Ginger Nuts of Horror
Even amongst the endlessly inventive and abstruse material that American Gods provides, this episode is an oddity.
The show seems to be intent on never being predictable; on constantly re-defining its audience's parameters and expectations in the manner of a David Lynch work. Not only does it do so in terms of story and subject, but even in the styles and mediums it presents them.
So, the episode opens with a familiar scene; where the last two culminated, in Shadow's reunion with now-undead wife, Laura, but then quickly shifts to one of the “Coming to America” sequences which is, ironically not a “Coming to America” sequence at all, but an “Established in America” sequence, involving tribespeople from the last ice age, hunting down mammoths, making clothes from their hides, eating their meat, rendering icons in their bones and skulls.
What makes this sequence bizarrely (but effectively) incongruous is the nature of its recording: whereas all previous such sequences have been live action, this one is rendered in CG animation, lending it a quality that is removed from waking reality, almost fairy tale or dream like in its ethos.
The story of the tribe itself is all but wordless, exploring their hardships, their efforts to eke out a living from increasingly hostile and bitter land, turning to the divinity they have made, the god they have brought into being, to help them, who does so (purportedly) via visions visited upon the tribe's shaman, who leads them in a voyage across the hostile wilderness in search of a promised land, many suffering and dying along the way.
It's an oddly melancholy sequence, designed to demonstrate how the divinities that pervade the show's mythology come into being, what strengthens and transforms them; how they are tied symbiotically to their worshipers, often treating them with neglect or contempt as a means of subtly facilitating expressions of faith through sheer desperation.
It is also a potted fable of how gods can die.
Abandoned, forgotten, as the generations pass, the god they worshipped becomes little more than a story, then a memory, then less than that, returning to the state of potential from which it arose.
It's an important but subtly conveyed moment in the show's back mythology, as it lays out -largely in visual terms- what the various players are fighting over:
Belief; a place in humanity's imagination, where they can be revered, where they can be prayed to, where they can be feared and loved, and thus sustain themselves.
It also sets out the dynamic between the old gods and the new; the nature of the war they have engaged in, though as to what part charaters such as Shadow and Laura play, we have yet to see.
Back with Shadow and Laura, these moments of high mythology find a much-needed contrast in some extremely real, ambiguous and intense human drama, in which husband and wife have their first face to face conversation since the latter died.
These moments are absolutely necessary to prevent the show from flying off into mythological absurdity and abstraction; to provide some tonal variety, palate cleansing and to introduce human factors into what otherwise could be alienating:
Shadow and Laura are (ironically, given the latter's status) the beating heart of the show; their relationship -bizarre, perverse, borderline abusive as it can be- drives the narrative forward and provides some much needed diversion from the mystery and absurdity that comprises much of the rest.
This particular enocunter is intriguingly fraught, the usual tensions of a husband and wife discussing infidelity compounded to the power of N by the fact that Laura is deceased; that Shadow attended her funeral and saw her put into the ground.
The character's reactions are some of the most subtly engaging moments in the show thus far; Shadow attempting -with some admirable patience- to maintain a hold not only on his temper, but on sanity, half believing that he's dreaming, that he's slipped into some delirium from which he might never wake.
Meanwhile, Laura attempts to explain herself on all fronts, dealing with Shadow in a sardonically pragmatic manner, that is at once touching and amusing in its earnestness. She does not attempt to justify herself, does not weedle or cajole or attempt to varnish what she has done, but simply explains to him what happened and why, to which Shadow responds with restraint that is breath-stealing in the effort it clearly requires. Laura's death and the discovery of her betrayal is the cypher that drove him into Wednesday's service, into the arena of gods and monsters in which he now finds himself.
In a moment that might be the beginning of reconciliation, the start of healing between them, Laura feels her dead heart beat, just once, Shadow the reason why she refused her own death, why she has come back, now the purpose of her existence and the only means of her healing.
Leaving him momentarily, to consider, to digest the situation, she slips into the bath tub, revealing her own scarred and autopsied condition, waiting for him, wondering what will happen now.
Of course, it's at this point that Wednesday comes calling, Shadow attempting in vain to dissuade him, the man seemingly intent on disruption.
This is a consistent part Wednesday and the world he represents will play in Shadow's life in coming chapters, especially if the show stays true to the book: Shadow finding himself torn between two worlds: that of memory, which seems intent on betraying itself as a delusion, and that of the waking now, which is so bizarre and absurd as to threaten his sanity.
However, before they can begin to discuss the situation, they find themselves arrested, following the scam that he and Wednesday ran in the first episode; ripping off an extremely large bank and thereby garnering enough money to fund their road trip across the USA (though to what end, Shadow is still frustratedly ignorant).
As all factions and players have had their part in this episode, it seems a matter of balance that the new gods should also enjoy some exposure:
In a highly stylised sequence, the previously encountered “Technical Kid,” who seems to be the manifestation of technological modernity; the internet, memes, plastic and virtual lifestyles etc, finds himself at the pleasure of Gillian Anderson's FANTASTIC Media, goddess of TV, pop music, celebrity culture et al, masquerading as none other than David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, which Anderson clearly revels in.
The encounter between them is deliberately oblique, suggesting certain tensions between the new gods and the old, very little laid out plainly for the audience, leaving the communication feeling bizarrely realistic and natural, despite its absurd framing.
Again, as seems to be the nature of any sequence involving the new gods, the show takes pains to frame them in highly stylised and artistic ways, the sequence and its scenes having the composed quality of a series of paintings, the ethos and dynamism of a 3D art installation; tonally and stylistically at odds with any sequence involving their “old” counterparts, which tend to be far more traditional.
Meanwhile, in one of my favourite sequences in the entire show thus far, Mad Sweeney manages to track down Laura, the Leprechaun's lucky coin burning in her breast; the mcguffin keeping her alive, the interaction that follows simultaneously threatening and hilarious, Sweeney attempting to physically intimidate Laura into giving him his coin back (since he can't take it, thanks to some unspoken law), to which she responds by beating the shit out of him.
Sweeney summarily arrested (“Yer an asshole, dead wife!”), Laura mistaken (sort of) for a corpse and summarily bagged and tagged, focus shifts back to the police station, where we have at last our first direct confrontation between the old gods and the new, Media (this time in the form of Marilyn Monroe) floating into Shadow and Wednesday's prison cell, accompanied by “The Technical Kid,” and finally, a figure who has been referenced but never actually seen before, and of whom the other new gods seem to be in states of perpetual intimidation: Mr. World.
The confrontation sets out the dynamics of the coming “war” that Wednesday is attempting to initiate; that the conflict for space within the dream-lives of humanity is not entirely about territory or resource, as Mr. World offers Wednesday all he could ever want; a place amongst the new pantheons, albeit in a new condition; one more suited to the streamlined, synthetic, commercial natures of the new gods.
This is what Wednesday and his ilk reject; the true basis for the war they are fomenting: not necessarily a survivalist struggle for belief (as it is revealed throughout the series that many of them are doing fairly well in this regard); rather to restore a particular dynamic between gods and their believers; one more traditionally mythological, in which stories become the stuff and basis for meaning, rather than humans being manipulated and directed like cattle through automated slaughter houses.
The show is cleverly ambiguous in this regard; it presents neither Wednesday nor his counterpart, Mr. World, as absolutely right or wrong; as good or evil. Both have angles; both have investments, their own agendas to fulfil.
As for Shadow, he finds himself slipping further and deeper into a state of incredulity as the absurdity escalates, increasingly doubting his own state of mind, not to mention what part he'll play in coming days, as do we all.