Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on AMERICAN GODS, S1 Ep6; “A Murder of Gods.” Please look both ways before crossing.
Despite delivering on the promise of its title twice within its allotted hour, “A Murder of Gods” is less about death than it is about the courage it takes to build a new life and reconcile that new life with what you know and remember from your old one. The narrative of this chapter follows separate groups of travelers who are examining this question from different perspectives, and not necessarily appreciating the answers that they gain for their efforts.
THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
Starting anew can be an act of physical, emotional, or spiritual initiative; in many cases it is a combination of all three. We see this embodied in the opening tale of the ill-fated Mexicans attempting to cross the border into America, braving the current and depth of a dark river–as well as one’s own inability to swim–in search of a better tomorrow. But we can also see this in the forms of many of the old gods, who have been framed consistently as immigrants of a different nature and who have either adapted themselves or their functions in order to survive what was lost in their translation.
In “Head Full of Snow,” Mr. Wednesday observed to Shadow that America was a land that needed a lot of Jesus, and consequently there were several different versions roaming the countryside. What we witness in the violence of the failed crossing is the confrontation of two of these Christ figures–the compassionate Mexican Jesus who walks across water to save a drowning soul, and the avenging American Jesus whose disciples rain death from guns with barrels perversely bearing Scripture. This echoes the short battle depicted in the prior episode, between the old mammoth god of the Siberian tribe and the new buffalo god of the tribe that awaited them. In both cases, the victory of one god over the other is an assertion of how society will look and who will populate it. What is different in this case is the revelation that not only will separate gods vie for supremacy, but so too will individual aspects of the same deity.
Mexican Jesus–as expectation would dictate–is martyred on the river bank during an act of love, but he is martyred by an act of hatred committed in the name of his American counterpart. Jesus represents a unique problem within the world of American Gods–rather than being an old god that people are relegating to folk tale, or a new god that people fail to even realize they worship, he is a being who is believed in so widely and viewed through so many different lenses that while he is not in danger of suffering the oblivion of being forgotten, he exists as a series of disagreements.
MOLDS AND CASINGS
In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama made a statement in Pennsylvania that media analysts and political opponents seized upon as an inelegant and elitist gaffe, in which he described the white rural working class as a bitter populace who “cling to guns or religion.” When Wednesday and Shadow arrive in the town of Vulcan, Virginia, they enter a nightmare extreme of Obama’s observation, an enclave where guns are the religion. The town is a temple built of its people, with its sacrificial altar adopting the form of its primary industry. Rituals and uniformity have been established with a certain callous disregard for the perceptions of outsiders; the Nazi-style armbands and open-carry assault rifles less a necessity for daily life than a defiance of social norms. The branded bullets have each become a prayer to Vulcan, steel-jacketed as a prayer to freedom, and while his influence is contained in this small community his power travels the world and subjugates America in particular.
Like Czernobog, there is a degree of malevolence in the manner Vulcan behaves in this country, but while Czernobog’s celebration of death comes from utilitarianism and boredom, Vulcan has fashioned himself into a god of spite. Vulcan and Wednesday appear to each other as grizzled old veterans of civilizations whose heyday has long since passed, but Vulcan is uniquely suited to adaptation and survival–for one thing, he has already passed from ancient Greece to ancient Rome and undergone the transition from Hephaestus, long before he found his way to the shores of America. Vulcan is a candidate who can answer and empathize with simmering bitterness in a type of American, having himself once been cast off Olympus, only to pull his battered body back up to the pantheon and make the gods take notice of his skill at the forge. He is one of mythology’s most infamous cuckolds, married to Venus/Aphrodite by arrangement and then made to suffer her constant infidelities with the god of war. By becoming America’s god of guns and ammunition, Vulcan therefore positions himself as the purveyor of individual power while also forcing all gods of war to pay homage to him for their necessary tools.
Vulcan agrees when the new gods insist that he remain neutral in the forthcoming conflict because he has evolved, in his way, into a hybrid of new god and old. Mr. Wednesday insisted to Mr. World that the purpose of the old god was to provide meaning to people in exchange for their worship and sacrifice, while the new god exists simply as a force of nature, ubiquitous and undeniable. For Vulcan, neutrality cannot be expressed as apathy or inaction–he must always be doing something, and so he both betrays Wednesday to the new gods and forges for Wednesday the sword that will be used to kill him.
