This week’s episode of American Gods was entitled “A Murder of Gods,” and while the name is clearly meant to be a play on “a murder of crows” i.e., the group name for a gathering of crows, it’s also a bit of foreshadowing of the episode’s plot. How many gods are murdered this week? Just two, but it’s probably a taste of things to come, what with war looming.
The episode opens with the first “Coming to America” vignette that’s completely original to the show. A group of people are crossing the Rio Grande into the US from Mexico. Their guide tells them the river is high, with a swift current, and anyone who can’t swim shouldn’t go.
Clearly one man can’t swim, but he’s not letting that stop him. He crosses anyway, but about halfway there he starts to sink. A hand plunges beneath the water to grab him and pull him to shore, then the owner of the hand walks across the river. ON the river.
The man he saved asks his name. “You already know my name,” he says just before a group of border guards arrive. Not, like, official border guards, but those dudes who drive around in Texas and kill people trying to cross the border. Just like these guys did, rosaries in hand and bullets inscribed with the name “Vulcan.” Mexican Jesus is shot dead and creates a sacred heart tableau where he falls on the beach.
Next we join Shadow and Wednesday walking from the police station back to the motel to get their car. Shadow is angry because he STILL doesn’t know what’s going on, and as usual Wednesday refuses to answer him. Shadow tells Wednesday about seeing Laura, and while he acts surprised, we all know how wily he is. He knew.
Back at the motel Shadow wants to stay and wait for Laura, but Wednesday insists they leave. His ravens make some noise up on the sign, and Wednesday peels rubber out of the parking lot. Turns out Laura is running behind the car trying to catch it, but Wednesday cranks the radio and Shadow doesn’t hear her calling him.
The cops towed Laura’s car, and as she’s asking the motel clerk where it is, Mad Sweeney shows up. He tells her he has a car, and that he’s sticking with her until he can get his coin back. He says he’ll take her to someone who can resurrect her for real, and after that she won’t need his lucky coin anymore.
He attempts to hot wire a cab, but the cab driver shows up and pulls a gun on them. The driver is Salim, our dear Salim from episode 3. He’s been searching for the Djinn this entire time, and once he hears that Sweeney is a leprechaun, he’s interested. Sweeney says if Salim gets them to Kentucky, where the resurrection guy is, he’ll tell Salim where he can find the Djinn and a “whole murder of gods.” Episode name drop makes me wanna scream like Pee Wee Herman’s word of the day.
In the car Salim monologues directly from the book and Sweeney acts like a butthead. Salim asks Laura if she’s a leprechaun too, to which Sweeney says, “No, she’s a lepre-cunt.” Laura threatens to rip his lips off if he uses that word again, and Salim’s beginning to get the idea that Laura is, maybe…dead. Sweeney falls asleep in the backseat and Laura guides the steering wheel toward Indiana, not Kentucky.
Meanwhile on the road with Shadow and Wednesday, Shadow finally reveals the wound he got last week from Mr. Wood. Not only is it bleeding heavily, but there’s also something moving in it. Wednesday gets him out of the car in front of the headlights so he can see, and he uses some sort of magic to draw the tendrils out. He tells Shadow that Mr. Wood was once god of trees and forests, but as industrialization happened, he sacrificed himself (the trees) to gain power. Now he’s the weird scary tendril tree monster dude who sometimes gets stabby.
After Wednesday heals Shadow, they continue on to Vulcan, VA, a town ruled over by the Roman god Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen). It’s home to an ammunitions factory where we’ve just watched a man fall to his death from a walkway into a forge and then get made into bullets. The residents of the town are holding a sort-of funeral for the dead man, but as Wednesday explains to Shadow, the man’s death was a sacrifice to empower their local god, so the people are really more celebrating.
This place is CREEPY, y’all. First of all, nearly everyone has a gun. Not just like a mamby-pamby handgun, but like BIG GUNS: high school kids and little old ladies in wheelchairs and everyone in between. Most of them are in these weird uniforms with red armbands with the Vulcan logo on them. And, oh yeah, they’re all WHITE. In Virginia.
Shadow gets the immediate heebs, as any sane man would, but Wednesday insists it’s all fine. That night they go to Corbin Bernsen’s house, and Shadow sees a noose extend from the branch of a tree out front. Corbin asks Shadow if he’s ever seen a man hanged, clearly a reference to Shadow’s lynching, and Shadow is deeply uncomfortable. He wonders aloud how Corbin knew about the lynching, and that bringing it up/pseudo threatening Shadow with an encore is a pretty big “fuck you” to Wednesday. Wednesday says not to worry about it; they have a “fuck you” of their own planned for their host.
