Believing is seeing in American Gods Episode 6: A Murder of Gods

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Jun 4, 2017

WARNING: Here be spoilers for American Gods Season 1, Episode 6: "A Murder of Gods."

Liz: Strange visions that are more than just visions materialize when you believe. Even without Technical Boy’s hallucinogenic smoke, you may start seeing things that you could have sworn weren’t there, but somehow always were there. Suddenly your eyelids fly open to fire-eyed spirits, flashes of otherworldly light, and the reanimated dead meandering around a motel parking lot.

What the human and somewhat human characters call their reality in this episode is shaped by their soap bubble of belief. You would probably dismiss the intense golden glow that halos everything around you as a trick of light, or too much vodka (which was as close to rubbing alcohol as you could get if you didn’t believe that the throbbing life-force in your ribcage kept you out of your coffin and smoking cigarettes you could never taste).

Even where the dead walk in heels and the living are desperate to know what they want, even where what seems beyond belief is beyond denial, there is still a specter of doubt.

Alyse: Again, not having read the book, I don't know how this episode compares with what is written, but this episode was the most overtly political episode so far, with immigration and guns coming to the forefront.

Liz: Somewhere in a forgotten night, on one side of a perilous divide, a god is reflected in the desperate faces of refugees, anxious with shadow and eager with moonlight. They wade into unknown waters to cross a river whose other bank means freedom. On the other side, the same god shines through pickup truck headlights and gleams in chrome crosses and the cold, merciless metal of that loads and clicks and crucifies with bullets.

Gunshot-clear is the disturbing contrast between these groups of believers as the yellowed pages in Mr. Ibis’ journal leap to raw and unfiltered life onscreen. Belief is darker than temple incense and jeweled offerings. Belief is the heat of fear and the blood of sacrifice. While this particular refugee scene was not imagined in the novel, it still lives, breathes and dies with the same authenticity.

Alyse: A group of immigrants attempt to make the journey from Mexico to America. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't go very well. What is interesting about the way American Gods shows this clichéd scene is what the immigrants and the border patrol have in common: religion. Specifically, a Christian god. The immigrants are shown praying; one of them has an enormous crucifix tattooed on his arm. When he nearly drowns while crossing the river, Jesus appears and saves his life. But when the immigrants get to American soil, the border patrol (or border mercenaries) are there to greet them with bullets. These mercenaries believe in a Christian god too, characterized by the crosses that decorate their cars, their necks ... and their guns. "Thy Kingdom Come" is etched onto at least one of the firearms. This is a beautiful way to show two groups of people who, presumably, worship the same god—but in very, very different ways.

Liz: Shadow’s world has spiraled into a neon chaos of con men, dive bars, computerized facehuggers, blasphemous altars, electrical wires, digital ghosts, gods gasping their last breaths and an undead wife who refuses to let her sordid past die. Not to mention the counterfeit FBI agents who stabbed him with what he bitterly calls Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

An obvious source of tension between Shadow and Wednesday is the blurring of the tenuous line between hard, gritty reality and the supernatural flashes of what is actually happening but shouldn’t be possible. Believing is seeing when the unreal trespasses on perceived reality. Who is Wednesday? He is flesh, blood and booze in a khaki trench coat. He is also some sick magician who makes snow swirl and lightning flash. While Ian McShane flawlessly sells the con man angle of Wednesday like a caricature of The Godfather, you still get the sense that there is something primal and powerful underneath that is just now starting to break the surface like hot magma.

Alyse: Shadow is starting to believe that Wednesday is not just a man, but something more, something that the pair have been working toward this entire season. And yet Wednesday is still cagey about actually coming right out and explaining anything to Shadow. Shadow has to come to his beliefs on his own. "What came first—gods or the people who believe in them?" Mr. Wednesday asks. Of course, it's a lot easier to believe in the unbelievable when a man heals you with little more than a touch.

Liz: Is it really an afterlife when your cold flesh doesn’t leave fingerprints on glass and your breath no longer becomes a shroud of fog on the windowpane? When you are flesh to some and a phantom to others? When you can’t even taste vodka so cheap it might as well be acetone?