Vulcan has become a god of efficiency both in production and homicide rate, but he also offers his town a sense of purpose and security. For all his ease with a firearm and his regular willingness to toss a foreman into the volcano, he is the town’s stern but kindly grandfather who nobody wishes to disappoint. It can be assumed that Vulcan, Virginia, has been modeled through its overseer’s will into the utopian ideal of gun ownership, where everybody owns a firearm but where random acts of violence and tragic accidents simply do not happen. “People behave when they’re being watched,” Vulcan tells Wednesday, and to live in Vulcan’s town is to know, in one’s soul, that the price of their assumed freedom is to be constantly judged by a higher power.
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
The unlikely trio of Laura Moon, Mad Sweeney, and Salim-not-Salim provide a more relatively human discussion on the episode’s theme of establishing a new life–structured as a halfhearted debate between Laura and Salim, with moderation, wisdom, and ridicule from Sweeney. Over the course of their journey from the Starbrite Motel back to The Crocodile’s Jaws and then on the road again to Kentucky, Laura finally arrives at the epiphany that on every level of who she is, she cannot go home again, not to the family she despises or to the man she forgot to love when she had the chance.
Salim, then, represents a model for her to consider as she agrees to move forward with whatever life she now has for as long as she might have it. For what may be the first time in his life, he has the ability to make many choices regarding who he will be, how he will behave, and what he will believe. He can be Salim or Ibrahim, he can be openly gay or remain closeted, he can seek his fortune or he can seek a fare. In his country of origin, Islam was a dictate of culture, and his sexuality was a crime punishable by brutal death. In America, Salim is finally allowed to wield his faith on his own terms, to see beauty and wisdom in prayer delivered at sunrise rather than feel the bootheel on his back. He reconciles all of his passions within him at once, and it makes him complete. From Salim, Laura learns that prayer need not be demand, for demand often leads to disappointment. Salim views his prayers as gratitude. While Laura will not thank Salim’s god for her circumstances, she does at least internalize what it means to be thankful, even under the less-than-optimal circumstances of her current existence.
Mad Sweeney, however, views all of this faith with a loud and boisterous cynicism–as a compatriot of gods and a creature of fate, he finds it meaningless at best and dangerous at worst even to make contact. He insists that all gods, old and new, serve themselves and their own devices, and any benefit that mortals may gain from their machinations is happenstance. As an Irishman, Mad Sweeney is gifted with a sense of pragmatism in matters of exploitation and choosing the best of bad options; he has watched his people start their lives in America as downtrodden minorities and gradually rise into an assimilated class. He understands that luck is a combination of choice and chance, and that no matter what one does with the former, the latter has the capacity to tear you apart, which cultivates within him a sense that the smartest strategy is to follow the path of least effort.
POWER AND LOYALTY
Shadow spends most of “A Murder of Gods” in the background, observing the tense interplay between Wednesday and Vulcan while also being forced to endure both a bit of cosmic roadside surgery and the very earthly dread that comes of being a black man in a town of gun-toting white Americans, surrounded by trees that became famous for their hangings. Wednesday, however, has accelerated his curriculum–after initially telling Zorya Vechernyaya that he was easing Shadow into his new reality, the encounter with Mr. World has made him feel his timetable is no longer tenable. Shadow is taught to see beyond space to observe Laura’s visit home, but he is also shown how Wednesday treats those who betray him. Wednesday does not only kill Vulcan, he defiles the holy ground of his forge and sends the accursed batch of bullets out into the world, still bearing his name. What will come of these bullets is thus far unstated, but the lesson for Shadow is clear–the penalty for disloyalty will be collected beyond death. And for beings who cross back and forth between the realms of life and death, this is no mere boast, but a likely promise.
And yet for as vicious as Wednesday is with Vulcan, he is exceedingly tender with Shadow in this episode. Not only does he save him from the festering wound he received at the police station, after the trauma of the procedure he kisses him as a father would a son. His agenda remains suspect in his every action, but for now he does concern himself with Shadow’s level of discomfort in addition to his level of well-being. While Shadow obviously has value as weapon, sacrifice, or something else, there remains a possibility that Wednesday even values Shadow as a human being.
But this will not necessarily stop Wednesday from using Shadow as he sees fit, when the time comes.
Cataclysms, whether natural or engineered, tend to alter landscapes. As the gods converge, traveling towards whatever summit will occur in Wisconsin, there is an abiding perception that what Wednesday is planning will utterly change the playing field, and provide the old gods with an advantage they would not otherwise have. There is a new existence and paradigm awaiting on the other side of Wednesday’s plans. Who will be there and what their lives will look like is uncertain–when the mountains move, some of those on its surface are bound to buried beneath it.