American Gods’ Fantastic First Season Ends With Shock And Awe

American Gods’ Fantastic First Season Ends With Shock And Awe

American Gods‘ debut season has spent every episode telling us that gods walk among us. The final instalment of season one finally shows us how powerful they can be and just how far they will go to survive. Oh, and Shadow at long last has a come-to-Jesus moment. Actually, at least two come-to-Jesus moments, by my count.

Image: Starz

Which is why it should be no surprise that The finale of American Gods‘ first season was titled “Come to Jesus”. The surprise is the episode opens with spiders, lots of them. The arachnids crawl over blazers, wire hangers, and threads in a loom. All of this means that we’re going to see Mr Nancy again and, as the camera cuts around the cobweb-laden interiors, we see him threading a needle and working the foot pedal of an antique sewing machine. He’s intensely focused and quiet as he works.

Another camera cut shows us who he’s making the custom clothing for: Wednesday and Shadow, lounging in bathrobes. Nancy stops suddenly. “This is all too big,” he says. “Too much going on at once.” He then says that the moment calls for a story and proceeds to spin a yarn despite Wednesday’s grumbling and Shadow’s apparent exhaustion. Nancy’s story is about a “fucking queen” who had it all: Power, glory and devoted worshippers. Her place of worship was the place to be and a scene shift takes us to it, The Temple of Bar’an in the year 864 BCE. A regal woman strides into an outdoor bacchanal and the writhing naked bodies lift Bilquis aloft. She’s in ecstasy because everyone else is.

But kings didn’t like that, Nancy says, adding that they came again and again to try and dethrone Bilquis. One such monarch grows a freaky flesh-crown through his bald head and crowdsurfs his way to Bilquis. She eagerly receives his thrusts and, once he’s reached his peak, King Flesh-Crown transmutes into a viscous black liquid. The same thing happens to the revellers in the pool behind Bilquis’ altar and all that goo worms its way toward the Queen of Sheba’s open legs.

We then see Bilquis in Tehran in 1979, a disco diva extraordinaire with a fierce afro and glitter all over her face. She picks a woman to dance with and Nancy explains that the kings kept targeting Bilquis because she, like all women, has the power of rebirth and creation. Such power makes some men awestruck and reverent while others rage against it. The rifle-wielding thugs who storm into the nightclub clearly belong to the latter group, busting up the party in the worst way: Roughing up people, smashing drinks and decorations, and sowing terror. Nancy says that, over the years, these assaults pilfered Bilquis’ essence so that it laid in the hands of men. The goddess was forced into the backseat, Nancy continues, observing that such a spot isn’t entirely without power for a sex deity. Bilquis tempts a mustachioed gent into an aeroplane bathroom for a mile-high club quickie and, as usually happens with her pairings, leaves the loo alone.

This diminished existence is still existence. Bilquis winds up in Hollywood, along with the disco dancer she met in Iran. The year is 1988 and her former would-be lover is in a hospital bed, wearing a bracelet that identifies her as HIV-positive. From the doorway, Bilquis looks on the other woman with a mix of fear and grief and turns away. Fifteen years later, she’s pushing a shopping cart down the street, homeless and abject, with disturbing sores on her face. She forgot there’s a queen inside, Nancy says. Bilquis watches in horror as a TV inside an Ethiopian restaurant themed on her likeness shows one of her temples in Yemen being destroyed. Later, she’s sleeping on the ground on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, woken by the light pouring out of Technical Boy’s limo. He approaches her, saying that he has a new altar to replace the one destroyed by ISIS, and hands her a smartphone. As she swipes through a Tinder-style app named Sheba, Technical nasally declares that “worship is a volume business and whoever has the most followers wins the game”. He asks Bilquis if she wants to play and the scene fades back to Mr Nancy’s tailoring suite.

The spider god asks Shadow if he gets the moral to this story. When Shadow answers, “Don’t cut deals with treacherous motherfuckers,” Nancy yelps, “Fuck, no!” You don’t get anywhere without some compromise, Nancy offers, and Wednesday elucidates by saying that what Shadow needs to do is get himself a queen. That needs to happen because Wednesday and Shadow just killed one of theirs — referring to the messy death delivered unto Vulcan two episodes ago. Wednesday tries to say that the god of the forge was one of his but Nancy says that hadn’t been the case in a long while. Nancy points out that things are escalating and Wednesday says that they will escalate even more once he gets a queen.

