Wednesday, April 17, 2024

American Gods Tests the Line Between Dreams and Reality

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The name of this week’s episode of American Gods was “Head Full of Snow,” for reasons that will become obvious during the recap, but as so many things on this show do, the title functions on multiple levels. Also I really want hot chocolate with marshmallows now.


The episode opens with a “Somewhere in America” vignette. This one features a woman cooking dinner for her visiting family. It seems like all is well, until there’s a knock on the door and the mysterious visitor tells her she’s actually dead. Yep, there she is, laid out on the floor.

The man is the Egyptian god Anubis (Chris Obi), and he’s there to help the woman to the afterlife. She says she’s Muslim, so what the hell is Anubis doing there? He explains that as a child she listened to the old stories from her grandmother, and believed, so he’s there as a favor to her.

He takes her to a plateau in the desert and removes her heart to weigh against a feather. She confesses to a few very minor sins, and the feather and heart balance, so Anubis offers her her choice of afterlife. He doesn’t really tell her what’s behind any of the five doors. She tells him he’s a “polite boy” and asks if he can choose for her. He does, and her cat knocks her through the door when she hesitates. Cat-as-pushy-psychopomp.

It’s a heavy feather. (eggogorgon)

Next we return to Cznernobog and the Zoryas’ apartment. Shadow is sleeping on the (incredibly uncomfortable looking) couch when a woman passes through the room and out the window. He figures it’s the third Zorya, the one who sleeps all day, and he follows her up the fire escape and onto the roof.

She’s watching the sky through a telescope, and when he asks what she’s doing, she tells him the story of Odin’s Wain, or the constellation we usually call the Big Dipper or Big Bear, aka Ursa Major. The wain holds the bear in check, and if the stars ever fall from the sky, real bad shit’s gonna go down. So, she says, she and her sisters watch it day and night.

Zorya Sleeps-All-Day. (bynightafangirl)

She gently scolds Shadow for losing the coin Mad Sweeney gave him, and offers to give him another one in exchange for a kiss. Shadow starts to protest, but Zorya kisses him anyway. Then she pulls down the moon and gives it to him in the form of a big shiny silver dollar. It’s not the sun, she says, like Mad Sweeney’s was, but it will give him some protection.

Shadow then heads to Czernobog’s room and challenges him to another game of checkers. If Czernie wins, he can hit Shadow twice, but if Shadow wins, Cznernobog has to go with them to Wisconsin.

Proving that old gods don’t really learn new tricks, Czernobog plays the exact game of checkers he played the night before, and this time Shadow wins easily. Looks like Shadow’s death is postponed for now.

While the game is going on, Wednesday’s busy flirting with Zorya Cloris Leachman. They go for a walk, he kisses her, and it starts to rain. It’s all very ominous, especially when Zorya CL says that she can taste Wednesday in the rain, and something else. What is it? “War,” Wednesday says with a feral grin.

When Shadow wakes the next morning he sees that there is in fact NO fire escape on that side of the building or any other…but he has the silver coin the Zorya gave him. So was it real, or a dream?

Mad Sweeney, meanwhile, is awakened in the crocodile bar’s bathroom with a shotgun to his face. The waitress shoots out the beer bottle in his hand (much to Sweeney’s surprise) and sends him on his way. As he stumbles along the side of the road, a man picks him up for a ride…but shortly after, the truck in front of them blows a tire and a pole flies through the windshield to skewer the man through the face.

He’s having a bad day. (americangodsource)

Sweeney realizes with horror that the coin he gave Shadow was his lucky coin, and he sets off to get it back.

Back in Chicago, Wednesday tells Shadow they’re going to rob a bank. Obviously Shadow isn’t happy; he just got out of jail! But Wednesday assures him everything’ll be fine. Relax and think snow!

Wednesday leads them on a series of puzzling errands while Shadow contemplates the weather. Eventually Wednesday tells him to stop because they don’t want to immobilize the city, and to Shadow’s astonishment it’s snowing outside. Big time.

