We are only two episodes into the first season, and we are all going a little mad (in a good way) for “American Gods.”As one of the gods, Mr. Wednesday, tells the character Shadow, “There are bigger sacrifices one might be asked to make than going a little mad.”
Each week we are gathering four super fans of the show—two Jesuits and two Jesuit grads—to discuss some of the themes and pull out the central questions.
The Starz show, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, is a fascinating trip through the forgotten corners of a fictional America, exploring what happens to the mythical gods who were brought to the country with the beliefs of successive waves of immigrants and slaves. A mix of science fiction, fantasy and mystery, the story explores deep questions about spirituality, identity and power.
You can read Father Jim McDermott’s take on Episode 1 here.
Spoilers ahead, proceed only with appropriate levels of fear and trembling.
Jim McDermott, S.J.: I have to say the experience is a bit mystifying at times. I think for me the jury is still out on whether the lack of information will stay fun for the longer term. I’m all for long, jazzy riffs on reality, and all the more when delivered by the likes of Orlando Jones or Gillian Anderson or Ian McShane. (This cast!) I just hope there’s a real story here, too.
Eric Sundrup, S.J.: I think that is exactly what they (the writers and perhaps by extension the gods) want. There is a lot we do not understand. We are expected to trust and keep going. That requires a leap of faith. We are really working on a hunch, fumbling around in the dark. I think that suspense of being in the dark is what drives our desire for more and even our need to dissect and talk about the show afterward. Learning to work with a lot of unknowns is a basic part of spirituality.
Jim: Not having read the book, I have no idea why Shadow is such a big deal. And from a story point of view I can’t figure out why he’s not asking that question, either. Your name is Shadow Moon, bro. Something is up with you. But I think it’s interesting for now to consider him as just like us, a person caught in the midst of a battle for our belief.
“American Gods” isn’t shying away from exploring the connections between racism, racial tensions and the violence, oppression and even blood that feed some of these gods.
Alex Guyton: They framed the episode with two very different discussions on race and the identity of being “black.” Mr. Nancy shows up to inform the men in the ship that not only have they been given the identity of being black, but that this new identity is going to wholly shape their (and their children’s, and their children’s children’s) fates.
Wyatt Massey: Mr. Nancy leverages his awareness of American race relations to get what he wants by detailing the disturbing definition of blackness in America. Czernobog’s later attempt to connect with Shadow as his “only black friend” is cringeworthy, as the line highlights how out of touch the Slavic god is with the world he inhabits. Another example of how the myths of yesterday clash with the reality of the present.
If the opening scenes of the first episodes taught us anything, it is that blood is the fuel of the gods. On the shores of America in Episode 1, Vikings slaughter one another in hope of wind to take them home. Then the slaves fight and die, incited by the words of a god and the hope for freedom.
The gods of the show, whether new or old, seem keen to persuade followers to believe the myth of redemptive violence.
Alex: This episode does an excellent job setting up what will presumably be a prominent theme of the show—even as the gods need the belief and worship of humans, they are entirely unrepentant about killing them to get the worship fix they need.
Eric: I couldn’t help but be annoyed that the whole ships burns and sinks and then amidst the wreckage, the only thing that survives and makes it to shore is the very creature that advocated violence. This show is going to have a lot of gods promoting the myth of redemptive violence… and that’s really going to annoy me.
Alex: It’s entirely in character with not only the gods as they’ve so far been presented in the show, but with the original Anansi myths on which he’s based—Anansi the Spider is a cunning, duplicitous, conniving trickster who only cares first and foremost about himself.… For thousands of years, humans have been willing to sacrifice time and money and health to things (whether capricious gods or phone screens) that give little to nothing back and certainly don’t care about their well-being.
Wyatt: This is expressed by Bilquis, too. Her consumption of people is disturbing and may turn viewers off, but it’s merely another altar. We don’t think twice about the media altar of the TV that we worship on the daily. The show raises the question of whether an adoration to an old god is really that much different from that to our new gods.
Are you tuning into American Gods too? What did you think?
Eric Sundrup, S.J. is an Associate Editor and Director of Audience Development at America. He is overjoyed that reading and watching America Gods now counts as “work.” @sunnydsj
Jim McDermott, S.J. is a screenwriter and the Los Angeles Correspondent for America. @PopCulturPriest, tinyletter.com/jimmcd
Wyatt Massey is an O'Hare Fellow at America, writing about social justice and producing podcasts. He is an introvert, runner and self-diagnosed health nut.
Alex Guyton is a development associate at A Chance in Life. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2013 and has a keen interest in baklava, Neil Gaiman and early morning runs.