Humans have a hard time coming to grips with death, prompting them to come up with deities and beliefs that revolve around being judged and leaving a legacy. The newest episode of American Gods offers up a poignant spin on the mythological afterlife and teases ominous consequences for those who refuse to pass over to the other side.
Loved ones are spending time with each other in the opening of "Head Full of Snow," the third episode of American Gods. The camera zooms over rooftops and through several floors of an apartment building in Queens where Hasidic Jews read from prayer books and a black family sits down around a roast turkey. Another dinner is in the process of being made in the home of Mrs. Fadil, a grandmother readying a welcome for her family.
In the middle of tasting and talking to her hairless sphynx cat, a knock on her door interrupts Mrs. Fadil's preparations. A glumly countenanced black man stands in the hallway. He is not on the wrong floor and he is not a thief, as she'd like to believe. No, Mrs. Fadil is dead -- a fact made clear upon seeing her own body on the kitchen floor -- and the Egyptian grandmother of eight must come with her visitor, Anubis.
At first, the show presents him as the way many would like death to be: insistent yet calm, offering details of the lives of survivors she leaves behind and reassurance that they will find happiness after grief. The death god even chuckles along with her when she learns her first name will become "a bullshit middle name" for her great-granddaughter.
Anubis is here in America because Mrs. Fadil, despite being Muslim, never forgot the Egyptian myths and folklore stories passed down by her own tita (grandmother). She carried them in her heart and now he is here to take her to a different plane. Trailed by the cat, the matriarch and Anubis climb a soaring set of fire escapes that brings them to a place that "is not Queens." After they sit on the sandy plains, Anubis calmly yet suddenly pulls out her heart.
"I was using that," she says and Anubis replies, "We shall see if you have used it well." Mrs. Fadil is nervous, stammering about slights and misdeeds from her just-ended life. But her raw heart balances against the feather on Anubis' celestial scales, earning her the right to choose a door that leads to another world.
Wondering if the father who beat her will be in one of those realms, Mrs. Fadil frets over where the choice might place her and asks Anubis -- who she calls a "kind" boy -- to make a decision. He gestures at a door that opens and Mrs. Fadil walks up to it. The doubt hasn't left her, though. "Follow the wrong god; I do not see my tita again," she says. Then, unexpectedly, the cat raises itself on its back legs and pushes her through. The doors close and Anubis impassively walks across the sands.
This moment is yet another instance of inscrutability with regard to how American Gods' supernatural beings interact with mortals. Though Mrs. Fadil's words have the air of foreshadowing, we don't get to find out if Anubis is "the wrong god." The cat-push into the afterlife isn't shown as a kind or malicious act; it's just something that needs to happen. Once it does, Anubis walks off-screen to continue his never-ending duty.
Then we go back to Chicago, where Shadow wakes up from sleeping on a couch and finds an open window blowing cold air on him. For some reason -- presumably because he's just gonna start chasing the weird at this point -- he steps out onto the fire escape and climbs to the roof. There he finds a young woman looking at the stars through a telescope. She is Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar), the third of the Slavic twilight goddesses who live with Czernobog.
Despite being asleep when her houseguest arrived, she knows Shadow's name. She tells him about the myths concerning herself and her sisters, explaining how they keep watch over an evil demon-bear entity trapped in the stars. Shadow balks when Zorya Polunochnaya offers to read his fortune but she still peers at his hand and into his face. "You keep giving away your life. You don't much care if you live or die, do you?" she asks. Given what we've seen of Shadow's says so far, it's an odd line, but one that can be interpreted to reference Shadow's compact with Wednesday.
This Zorya sister offers to do something that will help Shadow through the existential fog he's stumbling through but asks for a kiss first, saying that she's never had one. After they lock lips, she plucks the moon out of the sky and folds it underneath his fingers in the form of a silver dollar. She tells him not to lose it or give it away, like the last form of protection he got, "the sun itself."
This is presumably a reference to the golden coin Shadow won from Mad Sweeney, the same coin that burned through the soil when he tossed it on his dead wife's fresh grave. The encounter with Zorya Polunochnaya ends when she commands him to wake up. Later, when Shadow looks to the window he climbed out of, there's no ladder leading to the roof. Yeah, that was another dream passing for reality. Or vice versa.
However, before that, he challenges Czernobog to another game of checkers, goading the old Slavic hammer-wielder into agreeing by saying he's out of practice and probably weaker now. If Czernobog wins this second game, he gets another swing at Shadow's head; if Shadow wins, Czernobog must come to the gathering of personalities that Mr. Wednesday is arranging. The scenes where Shadow and Czernobog play are intercut with a discussion between Zorya Vechernyaya and Wednesday, wherein she says that "this thing you want to do, you will fail and they will win" and that "they will kill you this time."
A few more ominous portents follow and when Shadow wakes up again, Wednesday informs him that they're going to rob a bank.
The scene then shifts back to Jack's Crocodile Bar, where we first saw Mad Sweeney. The swole leprechaun's in a bad way, passed out in a grimy bathroom stall and getting woken up by a shotgun nudging into his forehead. When the bartender holding the weapon threatens to shoot, he cockily tells her that the gun will either jam or backfire, causing her to lose two fingers. Don't push your luck, he says.
