In the TV series adaptation of American Gods, Mr Wednesday and Shadow Moon criss-cross all over America to recruit old-school celestial beings for a coming conflict with deities of the modern day. This week's episode had them meeting with Vulcan and seeing how the god of the forge has reinvented himself for modern times, along with a sequence that imagines Jesus Christ as a Mexican immigrant.
"A Murder of Gods" lives up to its name in its very first sequence. Episode six opens south of the border, focusing on a group of Mexicans getting ready to illegally enter the United States. They pray to God for a safe passage but, despite a guide's warning about the dangerously strong river currents, one man finds himself overwhelmed and drowning. It looks like all is lost for the man until a hand reaches into the water and pulls him up. The rescued man gives thanks and asks his saviour what his name is, to which the long-haired saviour replies, "You already know my name." Yep, that hand belongs to Jesus, specifically a Mexican Jesus who walks on water to reach the shore.
Their poignant encounter gets cut short when trucks loudly pull up a couple of metres away. After a few tense beats of silence, guns start firing and the migrants scramble. Mexican Jesus holds up a hand to try to stop the bloodshed but gets a bullet shot through his palm. He then gets shot through the heart, blood seeping through his white shirt in a pattern that resembles common religious images. Jesus is dead, killed by rifles engraved with the words "Thy Kingdom Come".
The bullets fired on Jesus and the Mexican immigrants carry the brand name of Vulcan on them, and much of this episode focuses on the fiefdom that the Greco-Roman deity has built for himself in America. But, before that happens, we catch up with Shadow and Wednesday after they escape the horrors of the police station destroyed by the new gods in the last episode. Shadow's hurt, wounded by a mystical tree growing out of a man's mouth, and exasperated all to hell. He screams at Wednesday for an explanation and the older con man indirectly answers by talking about the nature of gods and humanity's fleeting awareness of them. Shadow's uncertainty and doubt about everything that's happening remain, but he tells Wednesday that he knows that the impossible is possible because he's seen and talked to his dead wife.
When the two go back to the Starlite Motel to get their things, Wednesday tells Shadow to let go of thoughts of the newly arisen Laura. Then he peels out in a hurry so a running Laura — still at the motel after her brawl with Mad Sweeney — can't catch up with them. Laura and Sweeney meet each other again and she needles him into stealing a car so they can follow Shadow and Wednesday. As they banter, Sweeney makes mention of someone he knows who can do a proper resurrection on Laura, making her more than a decomposing corpse. The car that Sweeney's trying to steal is a yellow taxi and, upon seeing the attempted theft, the man who owns it pulls a gun on the leprechaun. This man holding the gun is Salim, last seen knocking boots with a djinn two episodes ago.
Salim, Sweeney and Laura become unlikely road trip buddies heading to Kentucky, where Sweeney says they will find a bunch of gods, demigods and special folk. Each person in the cab is trying to track down something or someone they need to complete them. Salim's looking for the djinn who granted him this freer new life, Laura's looking for Shadow, and Sweeney wants Laura to get what she wants so he can get his magic lucky coin back.
After a brief meditation on anal sex by Mad Sweeney, Laura has Salim take a detour so she can see her family but, as seen later in the episode as Shadow thinks of her, she can only watch from outside a window. She can't go back to her old life; her only way forward is through Shadow and these strange new people she's meeting, none of whom she can really trust as yet.
Meanwhile, a cheery montage in a gun factory ends in an accident that sends a man falling into a vat of molten metal. Then we see Shadow and Wednesday get to their destination, a small burg called Vulcan, Virginia, where seemingly everyone is carrying a gun. They come upon a funeral march for the dead factory foreman. The march is led by Vulcan and ends with a gun salute that turns into a rain of bullets. Wednesday and Vulcan catch up and the con man says he needs Vulcan by his side for the conflict that's coming. Vulcan's living high off the hog and the smithy god — who has a hanging tree outside his house, which freaks Shadow out — invites Shadow and Wednesday into his hearth. Vulcan doesn't deign to give the black man a drink and then explains that he's franchised his faith so that the power of fire has become firepower. Turnarounds and tensions aside, Vulcan agrees to forge a blade for Wednesday to wear at the big god meet-up that's going down in Wisconsin.
Shadow understandably doesn't like Vulcan, and his talk with Wednesday teases the idea that, because of pointed remarks about how hanging men grants a certain kind of knowledge and power, Vulcan may be communicating with the new gods. When the blade-forging's all done, Wednesday confronts Vulcan about this. Vulcan says that he's ratted out Shadow and Wednesday because the new gods are an inevitability that he owes his reinvention to. As the two gods jaw at each other, the talk centres on how the struggle for god dominance requires a martyr. Vulcan says it's going to be Wednesday but Wednesday baulks at that dramatically, slicing through the forge god's neck and kicking the headless corpse into a vat of molten metal.
The episode ends with Salim praying and then talking with Laura. When he says Allahu akbar/God is great, she retorts with, "Life is great." He agrees and smiles, while Mad Sweeney looks on disparagingly in the background. Sweeney's life is going down the tubes, while Laura and Salim are ascending, if not heavenward, then somewhere better for them.
"A Murder of Gods" stands as my least favourite episode of American Gods so far. It came across as more indulgent and disjointed than usual, especially in its conception of Vulcan. I didn't mind the creepy allegorical commentary represented by the forge god's authoritarian views and cult-like small town. I just hated that we met and saw the the last of Vulcan in the span of one episode because his death means that we won't get to see the creators grapple more with the ideas Vulcan represents. They made a shiny bit of polemic, held it up for folks to engage with, and melted it into molten slurry that may or may not be repurposed later down the line.
Vulcan's treatment is the opposite of Salim's unexpected role on the show, which embodies much of what I've enjoyed about American Gods. Salim was a done-in-one character in the book; he was never seen after his initial encounter with the djinn. But he's still around on the show, a choice symbolising how our contact with the divine changes us. He needs to know more about the power that gave him new life, a stark contrast from how Laura's dealing with her own un-mortality. Despite her own "WTF are you people?" exchange with Sweeney, she really doesn't want to know more about the other plane of existence he and the gods hail from. She's fixated on Shadow and a possible resurrection in a decidedly more unhealthy way, and that fixation hinges on guilt and regret, all too often ingredients in our relationships with religion and higher powers.
It's more clear in this episode that Wednesday is manipulating Shadow to unknown ends. The "what came first?" talk he has with Shadow, along the sequence where he hustles them away from a possible encounter with Laura, seem to hint that he needs Shadow as a piece in a grand plan. Anything that could undercut that — like Laura's reappearance — is apparently a danger to Wednesday's schemes. Wednesday needs Shadow's belief to feed his own existence, and the possibility of Shadow believing in someone or something else is too great for Wednesday to risk. If the show follows the book, heavy foreshadowing is being laid down here, but there's still the chance that the show does something different.
- Vulcan had my favourite uncomfortable line of the episode, hitting on the scary fringe white populism feeling that feels all too familiar in the current cultural moment:
I was a story people forgot to remember to tell. They gave me a gun. They put power back in my hand and, I gotta tell ya, it feels good.
- I enjoy how blunt American Gods can be sometimes but, man, everything about the town of Vulcan, Virginia made me queasy. The grief armbands, doubling as a reference to a Nazi-style aesthetic, especially made me wince.