When you first get into American Gods and begin to wrap your head around its central premise — that gods are real people who feed on human belief — there's one god in particular who's conspicuously missing from Neil Gaiman's original book and most of the first season of Starz's television adaptation: Jesus Christ.
That is, until the season finale.
In this week's episode, "Come to Jesus", we finally got a chance to properly meet the carpenter and learn what life is like when you're one of the most famous gods in the world. Turns out, life's kind of dull when you're a (relatively) old god who's managed to remain relevant in the modern age.
In Gaiman's 2001 novel, there are a handful of passing references to Jesus, but the character never makes an appearance or directly interacts with anyone. Soon after Wednesday first convinces Shadow that the gods they have been meeting are in fact gods, Wednesday casually describes Jesus as the lucky son of a virgin who "could fall into a cesspit and come up smelling like roses".
Later, Mr Jacquel is the first to explain that there can be multiple manifestations of a single deity in different places, whose form changes to reflect the beliefs of its followers. For instance, as well off as the many American Jesuses are doing, Jacquel says, the Jesus of Afghanistan isn't exactly faring too well.
Starz's American Gods leans into the idea of multiple manifestations in a major way in "Come To Jesus" when at least 12 different versions of Jesus travel to Easter's estate to celebrate the holiday that they all share with one another.
"That's a Jesus Christ. Jesus Christs," Wednesday explains as Shadow begins to understand the truth. For every belief, every branch, every denomination of Christianity, they see a different face when they close their eyes to pray.
— Bryan Fuller (@BryanFuller) June 19, 2017
In the world that American Gods has established, a god's power directly corresponds to the number of believers they have and how fervently those followers pray and sacrifice to the deity. One would imagine that Wednesday, what with the war against the New Gods that he's planning, might want the Jesuses on his side. But by the end of "Come to Jesus", we're left with the sense that Jesus is off the table entirely.
Not only that, but all of the Jesuses appear to be incredibly... boring, albeit in a most curious way. Compared to the Technical Boy, Czernobog and Easter, the Jesuses come across as dull and listless. For most of the episode, the Jesuses wander around in a dream-like stupor, smiling pleasantly, revelling in the beauty of Easter's home, and doing gross, magical stuff with their crucifixion wounds.
As odd a narrative choice as this might seem at first, this characterisation of Jesus is actually one of the cleverest elements of American Gods' mythology that the show has established so far. Rather than looking at Jesus as an omnipotent deity whose involvement in the coming war of gods would almost be unfair, it's more interesting to consider the idea that Jesus might be too popular to be effective.
American Gods' first Jesus was actually introduced back in episode six ("A Murder of Gods") in the form of an undocumented Mexican man who is shot and killed by border patrol after trying to cross the US border. Immediately after saving a man from drowning, Jesus gets shot through both of his hands and falls to the ground where a tumbleweed rolls over his head, leaving him with a crown of thorns.
It's a brutal, visceral scene highlighting the dangers that immigrants sometimes put themselves in in pursuit of the American dream, but it also suggests that this is pretty much all that Jesus does with his time. Unlike the Old Gods who are struggling to survive and the New Gods who are busy asserting their dominance, Jesus comes across as a someone with one job to do and scarce spare time to do anything else. He shows up to help his believers, gets killed, and comes back to life to repeat the whole shebang.
Part of that cycle is undoubtedly tied to the fact that resurrection is Jesus' whole deal, but following American Gods' logic, one could argue that Jesus doesn't really have the freedom his divine peers do because his billions of believers keep him and his various incarnations so perpetually busy performing miracles and dying.
While the Jesuses all seem to be able to get around just fine, there's a muted quality to them all that makes them come across as a bit slow on the uptake. When Wednesday explains to Shadow how the original Jesus essentially hijacked Easter by being resurrected on the day of her festival, Jesus (who overhears this) is shocked and apologetic as if he'd somehow never put two and two together.
It's a popularity contest.
It could very well be that, while there can be multiple incarnations of a god running around at any point in time, the more of one there is, the more difficult it is for the individuals to think and act like normal people as opposed to deities fulfilling their prescribed functions.
Depending on how you look at it, Jesus' fate is either kind of tragic or ideal for a god. The likelihood of his becoming irrelevant any time soon (especially in America) is rather slim, but in exchange for prominence, he's caught in an eternal holding pattern of being constantly called upon for divine intervention, then sacrificing himself, and then getting resurrected.
Everyone has their crosses to bear, yes, but Jesus' almost seems like an unfair burden for a god.