I Want to Believe: American Gods, “Head Full of Snow”

Well, that was another fantastic episode of American Gods. The show is really starting to pull together nicely. Not that it wasn’t already awesome, but not only has it hit its stride but it’s keeping up the pace without faltering. The story of Shadow, the gods, and America is expanding in astonishing and unexpected ways. I, for one, am thrilled to bits at the promise of Season Two.

Mr. Ibis’ “Somewhere in America” interludes deal with Middle Eastern people and mythical beings who find themselves trapped in a disappointing nation. In the first, we witness the death of Mrs. Fadil (Jacqueline Antaramian), an Egyptian immigrant grandmother. Rather than Allah, it’s Anubis (Chris Obi) who claims her, for when she was a child her grandmother taught her stories of the ancient Egyptian gods. Mrs. Fadil likely didn’t bring Anubis or his kin to America, but it was her belief, minuscule and nearly forgotten, that sustains them. On their journey to judgement, they are joined by her Sphynx cat, who eventually pushes a reluctant Mrs. Fadil into the afterlife. Cats were revered in ancient Egypt (we’ll talk about Bast a little later if and when the show does) and were often mummified alongside humans. Anubis claims Mrs. Fadil’s soul not solely as an act of divine power but also as a gesture of kindness for her decades of worship.

The second interlude tells of a failed salesman, Salim (Omid Abtahi), who came from Oman to sell his brother-in-law’s tchotchkes in New York. At his lowest point he gets a ride from a Middle Eastern cab driver (Mousa Kraish). The two men share a brief moment of despondence, and for the first time in Allah knows how long, neither feels alone. But there’s something deeper, something magical between them. When Salim sees the taxi driver’s flaming eyes he’s reminded of the stories his grandmother told him of the djinn and ifrit of ancient Arabia. Salim invites the cabbie up to his hotel room and their initial connection in their shared heritage becomes an intimate, almost spiritual one. The next morning, the cab driver is gone, having taken Salim’s belongings and presumably returned to his Omani homeland. Some might panic, but Salim sees this as his opportunity to finally live life on his own terms.

Of all the “Somewhere in America” chapters from the book, Salim’s story was the one that hit me the hardest. Abtahi and Kraish find the delicate balance between loneliness, desperation, and eagerness in their characters. That pause before Salim touches the djinn’s shoulder was heartbreaking; there were a dozen emotions in that hesitation, all of them shades of sad. As with the Bilquis interludes, the sex is explicit but not pornographic. We are witnessing an intimate moment between the djinn and the salesman, not peeping in voyeuristically on some hot man-on-man action. And like Bilquis, this is also a transactional moment. Her conquests gain ultimate pleasure in exchange for their worship, which fuels her survival. Despite his claims to the contrary, the djinn grants Salim’s wish for freedom, but in exchange Salim surrenders his old life and identity.

Back in Chicago, a storm is coming, much to Wednesday’s glee. Shadow wakes in the middle of the night to someone flitting through the living room. He follows the shadowy figure up the fire escape, and like Mrs. Fadil and her Anubis-altered fire escape, the Slavic stairs deliver him to an otherworldly place. Waiting on the roof is the youngest sister, Zorya Polunochnaya, an ethereal young woman who sparkles with tempered energy. This is her time, and she is comfortable if not satisfied with it. She watches the stars, keeping an eye on the monster trying to escape its sky prison. And she also watches Shadow. She sees in him what he’s lost—his head to Czernobog, most recently—and tsks him for not caring about it. “And now we have something. Oh! No! You have nothing. You believe in nothing so you have nothing. You are on a path from nothing to everything…You keep giving away your life. You don’t much care if you live or die, do you?”

In the book, Shadow plays both games of checkers back to back. It’s the first time we see him make a real choice, one that he wasn’t manipulated or coerced into making. It’s an act that starts off as an attempt to do what Wednesday hired him to do but becomes something bigger. “He snatched tiny opportunities, moved without thinking, without a pause to consider.” After last week’s episode I was worried they taking a different route with the scene and character development on the show. At first I was a little annoyed at how the show split up the games, but the more I think on it, the more I think it works better this way, in terms of the story the show is telling versus the book.

Moving the last game to after Shadow meets Zorya Polunochnaya doesn’t shift the meaning of Shadow’s win, although it does hint that he isn’t just winning based on his checkers skills. His interaction with her on the starlit rooftop bolsters his confidence—much like Salim’s tryst with the djinn plants the seeds of brazenness. Without his conversation with Zorya Polunochnaya, there’s no reason for Shadow to taunt Czernobog out of bed for another game. Fuller and Green made the right choice to not do a voiceover, but that also makes it much harder to know what’s going on in Shadow’s head. So they have to resort bumping up the interpersonal relations. Also take note of the men’s attire. In the rematch, Shadow and Czernobog switch colors in pieces and in clothing—Czernobog is dressed in all white, Shadow in black. Now it’s Czernobog who’s defeated.