He then asks Corbin Bernsen to forge him a sword.
In the other road trip, Laura, Salim, and Sweeney arrive at the same crocodile bar where Shadow drank Wednesday’s mead and agreed to work for him. Mr. Jacquel’s paint job is wearing off, and Laura’s beginning to look dead. And smell it, too. She tells Salim and Sweeney about how her heart beat when she kissed Shadow, and Sweeney tells her to get over it. Shadow has sworn himself to Wednesday, created a new life, and she is DEAD.
Salim, of course, has a new life too, courtesy of the Djinn. He wants to find the Djinn because he is, Salim says, “his afterlife.” Laura tells Salim that this is her afterlife. As she reflects on never seeing her family again, she says “fuck those assholes,” to which Salim heartily agrees.
Back in Vulcan, Corbin Bernsen makes Wednesday a pretty kick-ass sword. I mean that shit is nice. Then, with the sword right the hell there, he reveals that he’s betrayed Wednesday and has no intention of coming to Wisconsin with him. He says the new gods are on their way now, and Shadow and Wednesday are in trouble. He explains that every bullet someone fires is a sacrifice to him, Corbin Bernsen, and as a result he’s incredibly powerful. Wednesday should make his own sacrifice, he says. Blood sacrifice. He calls Wednesday a martyr, but Wednesday makes Corbin into one instead. “You forged me a sword, which they used to cut your head off,” he says, or thereabouts. They, of course, being the new gods.
He then picks up the sword Corbin Bernsen forged for him and, well…cuts his head off. Corbin’s body falls into the vat, Wednesday pees on it to curse it, and then it’s made into bullets. Wonder what’s gonna happen with that particular batch.
In the only scene this episode lifted from the book, Laura goes to visit her family, but they don’t see her. She can only lurk outside and look in at the happy, homey picture they create. She’s upset, and finally coming to terms with what it actually means to be dead. Sweeney’s impatient with the whole thing, but our neighborhood alcoholic leprechaun with anger issues isn’t exactly known for his sensitivity. “Fuck those assholes?” Salim says when she gets back in the car. She echoes him, sadly, and they leave.
The next morning Salim has stopped to pray, and Laura sits on the side of the road to watch him. He prays quietly, facing the rising sun, and when he’s done he turns to Laura and says, “Allah akbar. God is great.” She smiles a little. “Life is great,” she says, and Salim agrees.
I was writing that thinking, “oh wow I’m keeping this recap short” and it’s still as long as it is. Whatcha gonna do? This show is super dense.
This episode was entirely original, except for times when it quoted the book directly, though in slightly different context—Salim relating some of his experiences in New York, for example, or Sweeney mocking Laura about her kiss with Shadow. I like that the show can deviate from the book while still sticking to the spirit of it. If you were a non-book reader, you wouldn’t have any idea this episode wasn’t straight from the source.
“An apple pie on every table and a gun in every hand…”
Corbin-Bernsen-as-Vulcan was a perfect fit, not just as an old, arrogant creeper of a god, but also because of his entire system of worship. In his big monologue in the forge he tells Wednesday that every shot fired in a crowded movie theatre is dedicated to him, and every shot makes people want more. So often when there’s a mass shooting in this country, the call from the gun lobby is MORE GUNS! It’s a seemingly illogical solution to the problem that dovetails seamlessly into the cult of Vulcan.
Wednesday says that in Vulcan they worship America: their idea of America, which means an apple pie on every table and a gun in every hand. While the images of Vulcan’s residents, with their creepy uniforms and blank faces, might give many of us the screaming mimis, there are plenty of people who would love to see a return to gun-toting, country-loving, ALL WHITE America. What, exactly, does it mean to “make America great again” anyway?
While the town’s racism wasn’t spoken aloud, it was obvious: the hanging tree on Corbin Bernsen’s front lawn; the monochromatic faces in the crowd; Shadow’s chilly reception, even from Corbin himself. Racism isn’t always Bill Maher using the N-word on live TV while making light of slavery; sometimes it’s far more subtle and insidious, and it’s almost always woven right into the fabric of society.
I mean, Henry Ford was a serious anti-semite loved by the Nazis (warning: anti-semitism at the link), so it kinda makes sense that racism and neo-Nazism would find a comfortable home in a town that worships industry.
Themes: Not Just for Book Reports
While the idea of sacrifice has played an important role thus far, this episode put the emphasis on it more so than ever before. Mexican Jesus is sacrificed trying to help his people cross the river; Wednesday tells Shadow that Mr. Wood sacrificed the trees (himself) for power in the new order; every bullet fired is a sacrifice to Corbin Bernsen; the factory foreman is sacrificed in the “volcano;” Salim sacrificed his old life to the Djinn for a chance at a new one; Laura is learning that she will have to sacrifice her old life as well; and of course Corbin was sacrificed to help start the war (and I’m sure it didn’t hurt Wednesday any either).