She pulls the trigger anyway and neither thing happens. Instead, the bottle of Budweiser that Sweeney tilted into his mouth explodes from the shotgun blast, embedding a shard of glass into his face. That bad way he's in? It's just gonna get worse.
Sweeney gets on with his getting out and shows up next walking down the side of a road. He's picked up by a loopy motorist who assures the leprechaun that he's not a rapist or a murderer -- "Not recently!" is his cheerful reply -- and the two get to talking as they head towards Madison, Wisconsin. The driver's a recovering alcoholic and offers Sweeney a kindness because he's been on that side of the road himself. No sooner than Sweeney's tipped his seat back for a nap, a truck hauling massive pipes swerves in front of them. A pipe comes loose and crashes through the windshield, impaling the hapless driver through the face.
Ambulances show up and the driver of the truck trudges behind Sweeney, mumbling "crazy bad luck." That utterance prompts Sweeney to check his pockets and gold coins spill out of every space he checks. He starts to panic and spits out a quiet "Fuck!" under his breath. His turn into worse fortunes can be explained by the fact that he doesn't have what he's looking for, which is most likely the coin he lost to Shadow.
Another Somewhere in America vignette starts up with a smiling Middle-Eastern salesman named Salim (Omid Abtahi) walking down the streets of New York City. Salim then sits and waits for hours for a meeting that never happens. The grumpy secretary dismisses him rudely and he walks out into the rainy night, where he catches a yellow cab back to his hotel.
After the sunglasses-wearing cabbie (Mousa Kraish) curses out another driver in Arabic, Salim starts chatting him up in their shared tongue. They bond over comparing the setbacks they have suffered since coming to America and get stuck in traffic. The cabbie nod off during the standstill and his shades slide down his nose. When Salim taps him on the shoulder to wake him up, the cabbie's eyes flick open and two bright gouts of flame flare up.
Salim's shock is mild. He recounts his grandmother's tale of encountering another being with flaming eyes and assumes that his driver is a jinn of Arabic mythology. He asks the cabbie if there are many jinn in New York and gets "no" as a response.
The jinn's show of loneliness makes their bonding get even deeper and, minutes later, the two of them get naked and start making out in Salim's hotel room. The sex that follows is tentative, tender, and raunchy, and not as fearsome as the couplings we've seen Bilquis engage in.
Salim and the jinn's humping isn't without mysticism, though. Part of the sex scene is shown in a metaphorical view on a sandswept horizon, where the djinn appears in what looks like his godflesh. As he reaches his climax, we see the fire that burns inside of him flow into Salim. Gives another meaning to hot as balls, doesn't it? When Salim wakes up in the morning, his clothes and belongings are gone but those belonging to the djinn remain.
He puts those on, along with the sunglasses, and walks out to the cab parked outside the hotel. Smiling as he sits down behind the wheel, he repeats what the jinn told me the night before: "I do not grant wishes." If you were paying attention last week, you'll see that the jinn was the man in the blue suit -- worn previously by Salim -- who met with Wednesday in the diner. This vignette clearly happens before that meeting. We'll probably see at least one of these characters again.
When we catch up with Shadow and Wednesday, they're pulling up in front of a bank. In fact, Wednesday says, "This is the bank I'll be robbing so let's go in and say hello." Shadow's incredulous and Wednesday tell him to have faith in a higher power, to which the younger man says "Fuck, no!" Wednesday replies with "Fuck, yes" and tell Shadow to just follow him inside, saying "come on, learn… it will be fun."
They go inside, case the joint and Wednesday picks up a wad of deposit slips. Once they're back outside, they walk past a pay phone, Wednesday tells Shadow to write down the number and the erstwhile bodyguard protests that he's not trying to go back to jail. Trying to soothe and distract Shadow, Wednesday buys him a hot cocoa with marshmallows and asks him to think of snow. The con man points to clouds in the sky and asks Shadow to think hard about the idea of hard, driving, annoying snow falling from above.
While Wednesday drives, Shadow sips his cocoa and stares at the marshmallows floating on top. He repeats the word "snow" over and over in his head and the scene gets trippy, showing flakes of frozen precipitation falling as Wednesday's car zooms over fluffy, soft marshmallow hills. Shadow snaps back into reality as Wednesday parks in front of a copy shop. As they wait to submit their job, Wednesday talks about a nearby woman's belief in Jesus. They chat about who should be responsible for one's sins and Wednesday grumbles that "that white Jesus could stand a little more suffering; he's doing very well for himself these days."
Wednesday asks the clerk for business cards and signage, and tells Shadow to keep up with the snow-thoughts. The big guy drifts back into a half-awake meditative state, accompanied by a montage of ice crystals forming against a black background and on the glass of a copy machine. Wednesday rouses him by saying "I think that's enough" and Shadow turns to see a steady snowfall outside the window.