When asked how he feels about the current state of affairs, Shadow grouses, saying that all the recent drama violates the compact between himself and Wednesday. He vents some more, airing all too familiar complaints about the stuff he should know by know but doesn’t, such as Wednesday’s name. The compact’s terms say Shadow could dissolve it when he reaches a certain level of pissed off; Wednesday maintains that Shadow’s confused, not angry, and that he needs to starts getting angry. Tossing Shadow a shirt to try on, Nancy chimes in to add that “Angry gets shit done”.

Next, we see a field of skulls stretching as far as the eye can see. They rupture outward, apparently because of a blow from Shadow, who then starts climbing up the remains. Atop this mound of bones — likely the same Bone Orchard dreamscape from episode one — Shadow finds a giant, ominous tree and a white buffalo with flaming eyes clomping toward him. Shadow falls to his knees in front of the buffalo and is engulfed in smoke pouring out of the animal’s nostrils. He then snaps awake in Wednesday’s car, which is being chased by a bunch of bunnies in Kentucky. More bunnies sit in the road ahead and Wednesday runs them over. Inside a sprawling house on immaculately manicured grounds festooned with gloriously colourful flowers, they enter the fanciest Easter brunch party ever.

Wednesday holds forth about why people love Easter — rabbits, resurrection, “all the fucking sugar” — and talks about its pagan roots. All that celebration feeds belief to the woman they’re there to meet, Easter, once known as Ostara. As the lady of the day greets her guests, a scraggly-haired white dude holding a chalice says hello to Shadow. Obscured candles ring the man’s head in a halo. Shadow turns and asks if he knows him and gets, “Yes, you do,” as an answer. The man walks away and Easter continues her speech about what this day is really all about. The hostess, with a few other Messiah-looking dudes close by, sees Shadow and Wednesday, and she mutters, “For Christ’s sake.”

Shadow’s adorable incredulity floats up again and Wednesday says gods are real if you believe in them. It dawns on Shadow that he’s in a house full of Jesus Christs, manifestations of what different peoples and faiths see in their heads. Shadow asks Wednesday who he is and the old con man once again replies by saying Shadow wouldn’t believe in him if he told him. Easter sidles up to the two men and asks Wednesday what he’s doing at the party. “I’m not here for Christ’s sake; I’m here for all our sakes,” he says. Shadow blushes bashfully on meeting the goddess and they all go to talk outside. Easter has heard about all the fuss and tells him that all the secret societies have no loyalty and no love. Wednesday takes offence to that and says that Easter is one of them, a forgotten old god endangered by changing times.

When Easter objects, Wednesday says that she was forgotten until the myth of Jesus rising from his stinky old grave was grafted onto her celebratory day. They say her name but worship Jesus. “You do all the work and he gets all the credit,” snarks Wednesday. The hippie-bro Jesus we saw before pipes up to say he feels so guilty. Easter takes Shadow and Wednesday into a sidebar where she yells angrily at the con man, who reminds her that this is her day. The elder god says that those Jesuses are sons of Gods but still men. Wednesday then strikes a note of contrition, calling himself a fool and telling Easter that the new gods killed Vulcan after the forge deity pledged loyalty and crafted a sword for him. He says that the imminent danger is why they need the embodiment of springtime on the side of the old gods.

We then revisit Bilquis in the modern day, looking at her past — bodies mummified in the act of copulation — in a museum exhibit as in episode two. She gets a call from Technical Boy but ignores it. He then manifests right behind her, saying that she’s been avoiding him. Bilquis says she’s been busy and Technical Boy states that she owes her current fortune to him. It’s his turn to reap benefits from their relationship, but he baulks at her sliding a hand up to her crotch. He knows what happens to people Bilquis sleeps with, and wants her to use her power on someone else.

Back at Easter’s party, the ice cream truck driven by Laura pulls up to the front with Mad Sweeney in the back. She followed his light beacon here and is agog at all the Jesuses milling about. Shadow himself is inside, talking to the Granola Jesus he met earlier:

Shadow: “Did you always believe?”

Granola Jesus: “Did I always believe? I am belief so I don’t know how not to believe.”

Shadow: “I don’t think I know how to. I think maybe I don’t really believe. I don’t really believe any of this. And maybe everything that’s happened so far is just some kind of vivid dream. I don’t even know if I can believe that.”