Before hitting the bank they stop for dinner, and Mad Sweeney shows up. Shadow tells him where to look for the coin (Laura’s grave), and the leprechaun is off again.

At the bank Wednesday stations Shadow by a payphone across the street (an ACTUAL PAYPHONE) while he puts “out of order” signs on the ATM and parks himself in front of it. It’s a rather elaborate con in which Wednesday poses as a security guard accepting people’s night deposits because the machine is broken. When the cops show up, Wednesday hands over one of the business cards they printed earlier, and the cop calls the payphone number. Shadow is there, posing as the head of the security company, and the cops buy the whole thing.

Of course he likes marshmallows. (meyerlansky)

Shadow is deeply concerned (as I think anyone would be) with what’s real and what isn’t. Wednesday has a much more casual attitude about it, himself being the personification of a deity, a state of being that plays fast and loose with normally concrete ideas like “reality” and “existence.” Shadow doesn’t think the past few days have been a delusion because delusions feel real, while everything that’s happened to him has felt like a dream.

“What a beautiful thing to be able to dream when you’re not asleep,” Wednesday says with a smile.

This scene, like the checkers game earlier in the episode, is intercut with another one. This time it’s Mad Sweeney digging up Laura’s grave to look for his coin. When he gets to her coffin, there’s a large hole burned in the top…and the coffin itself is empty.

Shadow heads to their hotel to turn in for the night, and when he opens the door, there’s Laura sitting on the bed. “Hi, Puppy,” she says, like people come back from the dead every day.

The episode also featured another “Somewhere in America” vignette, the much-talked about Djinn scene. A djinn (or Jinn or Ifrit) is a fire spirit in Islamic (and earlier) lore. The story goes (as Salim recites to the Djinn himself) that angels were made from…angel stuff, men were made from mud, and the people of the fire were made from…fire. Smokeless fire, that’s a very important distinction.

Anyway, Salim is in New York working for his brother-in-law to sell touristy crap. He spends all day waiting to meet with a businessman, but he stands Salim up. It’s pouring down rain when he finally emerges from the building, so he catches a cab back to his hotel.

The cab is driven by the Djinn. He and Salim end up in Salim’s hotel room, where they have sex, and the next morning the Djinn is gone. He’s left Salim his clothes, IDs, and cab, and he’s taken Salim’s clothes and his salesman case.

His eyes are on fire. (bynightafangirl)


Of the three so far, this episode probably reminded me the most of the book. Not just because it included scenes directly from the source, but also because of the way it was edited together. One of my favorite parts of American Gods is the way bits and pieces of other stories are peppered throughout the overarching narrative. This episode was structured the same way, with not only the opening “Somewhere in America,” but also with Mad Sweeney’s little arc and the Djinn story.

I guess that’s where I should start, huh? The big story all week has been the explicit gay sex scene between Salim and the Djinn. I’ve seen it called “the most explicit gay sex scene on television!” So I was expecting it to be pornier. I mean, it was beautiful and romantic and sexy, and it just happened to be two dudes. What’s the big deal? Besides the brief flash of the Djinn’s penis at the beginning, it was barely R-rated. I mean okay yeah it was R-rated, but…not pornographically so.

“What we wanted to achieve there is for an audience who might not necessarily be accustomed to seeing two men having sex, to recognize it as a beautiful thing.” (Bryan Fuller)

They absolutely succeeded. The Djinn vignette is one of my favorites in the book because it’s so different. Not just the fact that the protagonists are gay, but also because of the mythology it’s set in and the ambiguous ending. I always thought that Salim became the Djinn, but according to the show, that’s not the case. They basically switched identities, but the Djinn is still the Djinn.