Over a meal of Chinese food, Shadow expresses more incredulity that his thoughts could've spawned the fluffy white stuff falling from the sky. A fun exchange about science, reality, fantasy, and imagination ensues, only to be interrupted by the appearance of a very belligerent Mad Sweeney. The oversized leprechaun is worked up because of the sorry state of his luck, which he blames on Shadow having his special lucky coin. Shadow explains that he doesn't have the coin anymore and the revelation about what he did with it leads Mad Sweeney to make a crude remark about being yet another guy to climb on top of Shadow's wife.
They crankily part ways and then Wednesday starts dressing up in a security guard's uniform across the street from the bank, asking Shadow if he'll believe in him if he's not in jail by the end of the night. Snow's still falling as Wednesday hangs an out-of-order sign outside the bank's ATM and night deposit slot and sets up a chair next to it. Stationed at the pay phone seen earlier, Shadow watches as people who were going to slip their cash into the deposit slot give it to Wednesday instead, receiving deposit slips in return.
Shadow starts to freak out when a cop car pulls up next to Wednesday but this eventuality only brings the next phase of the no-violence heist into play: The phone rings and Shadow answers with the made-up name that Wednesday bestowed upon him earlier. He plays Wednesday's boss, a middle-manager at a security firm who, yes, has a man sent out to collect deposits from the bank where the cop is at. The rest of the hustle goes off without a hitch and Wednesday needles Shadow about whining that he'd be going back to jail. He tells Shadow he better believe in him now and the two drive off into the night.
As Shadow drives, Wednesday says that America is the only country in the world that wonders what it is. Shadow protests that Americans do know what they are and Wednesday rebuts him by saying Americans are just pretending, just like Shadow's pretending that he cannot believe in impossible things. Their chat stops abruptly when Shadow brakes suddenly to avoid hitting a wolf that appears in the road. Wednesday smirks as the wolf walks away and the talk continues.
Wednesday asks Shadow if he believes in love and then uses the younger man's affirmative response to show how occurrences -- like how Shadow fell in love with Laura -- can shift a person from non-belief to belief. That shift, along with the company we keep and how easily we scare, changes the world, Wednesday says. Regarding fear, Wednesday says the only thing he's scared of is being forgotten.
The last sequence of this episode starts with Mad Sweeney at the cemetery, shovel in hand and ready to dig up Laura's grave, which is intercut with Shadow's checking back into his motel. As Sweeney lifts the lid off, stares through a coin-shaped hole, and discovers the coffin is empty, Shadow opens the door and finds his supposed-to-be-dead wife Laura sitting on his bed. "Hi, puppy," she says and the credits roll.
One of the things I like about American Gods so far is how it's telling stories within stories. The gods' histories of themselves, the "Somewhere in America" vignettes and Shadow's past and present life all feel like different streams flowing across a trippy fictional landscape. There's an implicit understanding that they're all going to cross over, intermingle, and feed the larger body, but they can all be appreciated as flavours unto themselves, too.
The interaction between Salim and the jinn again highlights the tenuous symbiosis between people and gods on this show. They both got something they wanted -- empathy and sex -- but the switch-up in roles is something that Salim didn't bargain for. He seems happy to step into another person's life but it still feels like the jinn took both Salim's worship and part of his life, coming out better for it.
"Head Full of Snow"'s major themes are belief and death; one concept usually works in defiance of the other. All throughout our lives, most of us probably tell ourselves that we try our best. The evidence of those efforts is in the people and artifacts we leave behind. But the idea of a cosmic reckoning persists, spurred on by the notion that souls or consciousness could linger after bodily functions cease.
"Head Full of Snow" looks at how people reject or embrace that idea of their lives being judged. We acknowledge that death is the ultimate in finality but still hope for some sort of continuation. At the beginning of the episode, Mrs. Fedil grumbles over her cooking and her family's expectations of it, yet the thought of never doing it again gives her pause. That tension illustrates how cultural traditions can be among the things that die with us when we leave this mortal plane.
This is also an episode where we first get a glimpse of the power of active credence. Mr. Wednesday's con game wouldn't have worked without Shadow lending mental energy to it and the successful outcome of it erodes a bit more doubt from Shadow's brain. His last speech at the end about belief shifts, people gathering together and contending with fear, actually works as an architectural sketch of why some people go to church. But Shadow doesn't yet have the necessary amount of belief to accept what he sees at the end of the episode.
• I love Chris Obi's voice and his approach to the role of Anubis, so much so I keep on thinking, "hey, he'd make a really good Black Racer…" That is in spite of the fact that, as far as I can recall, the death deity from Jack Kirby's New Gods pantheon really doesn't talk.
• My favourite lines in this episode were in the exchange between Salim and the djinn, which came almost verbatim from the American Gods novel:
Jinn: You try and sell shit?
Salim [laughing]: I sell shit, yes.
Jinn: And they will not buy it?
Jinn: Strange, because when you look in the stores here, that's all they sell. Shit.
And then later:
Jinn: They know nothing of my people here. They think all we do is grant wishes. If I could grant a wish, do you think I'd be driving a cab?