Picture it: A group of ancient gods walk into a bar to put on a variety show, and two of the deities—the oldest and the youngest—have a falling out of epic proportions. A question similar to “what were you the god of, again?” is posed in an alley, and all hell breaks loose. This sort of stuff happens on American Gods all the time, but this week, things were special.
“Donar the Great” is the sort of American Gods episode that makes you appreciate just how much more there is to the world of Neil Gaiman’s novel that exists beyond the text printed on the page, and how much time the show can spend focusing on things other than the war at hand.
But for all of the interesting tidbits established in the episode, you can’t help but get the feeling that it’s trying to beat you over the head with a major twist from the source material—so insistently, in fact, that it leaves you wondering whether American Gods is on the brink of jumping the shark.
A few episodes back, Mr. Wednesday mentioned that in a former life, he was known far and wide as being one of the country’s great performers. He could always put on a good show, but he was secretive about what exactly it was he was doing before recruiting the Old Gods to do battle with their new successors. “Donar the Great” takes us to one of these moments in Wednesday’s past during the early 20th century when he was going by “Al Grimnir” and World War II was beginning to ramp up.
For Old Gods like Wednesday and Nancy (who’s apparently been hanging out with the Norse god for ages), the key to surviving in America is finding a bit or gimmick that turns you into the kind of idea that people become obsessed with and want occupying space in their mind. In this instance, Wednesday and his fellow anthropomorphs have found sanctuary on the stage in a variety act of sorts featuring song, dance, and a burlesque show for a small audience of heavily-intoxicated humans who have no idea that the people they’re cheering for are so much more than flesh and blood.
As Al Grimnir, Wednesday’s able too...get by, really, and not much else. He, like Nancy, and newcomers Donar (Derek Theler) and Columbia (Laura Bell Bundy), are all shadows of their former selves because America simply doesn’t have a place for gods that don’t represent the future of the American Dream that the country’s citizens all long for in one form or another. “Donar the Great” shows us all of this in a series of flashbacks as present-day Wednesday continues on his quest to repair his legendary spear Gungnir in order to be armed for the war to end all wars.
As disillusioned as Shadow is by Wednesday’s continued refusal to explain to him just why he’s so important to the older man’s plans, he allows himself to be strung along on the journey, partially because of Wednesday’s charm, but also because he’s begun to see him in a somewhat different light. One the episode very loudly points to without spelling out explicitly.
Because Gungnir can only be repaired using powerful dwarven magic, Shadow and Wednesday travel to a nondescript mall somewhere in America in order to ask some of the country’s last living dwarves to do their thing, which they only agree to do in exchange for a leather jacket worn and signed by Lou Reed. Of course, Wednesday’s got a plan to get the jacket in order to get Gungnir back in stabbing shape and it involves an elaborate con, but the scam isn’t really the point of “Donar the Great” — the episode wants you to focus on Wednesday and Shadow’s affinity for one another that makes the trick possible, and what it means about the pair.
In Shadow, Wednesday explains, he can see elements of Donar, who was more than just a business partner to him — he was also Wednesday’s son, which Shadow’s understandably confused by because Thor (one of Donar’s many names) is one of the most recognisable and popular gods of the Norse pantheon. Though Shadow doesn’t realise it, in thinking through the nature of American Gods’ deities, he’s stumbled across an important truth about Wednesday that a number of other characters have tried to warn him about in the past: Wednesday uses people until he’s gotten what he wants or they’re no longer of use to him, whichever comes first. What “Donar the Great” makes clear is that Wednesday’s always been that way, and he’s got no plans of changing any time soon.
Though Donar was able to draw respectable crowds to stare in awe at his glistening muscles, an opportunity for true fame and glory steps into Grimnir’s club in a form of a Nazi scout looking to recruit fighters to participate in a series of staged, propagandistic fighting. Abhorrent as the source of the offer is, Wednesday sees it as an opportunity for Donar to become part of a larger story of war—the kind of bloody conflict that once sustained ancient deities and elevated them to unimaginable levels of power.
Columbia, the original personification of America who fell on hard times when the French gifted the U.S. with a massive monument to the Roman goddess Libertas, sees it as an abomination, and she knows that in his deepest heart of hearts, Donar wants to accompany her to California where they might make it big in show biz.
“Donar the Great” also very knowingly nods to the rise of superhero franchises that have kept the core concepts associated with gods like Thor and Odin intact by adapting the myths about their lives into entertainment for modern audiences. In one scene, Donar performs a number of feats of strength, Columbia puts on a patriotic striptease, and a vintage-suited Technical Boy stares on in begrudging delight. In a way, you can see the whole spectacle as a reimagining of any number of Marvel films featuring Thor and Captain America flipping around to excite audiences.
At one point, Wednesday and Donar have a downright cinematic showdown behind the club and, wielding their legendary weapons, the two Norse gods come to blows in a scene that feels reminiscent of the moment when Hela shattered Thor’s hammer in Ragnarok. Here, it’s Odin’s spear that’s left in ruins, but what’s more interesting is that Wednesday seems to suddenly understand the kind of power that might come from an all-out battle between gods like himself and his son.
But the point of seeing all of this is to gain a deeper understanding of the fact that Wednesday is and always has been a master manipulator willing to sacrifice those closest to him in order to achieve his goals. As sensible as Columbia’s plan of running away is, Wednesday makes sure to misdirect both her and Donar into believing the other’s decided to pursue other options to maintain their immortality. Columbia takes the bait and ends up becoming Rosie the Riveter, ensuring her place in the American canon, but Donar ends up challenging his father to a battle, winning, and then subsequently committing suicide because he can’t stand to go on living the way he has.
While “Donar the Great” is chiefly focused on Wednesday and Shadow, the episode does feature an interesting moment elsewhere in America where Mr. World, realising that Wednesday’s moving faster than anticipated, calls upon New Media to harness the power of her followers in preparation for battle. As outwardly calculating and aesthetically manufactured as the original Media was, what we see is that New Media interacts with humans in a fundamentally different way.
Rather than presenting herself to people as one specific pop cultural icon, she derives her power from the very fabric of social media itself in tiny bursts of engagement that, while perhaps not as substantive as what original Media might have gotten from a single David Bowie concert, are far more numerous and always pouring in. As a concept, it works as a kind of commentary about what it is that we get out of social media, but at the same time, it’s obvious that this was a budget-friendly way of exploring New Media’s abilities.
At this point in American Gods’ second season (there are only two episodes left), the show has slowed down so much and zoomed into such specific aspects of characters’ lives that it might really only be appealing to die-hard fans. That wouldn’t be a problem if “Donar the Great” wasn’t so heavy-handedly dropping hints about Wednesday’s big secret.