Starz’s American Gods comes into its own with “The Secret of Spoon,” achieving a free-associative emotional ferocity that wasn’t fully present in last week’s “The Bone Orchard.” While the phrase “free-associative” feels right as a descriptor of this episode’s wandering, hallucinatory emotional texture, “The Secret of Spoon” is actually quite tightly structured and governed by rhyming symbols, in a manner that recalls co-creator Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.
A jolting prologue indicates right off the bat that we’re entering terrain of increasingly uncomfortable social resonance. “The Secret of Spoon” opens on a Dutch slave ship heading for America in 1697. Under the deck are African slaves, who’re chained together to the vessel’s walls. This ship is in no way meant to scan as realistic: The space is vast in comparison to the accounts one reads of slaves being essentially stacked on top of one another, and the cinematography abounds in noir-ish hues, suggesting a jazz club, which complements the score’s improvisational style. There’s something tongue in cheek about this luridness that refutes the earnestness that often pervades films about slavery, which render atrocity palpable for modern audiences by inviting them to congratulate themselves for their unchallenged empathy. This tongue-in-cheekiness explodes upon the arrival of Anansi (Orlando Jones), the god to whom the slaves are praying, who appears as a spider before presenting himself as a human impeccably dressed in a suit colored with shades of indigo—a hue that slaves produced in America.
The humor of this scene isn’t callous, but scalding in its rage, suggesting the sweet-and-sour tonal complexity of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. Anansi knows the future of America’s relationship with African descendants, and he tells the slaves a story: “Once upon a time, a man got fucked!” The plus side, Anansi informs them, is that the tobacco their ancestors will be forced to harvest will give cancer to some slave-owners. Anansi speaks in blunt aphorisms, which Jones delivers with a magnetic mixture of sympathy and contempt, playing the god as equal parts preacher, stand-up comedian, and civil rights activist. Anansi inspires the slaves to burn the ship down, tearing their shackles apart. In an intensely moving image, one of the slaves picks up a hammer, an instrument of oppression, and initiates a brief and glorious revolution.
A different hammer appears later in “The Secret of Spoon,” as a talisman that connects the present-day narrative with the prologue, but first a bit of orientation. In the contemporary narrative, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is traveling the country with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) to serve an aim that’s yet to be revealed. At this point, it’s safe to say that some of these magnetic characters are probably gods, somehow connected to the figures of worship seen in the prologues. Last week, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) appeared to Shadow through a futuristic virtual reality helmet and asked about the nature of Wednesday’s quest, clearly feeling threatened yet insisting that his new breed couldn’t be beaten. This week, Shadow is visited by Media (Gillian Anderson), who offers him a softer and more seductive version of the same story, trying to recruit him to join her side. Media appears on multiple televisions in a department store, commandeering an episode of I Love Lucy as Shadow stands in a hall of screens that form an arresting geometric image, which echoes the coffin shape of Technical Boy’s simulation of a limousine.
Shadow and Wednesday arrive in Chicago after a stretch of atmospheric wandering that includes an iconic shot of the America Motel and a cutaway to a montage of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) eating more people alive during coitus, including lovers of both sexes who’re predominantly white. Bilquis’s interludes this week are introduced with a spectacular image of a white man floating around in space naked with a perpetual hard-on, presumably affording us a glimpse of existence after one enters a god’s vagina.
It’s Shadow and Wednesday’s confrontation with Czernobog (Peter Stormare), however, that constitutes the meat of this episode. We don’t know much about Czernobog yet, except that he’s a Slavic hustler living with a makeshift family that includes Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman) and her two much younger sisters. Wednesday wants to recruit Czernobog for his mystery mission, and the latter is adamant in his determination to reside on the sidelines of this literalizing of that most fashionable of phrases: “culture war.” Eating dinner, Czernobog ribs Shadow about being black, claiming that everyone is the same color where he’s from, and so they must “fight over shapes” instead. Czernobog, who strikes us as an unambiguously white man, claims to have been the figurative black man of his culture. This long and amazing riff parallels Anansi’s speech to the slaves, only this time we sense that we’re hearing from an oppressor rather than a sympathizer. Or are the gods all simultaneous oppressors and sympathizers?
Czernobog claims to have once worked in slaughterhouses, in charge of smashing cows’ skulls with a sledgehammer, which requires finesse that was rendered obsolete when the bolt gun was invented. Czernobog is a working-class guy who’s bitter about a technological innovation that’s left him adrift—the sort of concern that dominates today’s global politics and seems to benefit only the ascension of fascist figures. (Fans of horror films will also find Czernobog to be an erudite variation on the family of disenfranchised killers from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) Such technological innovations are also actively embodied, of course, by Technical Boy and Media. Czernobog brings out the sledgehammer from his past, ruminating on how blood can both polish and sully this instrument of death. In other words, we’re watching an aging white man threaten a young black man with a hammer, casually evoking centuries of whites having all the power while often managing, at least presently, to feel powerless. Shadow gazes at the sledgehammer, which begins to ooze thick, viscous, giallo blood.
It’s worth noting that Shadow wasn’t black in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Racial cruelty and hypocrisy were concerns of the novel, and Gaiman connected them to the complementary hypocrisy of religion as an authoritarian organism that sanitizes the evils of subjugation in the minds of subjugators (as Technical Boy says in “The Bone Orchard,” religion is an “operating system”). But Fuller and co-creator Michael Green have viscerally fused the narrative’s various timelines, suggesting that the past is always the present, and that any illusion of post-racialism is ridiculous and dangerous. As I wrote last week, Gaiman’s novel is all theme, while Fuller and Green bring these themes to vicious and gnarly life. Czernobog and Shadow’s game of checkers was a dry bit of business in the book, but in “The Secret of Spoon,” it’s a disturbing and exhilarating rumination on class and racial identity, embodying Anansi’s assertion that “black” and “white” are inventions as racial signifiers—constructs like religion itself. “The Bone Orchard” and “The Secret of Spoon” both tellingly end with violence inflicted on a black man by whites.
However, neither version of American Gods is simply an atheist liberal’s screed about the awfulness of religious America. Religion is also understood by Gaiman, Fuller, and Green to be the font of communal ritualism, even ritualism that evolves or devolves into secular culture—as in pop culture. As in Hannibal, American Gods features fetishistic transition scenes, such as close-ups of cigarettes being lit, coffee being poured and drank, locks being unlocked, and candles being lit, and in “The Secret of Spoon” these ticks gain a particular significance. Religion isn’t just a social destructor, but a creator and bonder. The slaves in the opening sequence are given the power to revolt by their belief in a god, after all, and we’re often granted the power of empathy by bonding patterns of art, dance, song, and breaking of bread that might have once had their origins in religious ceremony. “The Secret of Spoon” is deeply critical of America, yet offers a glance toward the possibility of salvation that exists on the other side of life’s coin, right behind or in front of damnation, depending on how the coin’s flipped.
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