None of the flirty stuff with Wednesday and Zorya Vechernyaya is in the book either, but it’s so damn good that I actually like the addition of their scenes together. Ian McShane and Cloris Leachman are everything that is good and holy in this world and all I want in life is a prequel spinoff of the two of them getting their romance on in 19th-century New York. And more than that, the additions clarify concepts from the book that would otherwise be lost in translation. McShane’s Wednesday is a Chatty Cathy compared to Gaiman’s Wednesday, but it allows the show to capture Shadow’s internal reflections and insights on his mercurial boss by grafting them onto McShane’s interactions. Fuller and Green don’t have to tell us that Wednesday’s a manipulative cad—we see it in his scheming with Zorya Vechernyaya. As with the tweaks to Shadow, Zorya Polunchnaya, and Czernobog, pumping up Wednesday and Zorya Vechernyay works just as well.

Shadow and Wednesday’s last bit of business this week is robbing a bank. Wednesday lives up to the ancient nickname “Swift Tricker” with his deposit collection scam. Being Wednesday, he uses a payphone for his bank heist. He knows full well that cellphones are cheap and easy (and probably come with a new god attached), yet he still relies on a freaking payphone. Payphones were still common enough back when Gaiman wrote the original novel, but by 2017 they’re practically relics. Do you know how hard Wednesday must have had to work to not only find an easy target bank but one that also still had a working payphone directly across the street? And yet, it’s so quintessentially Wednesday that of course he did.

So far in each episode, there’s been one scene that bests the book in every conceivable way. In the premiere, it was Audrey accosting Shadow, last week it was Anansi’s slave ship speech, and this week it was, hands down, Shadow thinking up a snowstorm. My gods, it was stunning. I’ve watched it half a dozen times and it gets lovelier each go-round. It’s everything Fuller and Green do so well. The scene works on multiple layers: as a “time passes” montage, breezing through all the ins and outs of Wednesday’s plan, an exploration of Shadow’s snowy meditation, and just something visually gorgeous to look at. Fuller and Green perfected scenes like this in Hannibal, then took it to a whole new level last night. I wanna go watch it again. It’s that pretty.

Mad Sweeney realizes he gave Shadow the sun coin, his lucky coin. Without it he’s less a leprechaun and more a downtrodden redhead with a drinking problem and terrible luck. What must that mean for Mad Sweeney? What is it like to suddenly be confronted with your own meaninglessness? Hoarding coins is his one job, and he couldn’t even do that. And now that Laura Moon (Emily Browning) has it, he may never get it back. He may never get himself back.

This week’s theme is believing in the unbelievable. Both Anubis and the djinn represent what happens when one myth is consumed by another. Modern Egyptians no longer believe in the gods of their ancient ancestors, with many having shifted their faith to Islam. Djinn came from early Arabic mythology before being adopted into Islam. They already went through what Odin and the Slavic gods fear from Technical Boy and Media. Yet they also survive because there are those out there who still believe, even if they don’t realize they do. Mrs. Fadil and Salim held onto their childhood faith, both cherishing the stories their grandmothers told them. Shadow, Mrs. Fadil, and Salim were all confronted with magic and had to choose whether or not to believe; unlike Shadow, the others were more than willing to take that leap of faith. Shadow, as Zorya Polunochnaya says, would rather die than live in a world with bears in the sky.

Death also gets some play this week. Mrs. Fadil discovers life after death, Salim has his petite mort in both the literal and metaphorical sense, Laura is dragged to un-life by Shadow’s discarded sun coin, and although Shadow lives, he may as well be dead for all he cares. Death is accidental for all participants, and what comes after that is just as confounding. Yet it’s also liberating, in a weird, unexpected way. Life didn’t live up to its promise, and neither does death meet people’s expectations.

Speaking of death, undead Laura Moon makes her first appearance, and it looks like next week’s episode will be Laura-centric. Shadow can faff about with whether or not he believes in magic, but face to face with his reanimated wife, that choice is about to be made for him.

Music

  • “I’m Into Something Good”—Herman’s Hermits: Particularly ironic given poor Mad Sweeney’s unlucky situation.
  • “St. James Infirmary Blues”—Danny Farrant and Paul Rawson: A traditional American folk song that may have been brought over from England in the 18th century. They lyrics were originally about a young man dying from some morally questionable behavior, but has over time become a lament to a lost female lover. It gained popularity in the traditional jazz era, but Josh White’s version is one of my favorites. As a nod to the final shot, the lyrics are particularly compelling: “I went down to the St. James Infirmary / Saw my baby there / Stretched out on a long white table / So sweet, so cold, so fair / Let her go, let her go, God bless her / Wherever she may be / She can look this wide world over / She’ll never find a sweet man like me.”

Final Thoughts

  • “Since when were you afraid of getting a little wet?” Oh my! Odin you scoundrel!
  • “This is the only country in the world that wonders what it is.”
  • I love the notion of half a dozen Jesuses just wandering around.
  • Another hotel room, another numerical significance. Shadow stays in room 55 and “5” is an important number in Islam—Muslims believe in the Five Pillars of Islam and pray to Allah five times a day.
  • The death of the kind driver (Scott Thompson) who picked up Mad Sweeney—that was some Dead Like Me shit right there.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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