Granola Jesus: “Even if you don’t believe, you cannot travel in any other way than the road your senses show you. And you must walk that road to the end.”

Easter and Wednesday’s private talk is about the possibility of starving the non-believers so that they will pray for Easter to give them the harvest. A bunny familiar interrupts, saying something only Easter can hear and the goddess rushes off. Laura throws up a chunk of maggots in a bathroom and is soon joined by Easter, who chastises Mad Sweeney for bringing a dead girl into her home during her fancy party. Sweeney asks for Easter to resurrect Laura out of professional courtesy, but the goddess baulks. He then requests she do it as a favour, saying that she owes him. As they talk, the connections between Laura and Shadow — and the need for discretion — become apparent. Easter asks Laura how she feels and the dead woman describes death’s pain as a series of absences.

However, Easter doesn’t bring resurrection; she renews life and she needs to know exactly how Laura died to do that. Peering into Laura’s eyes reveals Wednesday and Sweeney’s involvement, which Easter doesn’t divulge. She was killed by a god, which means that Laura’s a different kind of dead, a kind that Easter can’t work her mojo on. Easter dashes off to deal with more party guests and Laura yells at Sweeney wanting to know which god is responsible for her death.

The party guest needing Easter’s attention is Media, manifesting as Judy Garland from Easter Parade. She too makes overtures to Easter, saying that the sugar-heavy commercialisation of the holiday has worked in the elder goddess’ favour. Easter steers her away from the house, inside of which Laura is torturing Sweeney for answers. Painfully hoisted up by his balls, he admits that it was him that caused the car crash that killed her. But Sweeney’s not a god, she says, squeezing harder on his lucky charms. He utters the name that she already knows is responsible: Wednesday. Sweeney says that Wednesday needed a sacrifice and Laura sees that everything that’s gone wrong for her and Shadow is the con man’s doing. Gods screw with humans and have always done so. Sweeney goes on to say that Wednesday needed Shadow to be broken all the way down, presumably so that he could enter into a compact with the old god.

Laura asks Sweeney what Wednesday has to lose and the scene shifts back to Media and Easter. New goddess asks old goddess if Wednesday is at the party and Easter lies, saying he came and went after trying to recruit her to his cause. Media again tells Easter that she owes her resurgent power to old gods, adding that St Nick took the same deal Easter did. As Media continues to brace Easter with the grim possibility of a world without Christian faith, Wednesday walks down the stairs. The con man counters by saying that god does exist and that it doesn’t matter which one as long as people continue to worship. The new gods are just existential crisis aversion but the old gods only need to inspire.

The showdown of philosophies ramps up with Wednesday delineating the purpose gods have served for men. People have needed to know why things happen so they made up gods. Those gods, in turn, make things happen. Then Mr World possesses one of the faceless Technical Children and says that Wednesday only matters in times of war, and that there’s not going to be a war because the new gods would win any possible conflict.

Under a darkening sky, Wednesday says he doesn’t have to fight and dedicates deaths to Ostara. When Media asks which deaths, lightning lances down from the sky and strikes down the Children. Wednesday turns to ask Shadow if he has faith and the younger man asks — really, truly, this time — “What are you?” Wednesday lists off the honorifics he’s been called throughout the ages, sending the storm into a frenzy and ending finally on the name Odin.

He then prompts Easter to display her powers of the dawn and she clears the sky and pulls life energy from the earth for kilometres around. “Tell the believers and the non-believers,” Wednesday says to everyone assembled. “Tell them we’ve taken the spring. They can have it back when they pray for it.” He asks Shadow again if he believes and Shadow says he believes everything. Laura spoils the moment by clearing her throat and asking to talk to Shadow and the episode ends with a shot of Bilquis on a train heading to Wisconsin where the meeting of gods is supposed to happen. Just like on the plane decades ago, she tempts a man into a bathroom booty call and the credits roll.

Season one of American Gods ends by ramping up the expected conflict between old-school celestials and latter-day deities, as well as sketching out factions and agendas that may have surprised viewers who read the book. I liked this book-end a lot because the revelations delivered by “Come to Jesus” satisfy some of the questions that have nagged me over the last eight episodes.

