Tonight’s episode of American Gods, “A Murder of Gods,” has a central image that’s particularly resonant when seen a few days after Donald Trump announced that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, fueling bipartisan exasperation. The image is a master shot of a fictional Virginian town called Vulcan, which offers a parodic microcosm of the issues of pollution and gun lust that grip this country. White townspeople stroll the streets with rifles and red armbands, while a great plant operates in the background, dwarfing the foreground and pumping vast and supernaturally dark plumes of smoke into the sky.
To call such a composition “on the nose” is to miss the point, as the show’s creators and co-screenwriters, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, are embracing go-for-broke, preach-from-the-pulpit obviousness, bluntly equating conservative America to a cult of superstitious fanatics in the name of protest art. In its thematic intent and scalding rage, “A Murder of Gods” recalls Garry Wills’s essay for The New York Review of Books, “Our Moloch,” which likened our worship of guns to the reverence paid to a debauched Old Testament god:
“The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”
This shot of Vulcan also taps a third American-centric nerve center: corporate fascism disguised as good-’ol-boy bonhomie. Corporations understand that much of the populace can be owned for pitifully little, as most people require only superficial totems of freedom, which have been deemed culturally sacrosanct so that we may not discuss them without lapsing into hostility. The Vulcan plant manufactures firearms and bullets, and, in an earlier sequence, viewers see a man collapse into a vat of lead, burning alive as a necessary sacrifice to the tenants of ’Murica.
This religiosity of guns and bullets—a brilliant corporate fashion of misdirecting and dividing the populace, preventing it from uniting against its oppressors—is first introduced in the prologue, where Americans gun down Mexicans crossing the border into Texas. In a sick twist, Jesus Christ (Ernesto Reyes) is killed along with the Mexicans, which complements a running joke in pop culture that insists that our apparent savior wouldn’t win a contemporary political election, as he would be demonized by the right as a socialist. As Jesus dies, director Adam Kane films the American guns with phallic reverie, the bullet casings popping out with ejaculatory agency.
Vulcan is named after an ancient Roman god of volcanoes and forge, played superbly by Corbin Bernsen as a rarefied being of expensive guns and good liquor who knows when to turn on the oily, masculine, blue-collar fireworks for the townspeople, who cheer as they fire hundreds of rounds into the sky. It never occurs to these people what might happen to the bullets when they drop, of course, and so Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) must warn Shadow (Ricky Whittle) of falling projectiles, which we see in fetishized close-up as they enter the sky and begin their downward trajectory.
Wednesday and Shadow are in Vulcan’s town to recruit him for the former’s mysterious campaign against the new gods, though Vulcan is an elder god who’s been able to adapt to the changing times. Vulcan’s volcanoes have been substituted with the fiery lead vats, and Vulcan’s gifts of forge are applied to guns instead of swords, which he embraces as being far deadlier and more practical anyway—though swords have a certain romantic and aesthetic panache. Wednesday, or Odin, as he was once known, hasn’t been able to get with the times, which is strange considering that he’s a god of war. If a god of war can’t make it in the U.S., then something’s truly amiss.
If “A Murder of Gods” often functions as the television equivalent of a liberal op-ed piece, complete with feelings of enraged futility (as only those already sympathetic to Fuller and Green’s causes will be receptive to their message), the differences between Vulcan and Wednesday’s respective statuses steer the episode into subtler terrain. In American Gods, deities work in a fashion similar to that of politicians, as both bedazzle the public for attention that gives them power. Wednesday’s resentment of Vulcan parallels the liberals’ resentment of conservatives, then, as both Wednesday and liberals expect their platforms to sell themselves. Vulcan, like the Republican Party, understandably has no faith in his platform, which empowers him to value the true social currency of showmanship. To quote Vulcan: “The power of fire is firepower, not God.” Guns, Twitter, and an endless and narcotic wave of controversy speak louder than self-righteous pieties about being “stronger together,” which is Wednesday’s message as much as Hillary Clinton’s.
There’s another political parallel that will be more explicit to those who’ve read Neil Gaiman’s source novel. Wednesday is out for himself and only himself under the pretense of wanting to unite the gods of yesteryear under an umbrella of empowerment, which sounds awfully familiar to those who’re deeply critical of Hillary Clinton and other liberal politicians who talk the talk while fostering questionable alliances behind the curtains. Vulcan and Wednesday’s conversation suggests the American culture wars if they could be reduced to an intimate and singular mano a mano, and their words prove hauntingly ineffective. Retreating into his anger upon betrayal, Wednesday destroys Vulcan, beheading him with a new sword and cursing the latter’s gun industry with piss. There’s a sense of Wednesday succumbing to a temptation at which liberals must often feign discomfort: unbridled force. Wednesday’s pissing might offer a brief catharsis to progressives who’re tired of the relentless and grinding unreachability of the other side. To quote Wednesday earlier in the episode, “Everyone looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face, even if it crumbles under question.”
This narrative is the heart of “A Murder of Gods,” while the episode’s secondary storyline underlines the structural uncertainty that’s risked by Fuller and Green’s free-associative plotting, which utilizes Gaiman’s novel as a springboard for mixing Hannibal’s splatter-paint formalism with rotating orations about the state of America. While Wednesday and Shadow are negotiating with Vulcan, Laura (Emily Browning) and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) team up to do…something, running into Salim (Omid Abtahi), who says he’s driving in the direction of Mecca to find the djinn he encountered earlier in the season. Laura and Mad exchange good, bitchy repartee, which the actors bite into with fervor, but this subplot is an act of bookkeeping, getting the characters wherever they need to be for the season finale as well as potentially setting up new tangents for next year. “A Murder of Gods” exemplifies both the freedoms and constraints of television, offering an ambiguous and adventurous state-of-affairs address that’s larded with the convolutions and obligations of formula programming.
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