has ended. Wednesday has proven himself time and again to be slippery and untrustworthy, and so his motives for pushing towards this conflict are suspect. We as audience are predisposed to being on Wednesday’s side–he is the traveling companion of our protagonist and a charming rogue in his own right, even if he is also clearly capable of foul temper and spite. We are also predisposed to thinking of the new gods as the story’s antagonists, for both their arrogance in naming themselves the future of the species and in certain abhorrent behaviors, such as Technical Boy’s lynching of Shadow (an action, which should be noted, he was later made to suffer for by members of his own cohort).
But by the end of this episode we have had it spelled out for us that Wednesday had a hand in Shadow’s incarceration and in Laura’s death specifically to rob the man of everything he had to live for, and through Ostara he then effectively takes the entire season of spring hostage, blithely demanding that the mortals must pray for its return. He beheads an old friend and then uses his own crime as a wedge to seduce another old friend. For all of the people he walks over and all the collateral damage he causes, it becomes evident that Wednesday starting a war is only slightly less terrifying than the prospect that he might win it.
The hierarchy of the gods and mortals has become a thing in flux, with the currency of belief and subservience changing hands several times. Old gods become agents of the new gods, demigods become agents of mortal beings, and on the outside of the tapestry is the noise of shifting, unpredictable winds. Jesus Christ tells Shadow that he is the embodiment of belief in God, but he exists in this form only because so many of the mortal Americans believe this is what he should look like. Shadow’s belief in Wednesday has been newly birthed and is the first thing he’s believed in since he discovered the infidelity in of his marriage–which is why it may be a cruel and unfixable shattering of his spirit when Laura tells him what Wednesday has done. The old saying is that there is no zealot like a convert, but then again there is also no heretic like the disillusioned.
On the other hand, it seems just as likely that Shadow’s anger–a tool for getting shit done–could be easily repurposed yet again for Wednesday’s ends. Like any good con artist, he makes the most of the context he is provided; like any good storyteller, he knows how to read his audience.
There remains an open question as to what message the buffalo god Tatanka, the oldest of his kind in America, may be trying to deliver to Shadow during each of his visits to the bone orchard. Whether prophecy or indictment, it is likely to be significant in a way that none of the war’s participants can foresee or prepare for. There are no clear rules for a war between divine beings; each holds an absolute sway over their own functions, and while there do seem to be conventions for how gods much about in the lives of mortals, the way they disrupt each other becomes dependent on which of them provides the legend most worth believing in. Mr. World promises Odin that this will be the war that ends him, but Odin once mused that win or lose, the war would be glorious.
Wars are remembered. Their greatest warriors are remembered. Victory may not be something Odin particularly needs in order to regain his vitality, but it is unlikely, when he finally meets his fellows at House On The Rock, that he will inform them of this.