“Come to Jesus” ends the first season of American Gods on an awkward and anticlimactic note. Creators and co-screenwriters Bryan Fuller and Michael Green seem to be aware of their own perversity, cracking a joke about it early in the episode. Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) are at the office of Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), the present incarnation of the god Anansi, who’s tailoring suits for the next leg of their journey. For a moment, it seems that we’ve dodged the obligation of sitting through a deity origin tale that typically opens each episode, until Mr. Nancy announces that he has a story, which Wednesday greets with comic frustration while nursing a tall whiskey. Wednesday is clearly speaking for the audience here, who may be understandably weary of yet another damn flashback.
I’ve often defended the flashback structure of American Gods, as it has indicated a willingness to deviate from the plot-dispensing obligations of prestige television and screw with audience’s expectations. “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” was almost entirely a flashback, which movingly refuted the functions of penultimate episodes that perfunctorily serve to ramp up tension or resolve outlying plot threads. This willingness to wander is becoming a trend in TV, which is adapting the free-associative textures of experimental cinema. The current season of Better Call Saul resolved its central narrative thread several episodes ago and has been splintering off into multiple tangents that cumulatively suggest the structure of a short-story collection. Easy is an anthology collection with riffs organized by theme and aesthetic rather than plot, while Twin Peaks: The Return has so far spent six episodes parceling out driblets of plot that, in a strict literalist fashion, could’ve been provided within the premiere.
American Gods isn’t as sophisticated as these other shows, not yet anyway, and the dilly-dallying of “Come to Jesus” suggests disorganization rather than a bracing break from cliché. Why, for example, is a quarter of this episode’s running time devoted to the origin story of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki)? Why now, rather than earlier, when we first met the character (a modernization of the Queen of Sheba), or later, in the second season, when she’ll presumably be an antagonist for Wednesday and Shadow?
We first see Bilquis in “Come to Jesus” in 864 B.C.E. in the Bar’an Temple, which is now located in Ma’rib, Yemen, in the midst of an orgy. An overhead shot of naked revelers writhing together recalls an image from Fuller’s Hannibal, where victims were arranged in a macabre tableau of a human eye. A king approaches Bilquis, his head memorably morphing into a fleshy crown as he attempts to tame her only to be consumed by her, as he and the other worshippers devolve into a primordial soup that Bilquis sucks up with her vagina. It’s odd that American Gods has conditioned us to regard such a sequence as par for the course.
Mr. Nancy narrates Bilquis’s story over the ensuing millennia, where she runs afoul of terrorists in 1970s-era Tehran and winds up in present-day New York City, drained of reverential power by the terrorist bombing of the Mahram Bilquis, her shrine of worship. Her looks dwindling, Bilquis begins to live as an aging homeless woman of the streets, until Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) offers her an opportunity to adapt with the times, showing her a smartphone with a Tinder profile. Like anyone else, Bilquis will have to take her act online to thrive in the 21st century, and she does, rejuvenating herself into the powerful and beautiful succubus we first met at the beginning of the season. Technical Boy calls in a favor though: He wants Bilquis to go after Wednesday and Shadow, who’re clearly preparing for war against the New Gods of technology, corporation, and multimedia.
“Come to Jesus” springs to life when it transitions over to a pastoral Kentucky wonderland, where Easter (Kristin Chenoweth) resides. Like Bilquis, Vulcan, or any other old god who’s managed to survive the tech-drunk pseudo-atheism that commands modern American life, Easter has adapted. Most people believe that she pertains to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is celebrated each year via rituals that have little if anything to do with Christ, such as elaborate dinners, the coloring of eggs, and the mass consumption of candy. Easter is truly Ostara though, the goddess of spring. Ostara has her roots in Pagan beliefs, to which most Americans feign superiority while co-opting parts of pagan rituals that are deemed amusing. See also: the 21st-century American commodification of Halloween and Christmas.
Easter has been wittily envisioned as a sexy, debauchedly manicured power housewife who seems primed to headline, say, The Real House-Goddesses of Atlanta. Easter’s resentment at obscuring her true origin for modern marketability symbolically suggests the bitterness a fortysomething woman might feel toward the pressure that’s imposed on her, by prejudicial male osmosis, to magically resemble a twentysomething for several decades. Chenoweth delivers her lines with a sensual yet hard comic timing that simultaneously telegraphs Easter’s power and vulnerability, painting a portrait of a woman who’s entrapped within a contrived decorum that she nevertheless renders intoxicating. Corporatized stereotypes, in this case of the rich, über-Southern cougar, are reductive yet ferociously appealing, particularly to the straight-male lizard brain, and this is how they flourish in spite of more reputable social self-consciousness.
There are other clever touches in the episode, such as the multiple Christs that appear at Easter’s holiday party, each signifying the face of a different culture, and Jesus Prime, as he’s amusingly billed, is played by Jeremy Davies, who’s learned over the years to parody his once maddening mannerisms. Easter’s property has a hallucinatory pastel twinkle, and the notion of Easter bunnies as messenger pigeons is put to cheeky use, particularly when Wednesday spitefully runs a bunch of them over in his car. But “Come to Jesus” is also bogged down in cumbersome plot mechanics that obscure its emotional core, which is Shadow’s understanding that gods are real and that his mentor, Wednesday, is Odin, the god of War. Shadow’s proclamation to Wednesday that he now believes in “everything” has no weight, as it’s competing with the crescendos of several other subplots. (It’s also become evident that Whittle can’t hold his own with these other heavyweight actors.)
The season climaxes with a disappointing replay of an argument that we’ve already seen a half-dozen times throughout the series. Mr. World (Crispin Glover), Media (Gillian Anderson), and Technical Boy crash Easter’s party and argue with Wednesday over the modern nature of worship. Wednesday insists that the New Gods provide innovative distraction while the Old Gods truly inspired their believers—an assertion to which Green and Fuller have been clearly sympathetic throughout the series, even while acknowledging the endless carnage committed in the name of Old Gods.
The rootlessness of modern corporatized atheism is an important theme for art to explore, but Fuller and Green have used this premise as justification for staging a prolonged and potentially endless coitus interruptus. American Gods is about a war between old and new cultures, between reactionary and potentially progressive tendencies, and it’s time for the series to dare to imagine that war and its ramifications. This episode couldn’t even give us closure on Laura’s (Emily Browning) quest for resurrection, concluding even this subplot with a teaser for the second season. American Gods is a strikingly ambitious and rapturous series, but its outrageousness is beginning to scan as self-congratulatory guardedness. It’s time for American Gods to move its players in place and for it to push beyond thematic foreplay and embrace the flawed and terrifying present tense.
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