The Djinn in Salim’s clothes, from episode 2 (crossroadscastiel)

Anyway my personal interpretation aside, I thought the scene was brought to the screen beautifully. If I had one minor complaint it was that Salim didn’t seem miserable enough before meeting the Djinn. In the book it’s winter, and he’s from Oman, so naturally he’s not accustomed to winter in NYC. It’s snowing and slushy and nasty, and he has a super thin coat that does pretty much nothing to keep him warm. He waits all day for the businessman, who at one point walks out off the office right beside him, laughing and talking with someone else, and then doesn’t bother to return for their meeting. Salim’s narrative leading up the getting in that cab is heart wrenching, and while I certainly did feel bad for show!Salim, it wasn’t quite the same level of “oh my god please someone give this man a hug and a cookie!” as I had for book!Salim.

I hope that this scene helps set a standard for television in the future. You can have explicit and beautiful scenes between same-sex couples. You don’t have to make it for the male gaze, or for titillation. It can just be a lovely, intimate scene between two people…who turn into giant obsidian figures in the desert and one of them ejaculates fire.

Coming to America…

American Gods the book is largely a story about immigrants. Neil Gaiman, of course, is an immigrant, and he wanted to capture some of his experience as a newcomer to America. The Coming to America vignettes are the most obvious examples, but all of the Somewhere in America ones feature immigrant stories as well. Shadow himself traveled around the world growing up, as his mother was a translator (I’m uh pretty sure) for the UN. He was born in Norway, and didn’t really spend much time in America until his early teens.

While the show hasn’t (yet) gone that deeply into Shadow’s background, overall it’s done an incredible job capturing the spirit of the book’s immigrant stories. While immigration issues have always been a hot political topic, these days they seem bigger and more divisive than ever. The depiction of people from all walks of life essentially living the “American story” is a good reminder that once upon a time, we all have ancestors who have lived one of these stories: either the middle-class Egyptian lady cooking dinner for her wayward family, or the men chained together in the hold of a Dutch slave ship, or poor Salim feeling so out of place and lost in the puzzling culture of New York City. Or maybe even, as Wednesday tells Shadow, like Mexican Jesus sneaking across the Rio Grande.

Everyone in America came from somewhere else, and I’m glad to see the show building on the book’s mythology of patchwork cultural influences all coming together to try to make an American culture. I say try, because as Wednesday points out, America is the only country that doesn’t know itself. We’re constantly searching for what it means to be American, or what defines America itself. It reminds me of Interview with the Vampire, where Armand tells Louis he’s the “heart of his age,” and Louis insists he’s not the heart of any age, because he’s at odds with everyone and everything.

“Ah, but that is the very heart of your age!” Armand says. So maybe what “being American” means is wondering what being American means. The sum total of millions of immigrants’ stories told over thousands of years from hundreds of cultures is a sense of questioning, of seeking, and never finding.

We’re all poor confused Shadow driving a big black Cadillac down a dark country road in the middle of the night with a god at his side and a head full of snow.

Head Full of Snow

Like I said at the beginning of this review, the episode’s title had several meanings. Of course there’s the obvious one: Shadow thought up a snowstorm. His head was almost-literally “full of snow.”

But there’s a lot more than just that. Shadow is confused, befuddled, fuzzy-headed. He can’t figure out where reality ends and dreams begin, and while Wednesday encourages him to quit stressing about it so hard, he’s a very concrete man who enjoys a solid, concrete world. Now he finds himself on quicksand—or lost in a snowstorm—and he doesn’t know which way to turn.

Mad Sweeney’s having a tough time navigating his current circumstances, too. He gave away his luck, his sun coin, and now he’s a decidedly unlucky leprechaun. Apparently the coin had more power than just luck, though, because Laura looks pretty healthy for a dead lady.

Wednesday’s the only one who really seems to know what’s going on, but that’s to be expected. He is the one, after all, who’s directing this entire con game.

Episode Grade: A. There wasn’t anything to dislike here, and overall it played like a Tarsem Singh movie.

Images curtesy of Starz

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