Though the scene wasn’t part of the original novel, the first episode of American Gods was a statement from showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green about the kind of story they wanted to tell — one where reflections on the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade become beautiful pieces of oration and lynchings are presented as grotesque works of art.
The dazzling visuals and innovative storytelling of American Gods’ first season made it so that, if you wanted to, you could overlook the showrunners’ decisions to hang a black man in the pilot episode. At least for a time, there was a sense that Shadow might end up exacting his revenge on the Technical Boy for what he did to him and American Gods would slow down to address the lynching for the profoundly barbaric, racist act of violence it was.
But as the season went on, Shadow’s lynching went largely unaddressed, and in moving on from the moment, American Gods proved that it was willing to tap into powerful, painful imagery without doing to work to make sure that audiences understood the showrunners were handling the associated ideas with care. With the show’s second season and a new showrunner came the hope that American Gods might have learned from its freshman mistakes. Last night’s episode — “The Ways of the Dead” — showed that, unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Varied as they are in form and strength, the many deities of American Gods are all the manifestations of the beliefs and convictions of their mortal believers turned into living, breathing flesh. But in this world, it isn’t just gods proper who walk the Earth desperately trying to find purpose and meaning in their lives. Nearly every powerful feeling or idea has the potential to become something more in the magical sense under the right circumstances, which “The Ways of the Dead” illustrates with the story of Will James.
Before we learn Will James’ name or anything of substance about the man he was or the life he lived, “The Ways of the Dead” chronicles the events leading up to his death on the fateful day he had the misfortune of crossing paths, and allegedly making eye contact, with a white woman. Like Emmett Till and countless other black men like him, James’ very presence in public spaces and his willingness to walk freely — as is his right — so incenses his town’s population of racists that it takes nothing for them assume that he’s the culprit when the white woman turns up dead one morning.
Without any sort of trial or investigation, James is dragged through the streets as the town of Cairo, Illinois marvels and cheers at his impending execution. James, for his part, resigns himself to the fact that all things die.
While there is a larger significance to James’ lynching, it’s difficult to put one’s finger on why “The Ways of the Dead” absolutely had to open with one of the most nauseating depictions of violence against black bodies of the year so far, and even more difficult to understand what the viewer is meant to take away from it within the context of the episode. As Shadow awakes from his dreamlike visions of James’ past in Cairo, he’s literally and figuratively haunted by the sense that there’s something more to Cairo than Wednesday and his associates have let on, and it’s got something to do with the man from his nightmares.
In Will James’ murder, there are echoes of Shadow’s own life and the episode further suggests there might be more to Laura’s destiny as a kind of harbinger of death that neither of them is properly aware of. Like Essie Tregowan in season one, the woman James is accused of murdering is portrayed by Emily Browning, and while it’s never explicitly stated, the implication is that both Wednesday and Ibis know that there’s some sort of connection between Laura and these women who very well may be her ancestors.
Again, like with the lynching in season one, you can look at this bit of world-building (which also wasn’t part of the novel) as American Gods’ attempt to delve into the realities of American history in order give more depth to the lives of its supporting characters. But nothing about the plot ever makes it feel like the ideas at work have been properly thought over and no consideration’s been taken for what the experience of actually watching a carefully shot lynching is actually like.
“The Ways of the Dead” spends a great deal of time following Shadow as he figures out that Will James’ death inflicted a curse on Cairo that’s responsible for the town’s decades-long history of brutalizing and murdering black people—a kind of supernatural scar borne out of the terror and pain he felt in his dying moments. In time, Shadow learns that Ibis and his associate Jacquel have been taking advantage of the curse for years, dutifully collecting the murdered bodies of black and brown people and subjecting them to their divine funerary arts before ushering them into the world of the dead to weigh their hearts on a golden scale.
It’s a revelation that’s meant to be shocking and make you understand that even the most dignified of the old gods have been capable and willing to harm their own people out of the desire to survive in America, but you can’t help but ask yourself, “What am I supposed to be getting out of this?”
Why do we need to see a black man vomiting up blood as he’s being paraded around for the enjoyment of a racist mob? In what way did American Gods’ creative team feel as if it’d laid the groundwork for this particular narrative to land in a way that wouldn’t be traumatic for audiences? Are we really just supposed to accept that two of the most major gods of the Egyptian pantheon have been sending black people to the slaughter for their own personal gain?
Because “The Ways of the Dead” doesn’t (and can’t, really) delve into any of those ideas in a substantive way, its depiction of a lynching becomes an extension of the spectacles that lynchings are. In more skilled hands, the episode could have possibly been the kind of subplot that better reflected American Gods’ understanding of the difficult position that the show’s black gods have always found themselves in, given the plight of black Americans.
But instead, it ends up feeling like a twisted version of the Mike Ainsel plot from the novel that revels in images of black suffering.
It’s a shame that “The Ways of the Dead” is built around such a fraught and mishandled centrepiece because, on the whole, the rest of the episode is quite good. Perhaps not season one good, but certainly operating with a newfound rhythm and pattern that makes the show’s characters delightful to watch to interact.
As Shadow’s having his crisis of faith in Cairo, Salim’s struggling to reconcile his love for the Jinn with the Jinn’s distaste for Salim’s unwavering faith in one god. Despite all of the literal gods Salim’s encountered during his travels with the Jinn, he’s resolute in his commitment to Allah, which amuses Wednesday and perturbs the Jinn.
Even though American Gods has nodded to the idea that the deities of the world’s major monotheistic religions have no real need to become involved in Wednesday’s war, it’s interesting to see the show focus on one mortal’s personal relationship to a god who, for the purposes of the show, isn’t likely to manifest physically the way other gods do.
Like his relationship with the Jinn, Salim’s faith is a personal, complicated thing that’s built on his own connection to god, which is something that none of the other magical beings at all factor into. Salim understands that other beings who are gods exist, to be sure, but for him, God is a singular concept who both is and isn’t part of the world he’s found himself in.
In a not altogether different way, the episode continues to unpack the more personal relationships between gods and humans in the new connections Bilquis is making with the people of Cairo who, following the murder of another member of the Goodchild family, are once again in mourning. Gruesome as it is to think of, it’s implied that James’ curse on Cairo is part of what’s bonded Cairo’s black community together.
Bilquis sees that in moments where violence strikes, everyone in the town is brought together in solidarity, but she also understands that their plight is the direct result of other gods’ actions. There’s no reason she can’t step in and offer them something different — another kind of spiritual lighting rod that could draw them all together.
At this point, American Gods is…well, it’s difficult to say where the show’s going. It’s deviated away from the path of the source material into new, and often messy spaces where lofty ideas land with leaden thuds, and bright moments of character development are brushed aside as the show plows on towards its season finale. American Gods still has its moments of visual brilliance that make you appreciate what the show’s trying to do, but what it’s actually managing to do is becoming less compelling to watch.