For example, the encounter with the new gods explained why Technical Boy’s aggro approach to Shadow was so wrong and why Mr World was so deferential to Wednesday in episode five. The old gods come from eras of direct confrontation and naked hostility. Czernobog crushed enemies’ skulls with his hammer; Vulcan created weapons; and Odin, among many other aspects, is a war god. Combat is where they shine. The new gods were born as the world’s conflicts grew quieter and more stealthy; the mechanisms of their power are subtler and more insidious. When Mr World says Wednesday only matters in times of war, it’s with the implicit knowledge that getting into a war with a war god wouldn’t be the smartest move for them.

“Come to Jesus” is also thematically crucial because it gives a sideways answer to Shadow’s befuddlement, which has easily been the most annoying aspect of American Gods so far. He can’t deny what he’s seen but is unable to acknowledge the cosmic truth at the heart of it all. When Shadow says he doesn’t know how to believe, it explains why he hasn’t been able to put the pieces together and get a sense of a bigger picture. The facts of who he’s been meeting present themselves to him without guile, but his inability to believe in that bigger picture leaves him stuck just short of the epiphany he needs to have. This is what Wednesday meant when he said that Shadow had questions but didn’t know how to ask them.

Conversely, Laura, who lived as a non-believer, sees all the things that Shadow can’t. It’s possible to look at the show’s version of Laura Moon as a commentary on the “dead-wife-as-hero-motivation” trope. Her death doesn’t push Shadow into being proactive; it leaves him numb. If anything, it makes Laura herself more alive, and the revelation that Wednesday killed her as sacrifice points her in pursuit of a vengeful justice. That justice will have to involve Mad Sweeney and, coming off of the tense asymmetrical tenderness of last episode, their odd-bedfellows relationship has hit an entertaining new level of complication. It’s nothing so prosaic as romance. There’s an astringent co-dependency shot throughout their dealings with each other and outside parties. Whether it’s knowledge, release from obligation, or new life, they both need things they don’t have the power to ask for. So they bargain and bluster in the hopes that they can hustle their way to happiness.

With a core premise built on the idea of faith, audiences have been wondering about Jesus Christ ever since American Gods was in production. Episode eight offers up a great interpretation of him in the series’ cosmology. Jesus here is a problematically powerful outsider figure. Contrived to rattle Ostara and get her to side with him, Wednesday’s rant still speaks to the way that Christianity displaced other faith practices. Jesus is too strong to ignore, too disparate to manifest in a singular way, and too human to try and court. And, as a lapsed Catholic, I love how guilty He felt during Wednesday’s rant.

I also enjoyed how “Come to Jesus” invoked the folkloric tradition around the power of knowing a powerful being’s true name. Who knows it and how it’s learned can change up power dynamic. We’ve heard other characters use Wednesday’s other names but never the old god himself. Wednesday’s age and wisdom fused with a penchant for theatricality in this episode’s climactic moment; when he speaks his true name, it’s a display that turns a doubter into a disciple and a neutral deity into an ally. Odin’s final gambit ties into his words about how all the old gods need to do is inspire. But the show’s been showing us all season that gods intervene in our lives in good and bad ways and, by causing a famine, what they’re inspiring is fear. Fear, of course, is one of the reasons that people have turned to gods. But gods have their own fears, too, chief of which is fading into nothing.

Assorted Musings:

  • Mexican Jesus lives! He’s there in the shot when Wednesday’s giving his tirade about Jesus stealing Easter from Ostara.
  • If the show is still going where the book went, then the scene between Granola Jesus and Shadow — entertaining on its own merits — holds significant import for Ricky Whittle’s character moving forward.
  • There’s a fitting bit of parallelism in the final shots of “Come to Jesus”. The fields Bilquis passes on the bus are barren because of Odin’s gambit and it looks like humankind might starve to death. Bilquis is on the brink of starvation as well. Each side of the divide needs faith to survive.
  • Favourite slices of dialogue…

In Nancy’s tailoring shop:

Shadow: “You just cut off your friend’s head. Now you just gonna go and get a suit made like you’re the goddamn Godfather?!”

Nancy: “Who the hell did you think he was?”

Words of wisdom from the spider trickster:

Nancy: “Life is long when you have regret. A moment can last forever when you can see how it should have went.”

Grimnir grouses:

Wednesday: “It’s her day! You took it! You crucified her day! When they started following you, everybody else got burned in your name. Happy Fucking Easter!”

No touch screen for the troll god:

Technical Boy: “Hands free, honey pot, I have no intention of spending the rest of my days feeding your soul from the Vagina Nebula.”