“Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today? And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn’t room for them all in the world. And that some kind of war is kind of likely.” Mr. Wednesday, American Gods
As Jeff Jensen recently wrote in a piece for Entertainment Weekly, these days God is everywhere on TV: “He is a neglectful parent in The Young Pope, an absentee landlord on Preacher, a lie on The Path, and an investigated mystery in Reza Aslan’s Believer.” God also plays an important role in my current favorite show, The Leftovers, an exploration of the need for meaning in a world where God is either silent, or we simply cannot understand what its trying to tell us (I wrote about the show here and I am recapping it here). On Sunday April 30th at 9 pm Starz will add to this list with the premiere of the first episode of the visually arresting and narratively compelling TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.
Published in 2001, the novel follows Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle) , an ex-convict who, when released from prison, meets the charming and mysterious Mr. Wednesday (the Norse God Odin, played by Ian McShane). Mr. Wednesday enlists Shadow Moon’s help in recruiting the Old Gods, those that were brought to America from other parts of the world by explorers, settlers, and immigrants such as the Slavic god of darkness, Czernobog; Anubis and Thoth of ancient Egyptian religion; and Anansi, the trickster god from African popular religion, in an upcoming battle with the New Gods, those that have emerged in America as the product of American ideas and obsessions, such as Technical Boy (the god of technology and computers), and Media (the goddess that reflects our obsession with TV and fame, played by Gillian Anderson).
“When the people came to America they brought us with them. They brought me, and Loki and Thor, Anansi and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Kobolds and Banshees, Kubera and Frau Holle and Ashtaroth, and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean. The land is vast. Soon enough, our people abandoned us, remembered us only as creatures of the old land, as things that had not come with them to the new. Our true believers passed on, or stopped believing, and we were left, lost and scared and dispossessed, only what little smidgens of worship or belief we could find. And to get by as best we could.” Mr. Wednesday in American Gods, Chapter 6
The TV show, adapted by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, follows, at least in the four episodes that I was able to watch before the premiere, the premise and plot of the novel quite closely, but it also expands the world created by Gaiman (there is a new central character in Mr. World, the god of globalization, played by Kristin Glover) and translates it with the flare displayed in other shows created by Fuller, such as Hannibal and Pushing Daisies. As some other reviews of the show have also pointed out, there is something eerily relevant about the show in the context of our current political landscape: American Gods is a show that embraces the ethnic and religious diversity of America (tensions included) at a time when our president and his followers fight for the soul of a white America that never really existed:
“The important thing to understand about American history, wrote Mr. Ibis, in his leather-bound journal, is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored. For the most part it is uninspected, unimagined, unthought, a representation of the thing, and not the thing itself. It is a fine fiction, he continued, pausing for a moment to dip his pen in the inkwell and collect his thoughts, that America was founded by pilgrims, seeking the freedom to believe as they wished, that they came to the Americas, spread and bred and filled the empty land.” American Gods
Since this is a blog about religion in popular culture, let me focus my review of the show on four different themes: 1) the creative way the show approaches religious diversity and pluralism in America, 2) its understanding of religion as a reflection of society, 3) the incisive exploration of the dangers of faith, and 4) how American Gods is, at its heart, a road trip in search of the soul of America, a road filled with light, but also with plenty of darkness.