If Laura learns anything, it’s that your reality doesn’t have to make any sense. You’d probably have the same mentality if you were standing in a motel parking lot in the middle of the night next to some gangly weirdo who swears he’s a leprechaun and name-drops Jesus Christ like he has connections beyond the pearly gates—but somehow, you swallow all of this and find yourself in the backseat of a New York City taxi driven by a lunatic who dreams of genies. At least he swears he had a sexual encounter with a genie.

Ironically, the reanimated corpse of Laura whose veins now flow with formaldehyde and 100-proof alcohol seems to be more human than the one who was alive, who used her husband’s prison term as an excuse to slam his best friend on the mattress when she wasn’t dealing cards in a casino and whispering illegal hints out of the side of her mouth. Maybe it has something to do with what she realized made her dead heart beat exactly once.

Alyse: Salim, Mad Sweeney and Laura make an interesting—though expected—trio. Forced to work together due to circumstance (Mad Sweeney wants what Laura's got, and Laura needs what Salim's got), they are three distinct personalities who would probably never cross paths in any normal circumstance. Plus, Mad Sweeney gives birth to the best pseudo-insult ever.

Liz: When you think of Americana, you may think of Route 66 and diner apple pie, of the mythical Uncle Sam, of I Want You posters and Fourth of July sparklers, of faded road signs and vintage relics, and the laughing residents of Mayberry who somehow appear rosy-cheeked even in black and white. Vulcan, Iowa, is not Mayberry.

Vulcan is a place that has been warped into a fascist state with red, white and blue armbands that bastardize patriotism with their eerie echo of Nazi uniforms. It is a place where solemn-faced residents with the frozen fire of violence in their eyes march along the sidewalk in an accidental lockstep, and salutes rain down in showers of bullets manufactured in the almost godlike factory that beats as its artificial heart. Except there is no heart here. Falling into a vat of molten metal is as commonplace as sipping your morning coffee.

What is unsettlingly apparent in Vulcan is that brainwashing is the shadow-self of belief, and there is one man who has engineered a society so twisted.

Alyse: We meet a new god tonight, Vulcan. Vulcan was/is the god of volcanoes, but his practicality is severely limited, what with our scientific understanding of volcanoes nowadays. So he channels his fire into something new: running a smelting factory that creates bullets. Each bullet is etched with his name, so each life a bullet claims is a sacrifice to Vulcan. Just to be sure, though, he makes sure the guardrail above the giant vats of molten metal is loose, so that a worker will have a little accident and become part of the bullets.

Going back to the political overtones, the town of Vulcan is literally a police state. I wish we had delved into that a bit more. Was the police state a byproduct of the bullet factory, or vice versa?

Last week I mentioned that Mr. Wednesday should consider evolving, and accept at least some of the ideas of the new gods. This week, Vulcan proves that an evolution can be accomplished. He moved past the hand crafting of weapons and embraced machinery—a move that surprises Mr. Wednesday, a die-hard old god. Whether or not Vulcan's egotistical, indifferent demeanor is a byproduct of this evolution, or whether he has always been this way, is not discussed in this episode.

Liz: Vulcan was forged by Vulcan. This hyper-modernized version of a deity that was ignited by fire in the bowels of the earth has somehow risen as dictator of an alternate America that worships blood and steel. He sips the nectar of the gods from crystal chalices after days spent manning the factory that churns out bullets that commit secondhand sacrifices through the firearms they rocket from.

Inevitably, there would be conflict between Wednesday and this neo-god whose proverbial bones are made of steel, but who lets slip that he still hasn’t forgotten the old ways, and keeps an ominous relic in his backyard. Vulcan is everything that gleams as vulgar and profane in Wednesday’s glazed-over eyes. He is the hybrid that Mr. World and his henchmen so tantalizingly proposed that Wednesday evolve into when he was handcuffed in the interrogation room. He is a ruthless manifestation of that fusion of flame and electricity that both burns in ancient darkness and bursts onto a computer screen in a rainbow of a million stars.