Though raised Catholic to the bone, I stopped going to church shortly after my 18th birthday, and ushered in adulthood with utter contempt for the concept of any God, one which I associated with political corruption and the right-wing bigotry I’d recently started to understand. I broke away from many of the friends I knew through my Catholicism, since I’d not yet learned to distinguish babies from their bath water. I was no more capable of differentiating atheism from cynicism, and it would take a few years into my college education for me to open up to many of my spiritually minded friends and family again, including my mother, a loving exception to the xenophobic Christian stereotype I allowed my bitter mind to create. It turns out I spent most of my life failing to see the most important difference of all—religious affiliation and personhood. All sorts of the former can coexist with highs and lows of the latter.
It would seem Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of American Gods came at the perfect stage in my spiritual and empathetic development. Having already known the basics of Shadow Moon’s search for meaning after tragedy from Neil Gaiman’s novel, I thought I’d be treated to a visually arresting adaptation, be entertained, and move on with my life. I was not prepared for one of the most emotionally and spiritually moving works of fiction I’ve been alive to see—one that combines pointed anger with an endearing hope for peaceful, diverse coexistence.
American Gods makes a point to emphasize diversely introspective experiences from the word “go,” as an extended prologue of vikings sailing from battle to battle transitions into our skeptic protagonist, Shadow Moon. A man we later found out was arrested trying to rob his wife’s casino for their mutual benefit, Shadow has no spiritual beliefs to speak of. Outside of the expectation of love from his wife Laura when he returns home, Shadow only believes in fear, saying, “I feel there’s a fucking axe over my head. I can’t see it, but I believe it.” But after Laura unexpectedly dies in a car accident, further tragedy only distances him more from a clear purpose. It almost seems inevitable for divine intervention to steer him in a new direction, and the suspiciously smooth-talking Mr. Wednesday (Odin in disguise) fittingly shows up to take Shadow under his wing. At first glance, this could seem like the kind of mentor/mentee dynamic that’s been done time and time again.
But show-runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are remarkable in how they use familiar storytelling set-ups to paint a picture of much wider scale. Mr. Wednesday is no all-knowing saint who only serves to put the plot in motion. Rather, his motivation is not too different from Shadow’s: a lost soul seeking new purpose. That’s where their similarities end, since Wednesday is an ancient god used to constant validation through the masses’ worship, a pleasure he’s no longer granted in an age when people instead turn their attention to the New Gods of Media (Gillian Anderson) and technology. When the former is a shape-shifter who switches between pop culture personalities as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie, and the latter is a sneering, tech-savvy teenager who’d be right at home in 4chan’s darkest spaces, an old-fashioned deity is bound to fall short. Wednesday’s war on the New Gods may be a selfishly driven act—one which leads him to arrange for Shadow’s arrest and Laura’s death to line the pieces up in his favor—but it’s just one of many the titular American Gods engage in.
In a time when American politics have become increasingly driven by personality and public image, there’s a sad relatability to the war between Old and New Gods being based on who can garner the most followers. Vulcan, the god of firepower, was willing to sell himself over to the New Gods for a bigger audience, even though it led to the spread of mass shootings through media glorification. During a side conversation between Media and Ostara (Kristin Chenoweth, more commonly referred to in the show as “Easter”), we learn that “Saint Nick,” the god of Christmas, aligned himself with the New Gods to embrace corporate credibility, a deal Easter also took but feels shortchanged by. Even Bilquis, a seemingly kindhearted goddess of love who’s been lusted after and adored by men and women alike for millennia, finds herself at a crossroads in the present day. When her once-revered image is franchised into an Ethiopian restaurant and her Hymaritic Temple is attacked in Yemen, Bilquis’s only hope for an audience is to sell herself out through dating apps, provided by Technical Boy.
American Gods operates on shifting allegiances and withheld truths, but Fuller and Green are boldly compassionate in their portrayal of selfish supernatural characters. They certainly don’t tiptoe around selfish behavior, but they often show it less as deal-breaking corruption and more as a necessary survival mechanism. This is shown most beautifully in “Git Gone,” the show’s best and most small-scale episode. In what I can hardly hesitate to call the most fully realized onscreen romance of the year thus far, Shadow and Laura are two broken souls who bond over their shared disbelief in any kind of afterlife. Shadow is unafraid to steal for a living since he fears no judgment after he dies, and Laura is living through an unsatisfying casino job and depression that’s a far cry from the childlike wonder her parents used to instill in her. “I went to bed every night in a world full of magic where anything was possible,” she says. “And then you find out one day that Santa Claus is not real, and then the tooth fairy…life is just not that interesting.”
Yet both skeptical souls find themselves caught up in the belief of an ideal marriage, one which is shattered not by divine intervention, but by the human fear that happiness just won’t last. Once Shadow learns Laura would prefer more money for them to spend, he realizes his presence alone is not enough for her. He says he would be “happy living in a cardboard box,” while Laura despairingly says, “Yeah, I still love you. I’m just not happy.” His old-fashioned myth of a pure, loving relationship is squashed by new influences of materialism and dissatisfaction. In this “prequel” episode, even before either character is aware of gods’ existence, the battle between old-school idealism and newer nihilism is alive and well.
Even the side characters of American Gods are caught in this internal struggle of finding the proper cause. Mad Sweeney, the foulmouthed, uncharacteristically lanky Leprechaun that answers to Wednesday, was once an Irish king who deserted his army and lived to see his people become commercialized into self-parody. “I was a king once,” he tells the reanimated Laura while trying to get her to a resurrection ceremony. “Then Mother Church came along and turned us all into saints, trolls and fairies. General Mills did the rest.” Their travel partner, Salim, is a practicing Muslim who’s overwhelmed by his new life in America, but ends up serving as a beacon of hope for the spiritually and emotionally satisfied lives Laura and Sweeney strive for. By finding both a lover and God in a Jinn disguised as a cab driver, a former vagabond now has the best of both worlds to live for.
Among all the double-crosses and clashing mythologies of American Gods, Shadow’s stoic exterior is pushed to its limits. But his Season 1 arc is secretly the show’s most hopeful aspect, both in the spiritual and romantic epiphanies that are hopefully waiting for Shadow at the end of his tunnel. Though he remains under the authority of a manipulative deity leading him to the brink of war, he finally arrives at a more clear understanding of the mythical figures that surround him. At a party where Wednesday aims (and succeeds) at recruiting Easter, Shadow quite literally has a come-to-Jesus moment. Though he meets the white, presumably media-propagated interpretation of Jesus (Jeremy Davies, one of many Christs at this party), he still opens up enough to put himself on a clearer path. When Shadow admits he’s not sure how to believe in a personal god, this Christ tells him, “Even if you don’t believe, you cannot travel in any other way that the road your senses show you.” Shadow finally confesses belief in everything he’s seen when Odin and Ostara reveal their true selves in a display of power against the New Gods, but the last thing he sees this season is his wife looking down on him. He’s learned to read between the lines of cold reality and death-defying spirituality, and as he’s gained a glimmer of hope, so has the audience.
American Gods is the rare show that showcases broken protagonists who may not always make the right decisions, but validates each and every one of their lives. They face off against the detached cynicism of America’s social media age with the power of belief—in love, in worship, and beyond. Though Shadow, Laura, Wednesday and Salim may be no closer to seeing eye to eye on their beliefs than the American populace, their willingness to embrace the journey makes a world of difference—one that both longtime Gaiman fans and novices should join them on.
Featured Image: Starz