1. One Nation Under Many Gods
One of the most compelling aspects of the series is that, under the guise of an epic battle between the Old versus the New gods, the show explores the incredible religious diversity of America. According to the latest PEW research center report, 70.6% of Americans define themselves as Christian, with the rest of the population belonging to other faiths (5.9%), or unaffiliated (22.8%). If we dig dipper, though, we also find out that 11% of Americans say they were raised in more than one religion, 25% believe in astrology, 24% believe in reincarnation, and that up to 42% of Americans believe in ghosts. If we add that many of the religious holidays we celebrate (Easter, Halloween, Christmas) have deeper and more complex religious roots than we usually acknowledge, we are presented with a complex, fertile, and diverse religious landscape that it is usually flattened by our “One Nation Under God” included in the Pledge of Allegiance. Gaiman’s novel, and now the TV series, presents a world in which America contains a multitude of faiths and beliefs, some old and some new, that are fighting for the attention and worship of an always evolving society. The world created by Gaiman is also one in which old gods and faiths may fade, and even disappear (the main fear of the Old Gods), but those gods also change, evolve, and adapt to survive new historical periods and cultures. The series portrays this aspect of religion in poignant ways, such as in the way it presents Easter (played by Kristin Chenoweth), the Germanic goddess of dawn, that has been able to survive by hiding in plain sight within the now Christian celebration of Easter. People may go to church on Easter Sunday and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but they also celebrate it through Easter egg hunts and eating chocolate bunnies, both ancient symbols of fertility. The old hiding underneath the new…
2. We Have the Gods We Deserve: Religion as a Reflection of Society
Gaiman’s mythological worldview seems to represent the sociologist’s Émile Durkheim definition of religion as a reflection of society:
Before all, [religion] is a system of ideas with which the individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members, and the obscure but intimate relations which they have with it. This is its primary function; and though metaphorical and symbolic, this representation is not unfaithful. Quite on the contrary, it translates everything essential in the relations which are to be explained: for it is an eternal truth that outside of us there exists something greater than us, with which we enter into communion […] The god is only a figurative expression of the society. Religious beliefs are symbolic expressions of social realities.
Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Gods, according to Durkheim, are not ontological entities that exist separate from us, but are created and sustained by the people who worship them as a reflection of their ideas and values. In this context, the Old Gods in the series represent a world that does not exist anymore. They reflect attitudes and values long gone, and that only survive in modern America on the margins of society, or in hidden parts of the heartland. The series does a fantastic job portraying the hard lives of the Old Gods in a modern America that has moved on to new objects of worship. We have Mr. Wednesday, the world-weary American version of Odin, portrayed by Ian McShane. He survives by using whatever charm he has left and cunning his way out of any situation.
“What the hell else can I do? They don’t sacrifice rams or bulls to me. They don’t send me the souls of killers and slaves, gallows-hung and raven-picked. They made me. They forgot me. Now I take a little back from them. Isn’t that fair?” Mr. Wednesday
There is also Czernobog and the Zorya sisters, Slavic gods who now live in poverty in an apartment in Chicago. And we also have Anubis and Thoth, the ancient Egyptian gods of death and knowledge who are now in charge of a funeral home in a small town in Cairo, Illinois (I love how Gaiman ties his mythology onto the real landscape of America). And the first few episodes also spend some time with Bilquis, an old goddess of fertility mentioned in the Bible, but of older origins, who literally consumes people while having intercourse with them. She doesn’t only need their worship, she needs their physical sacrifice. There are many others, but this gives you a sense of some of the forgotten gods that populate the landscape in the series.
The main antagonists of the series are the New Gods, those deities that represent the central values of modern American society: money, power, fame, and technology, among others. The leader of the New Gods (a new addition to the series not found in the book) is Mr. World, played by Crispin Glover, the new god of globalization who also represents the modern ideals of unfettered capitalism. There is Media, a goddess played by Gillian Anderson, who represents our obsession with film and TV and who takes any form in order to persuade her target (there is a funny scene in which she presents herself to Shadow Moon as Lucille Ball through a TV). Technical Boy, is the newest and most dangerous of the New Gods, since he is young, petulant, and struggles to control his newfound powers.
“Now, […] there are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.” Mr. Wednesday
The creation of the New Gods is one of the most compelling aspects of the series. We may not see money, fame, and technology as gods, but make no mistake, we worship them all the same. Christianity in America is infused with the unending hunger of capitalism, as seen in the many mega churches that populate the American landscape, teaching believers the Gospel of Prosperity: God wants you to be rich! We may think that our obsession with fame is mostly ironic, and that we do not take Kim Kardashian and Kanye West all that seriously, but we just elevated Donald Trump, an attention and fame hungry self-styled billionaire, as our president. And our worship of technology can be seen in the centrality that electronic devices play in our lives: we want them, we need them, but they also control us.
