After the enraged and despairing racial-religious politics of “The Secret of Spoon,” “Head Full of Snow” serves as a tonal palette cleanser for American Gods, reveling in the solace of belief during times of loneliness and despair. The episode is appealingly scruffy around the edges, as television isn’t usually allowed to roam this freely. At times, “Head Full of Snow” suggests that creators and screenwriters Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and director David Slade are getting high on the existentialist fumes of Mad Men. And this episode also once again recalls certain portions of Fuller’s Hannibal, notably the first half of the third season, in which the characters wandered the Italy of our opera- and horror-film-fed imaginations.
The prologue signals this episode’s softer and guardedly optimistic tenor. As we know by now, each episode of American Gods begins with a primer scene in which a god associated with a specific culture is shown to flex its powers, usually to destructive ends. In “Head Full of Snow,” an Egyptian god of the afterlife, Anubis (Chris Obi), guides Mrs. Fadil (Jacqueline Antaramian) to her death. The reveal of Mrs. Fadil’s fate is elegant and poignant, as she’s cooking over the stove and answers a knock on the door to let in Anubis, who gradually allows her to see her own body collapsed on the kitchen floor.
Mrs. Fadil straightens the dress on her corpse, and wonders aloud why an Egyptian god should be here to greet a Muslim upon death. Anubis reminds Mrs. Fadil that she’s never forgotten the Egyptian stories told to her in childhood, and for that homage he’s here, paving the way for a wonderfully uncanny image: Anubis escorts Mrs. Fadil out onto her fire escape, and they walk the turquoise metal stairs all the way up into the sky, settling into a desert with a scale measuring goodness. Mrs. Fadil is stuck on the cultural significance of Anubis’s presence, as she’s afraid that an Egyptian deity won’t lead her to the afterlife of her family. Mrs. Fadil’s cat helps her take the plunge, abandoning the trivialities that characterize earthbound squabbling.
This notion of transcendence, of gods ironically inspiring humans to abandon the very prejudice that’s usually encouraged by religion, runs through “Head Full of Snow” as a thematic thread. In a vignette that’s disconnected from the show’s predominant arc, we meet Salim (Omid Abtahi), a salesman from Oman who’s trying to make a living within American capitalism, selling gaudy trinkets that no one wants to distributors who might allow him to net a big payday for his brother-in-law. Humiliated and dejected by an executive he was supposed to meet, Salim climbs into a cab driven by The Jinn (Mousa Kraish), who wears sunglasses to obscure his eyes of literal fire. The Jinn understands how capitalism has taken over religion, pickling us in greed and self-loathing, as his kind is only known by Americans as a granter of wishes.
Salim and The Jinn strike up a connection, which leads to a sequence that’s moving precisely for its metaphorical obviousness: They have sex in Salim’s motel room, which transitions to a vision of them in a desert realm presumably close to The Jinn’s Lost City of Towers, Ubar. There’s fire visible within The Jinn’s ghostly silhouette, and he penetrates Salim, transferring that fire into the mortal’s body. His compassion frees Salim. Capitalism convinces us that we don’t deserve any respect or compassion unless we earn it, which The Jinn actively refutes, reorienting Salim’s centrality of belief.
When Shadow (Ricky Whittle) and Wednesday (Ian McShane) talk of belief near the end of “Head Full of Snow,” they could just as easily be speaking of Salim and The Jinn or Mrs. Fadil and Anubis. Shadow is wrapping his mind around his entrance into a supernatural world that exists behind the curtain of our own, while Wednesday insists that Shadow’s only feigning disbelief. What might happen to Shadow if he allowed himself to believe in more beyond the gaudy televisions and cheap motels that constitute his life after prison? Wednesday asks Shadow if he believes in love, which the latter affirms. Wednesday then asks Shadow if he’s always believed in love, and the answer is no, not until he met Laura (Emily Browning), his now-deceased wife. See? And now belief has expanded the boundaries of your existence, Wednesday more or less counters.
Wednesday’s empathy with Shadow in this scene is nearly paternal—a certainly calculated change of pace from his glorious hucksterism. Still wrapped up in this exploration of belief is the continued criticism of the mentally and emotionally scrambling nature of American capitalism, which rewards salesmanship at the exclusion of all other qualities, leading to feelings of rootlessness and uselessness among vast portions of the populace. Among other pursuits and in proper proportion, religion and art can lead one to a place of wholeness and connection with Earth, self, and others. This is the gift that Anubis and The Jinn each give as reciprocation of the human gift of faith. Wednesday, sounding a little like the poet Gary Snyder, says that America is the only country that doesn’t know what it is, that you don’t hear of people searching for the “heart of Norway” or the “soul of Mozambique.” This sentiment, delivered with McShane’s usual chewy panache, hints at capitalism, as well as at America’s varied melting pot origins and its shameful roots in exploitation, with which we are still wrestling.
Moments of communion abound in “Heart Full of Snow.” The title springs from Shadow’s ability to will a snowstorm into Chicago, enabling Wednesday’s scheme to rip off a bank. Shadow’s thoughts of snow are visualized as larger-than-life flakes engulfed in blackness (beauty among a void) and as sheets of ice that gradually freeze over the copy machine that Wednesday uses to forge documents presenting him as a security guard. This is the sort of organized free association for which Fuller’s known. The gorgeous, peaceful whiteness of these visions complement a surreal moment earlier in the episode, when Shadow ascends a fire escape that takes him to a celestial urban skyscape, presided over by Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Carr), who tells Shadow of a beast chained in the stars of the sky, imprisoned by the gods. Zorya kisses Shadow (her first kiss, she claims), which aligns with Wednesday’s kissing of Polunochnaya’s older sister, Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), as they walk in a rainstorm that’s said to suggest a gathering war. Whatever the context, the rain is lovely.
Readers of Neil Gaiman’s novel will be suspicious of this cascade of interlocking goodwill. Wednesday is unusually sympathetic and appealing in “Heart Full of Snow,” but those unacquainted with this story would do well to focus on something else that Wednesday says to Shadow: The only thing that scares the old man is losing the belief of others. Belief is a font of goodness, yes, but also of hatred and profound self-absorption. It’s belief, after all, that brings Laura back to see Shadow, and resurrection in fiction and parable normally testifies only to the hidden benefits of life’s finality.
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