Allusions are made to Wednesday’s sacrifice, in which he hung himself from Yggdrasil for nine days and nights to learn the runes and charms. He uses one of those to heal Shadow early in the episode, and the image of the noose hanging from the tree, while certainly conjuring images of Shadow’s recent lynching, is also a reminder of “Odin’s gallows,” or Yggdrasil itself.
This is the second Yggdrasil reference in two weeks. Knowing Mr. Wood’s backstory, I don’t think there’s any denying he was meant to bring the World Tree to mind. Wednesday tells Shadow that the shape of gods leaves a hole in mens’ minds, and trees are the first thing to fill it. Men worshipped trees before they ever created gods, so it’s appropriate that trees are often the scenes of sacrifice.
Corbin Bernsen’s sacrifice took a more high-tech approach. Considering that he had industrialized and “franchised” (his word) his worship, it’s no surprise he decided to join the new gods. Why would a god join Wednesday’s seemingly doomed cause if they’re doing as well as Vulcan was? He had a never-ending fount of worshippers, a veritable river of sacrifice, and that river won’t be running dry any time soon. But now where will all that power go?
It’s weird to see Laura smoke so much since she’s said the cigarettes don’t do anything and she can’t taste them, but for her it’s another form of clinging to life. At one point when she lights a cigarette she remembers hotboxing with bug spray in her Jacuzzi, which back then was a way to feel alive when she really wasn’t. Now that she’s dead she wants life back, and she refuses to let go of what small vestiges of it she can find. She doesn’t wanna sacrifice her cigarettes. Y’all see what I did there? Sacrifice is hard! That’s the point!! Sometimes it’s big and icky like falling into molten metal after a god cuts your head off, and sometimes it’s giving up smoking because you’re dead anyway so what’s the point?
Road Trip, Part Deux
I love, love, love this Salim-Sweeney-Laura trio. What a stroke of genius! Salim is an entire and complete cinnamon roll; Laura’s cynical and dead; Sweeney is an asshole. He’s rude to Laura (of course) and rude to Salim, and somehow they still put up with him. Mostly because he knows both someone who can help Laura and also how to find the Djinn, but they’re putting an awful lot of faith in a foul-mouthed leprechaun who rolls his own cigarettes.
The moment when the three of them walk into the alligator bar, Laura in the lead, to that Gorillaz song about sunshine in a bag was pure perfection. I want this as an entire show. They don’t have to do anything; just drive around in Salim’s cab and talk about life and death and resurrection. Occasionally Laura punches Mad Sweeney because she’s tiny and he’s huge and it makes for great imagery. Plus he usually deserves it.
Next week is supposed to have a lot of Laura, so I hope that means more of this trio, or at least Laura and Salim because Sweeney is a butthead.
Pacing. I’ve talked about this issue before, but it had largely resolved itself in the past few episodes. Now, in episode 6, I feel like we’ve backtracked a bit. Did Vulcan advance the plot? Uhhh sure, I guess, since the whole sacrifice thing. But…it took a long time. I’m REALLY glad they split it up with the other group, because otherwise I would’ve felt like I was slogging through a Walking Dead episode with worse lighting a bigger budget.
There were a lot of long, lingering shots of bullets and forges and matches being struck. Fire is Vulcan’s thing; we get it. Bullets are fire; we get that too. I mean, he eventually spells it out in his big “sacrifice” monologue, but if you were struggling with the concept up until that point then you weren’t really paying attention. I normally love the extreme close-ups Fuller is so fond of, but this week they dragged a bit, largely due to repetition.
The dialogue was less accessible than usual, which is saying a lot. I honestly don’t remember half of what came out of Corbin Bernsen’s mouth, but then I was DISTRACTED by the histrionic decor in his home. Teddy Roosevelt would be embarrassed by the amount of hunting trophies this dude had. The extra-loud score and weird as hell lighting didn’t help anything.
I don’t want the show to get in its own way. It has a great story to tell, and it doesn’t need to embellish it quite as much as it did this episode. Episode 4 was the first entirely original episode, and it was a spare, quiet tour-de-force; thus proving that this production team can do that, if they just will. Vulcan wasn’t just new material; it was new territory, so maybe overall they were less confident with what they were doing and where they were going.
A little less conversation and a little more action, please. Or, more accurately, a little less stuff and a little more show.
Episode Grade: B, but it wouldn’t be that high if it weren’t for Laura and Her Boys.