One of the most fun aspects of the show is they way Fuller portrays these New American Gods: flashy, shiny, arrogant; what they lack in history and pedigree, they make up in swagger and confidence. They are an American interpretation of what an American God should look like, just like Vegas is an American interpretation of what taste and class, and luxury should be.
3. The Dangers of Belief
The series places an enormous amount of importance on the concept of belief. The word “believe” is in most of the promotional posters. Shadow Moon is constantly reminded of the importance of belief by Mr. Wednesday, as well as by a mysterious Buffalo that appears in his dreams: “Believe,” said the rumbling voice. “If you are to survive, you must believe.” Belief is presented as a central aspect of human nature. We may not be able to scientifically prove the things we believe, but they are important nonetheless. Religion and faith shape how we behave as individuals and how we function as a society.
“My kind of people see your kind of people…” he hesitated. “It’s like bees and honey. Each bee makes only a tiny, tiny drop of honey. It takes thousands of them, millions perhaps, all working together to make the pot of honey you have on your breakfast table. Now imagine that you could eat nothing but honey. That’s what it’s like for my kind of people…we feed on belief, on prayers, on love.” Chapter 10 of American Gods
At the same time, the show also incisively portrays the dangers of belief. The gods may be created by us, but they also end up having a life of their own. Our worship feeds them, but they also demand to be worshipped. In the realm of the higher metaphor that I think operates in the background of American Gods, we may think that we need money, power, technology, and even fame, but there is always a price to pay when we venerate those things and they end up controlling us. We become slaves of our own creations.
4. American Gods: a Road Trip in Search for the Soul of America
Wednesday: “This is the only country in the world that wonders what it is. No one wonders about the heart of Norway or goes searching for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.”
Shadow Moon: “Americans know who they are”
Wednesday: “They pretend to know who they are. It is still just pretending, just like I am pretending now, just like you.”
On the surface, American Gods reads like a road trip novel, something that the cover of the original edition of the book makes obvious with its image of an open road. During most of the book, Shadow Moon drives Mr. Wednesday across the secondary, less travelled roads of America in search of the Old Gods, who he is trying to recruit in his war with the New Gods. The Old Gods do not live in New York City, or San Francisco, but in the small towns of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. And their sacred places are not the churches or temples of mainstream religions, but the strange and sometimes downright bizarre roadside attractions (like the House on the Rock in Wisconsin that plays an important role at the beginning of the story) found in the heartland of America.
In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.” American Gods, Chapter 5
As someone who lived for two years in the small Wisconsin city of Eau Claire, it became very engaging reading the novel and seeing so many small towns in the Midwest portrayed as “power places” or locations with strong spiritual power. What makes American spirituality great to Gaiman is not its ability to elevate things, but its power to bring them down to our level. What makes these roadside attractions sacred places in the world of Gaiman is not their holiness, but their weirdness. His affinity for small town America in all of its beauty and strangeness made more sense to me when I found out that Gaiman lived for many years in the Wisconsin town of Menomonie, twenty minutes away from where I used to live in Wisconsin!
At a deeper level, though, American Gods is really a road trip in search of the soul of America, “what America really is,” with all of its light, and all of its darkness.
American Gods in the Era of Peak TV
There is no doubt that the adaptation of Gaiman’s novel is a strong bet by Starz to establish a stronghold in the crowded area of peak TV. The show does have enough in its favor to succeed. The material offered by Gaiman’s novel should support the storytelling of the series, even if it expands its universe. The actors are fantastic, and the series is shot in a beautiful saturated color that makes it distinctive from other shows. I would say though, that there is very strong competition out there, with shows like The Leftovers, The Young Pope, the upcoming Twin Peaks sequel, and Game of Thrones, that overlap thematically and/or tonally with the show. If American Gods wants to differentiate itself, it should really be bold and embrace what makes the show unique, not only on the surface, but also deep inside Gaiman’s material. The show should not simply be a beautiful an entertaining battle between the Old and the New Gods (which it is), but it should also continue to be an exploration of the richness and contradictions of the American soul. Our current political times could surely use it…