American Gods Season 2 Episode 2: The Beguiling Man
In the premiere, Mr. Wednesday tried to rally the Old Gods to battle the New Gods, but it was only after the assassination of Zorya Vechernyaya (the Evening Star) by Mr. World that they all seem to come around and decide to join forces. In the middle of the chaos that followed the death of Zorya, Shadow Moon is kidnapped by Mr. Town, one of the spooks of Mr. World.
The Question is not Where, but Why?
The episode opens with Mr. Town interrogating Shadow inside a cargo train. When Shadow asks where they are, Mr. Town answers “the question is not where but why.” Why is Mr. Wednesday/Odin starting a war? Why is Shadow helping him? Shadow is hanging from his arms, as if he was being “crucified.” The image has obvious symbolic and religious connotations, presenting Shadow as a Christ-like figure, a figure that is fully human but, maybe, just maybe, also divine?
The Old Gods Mourn the Death of the Evening Star
In the aftermath of the assassination of Zorya Vechernyaya (the Evening Star), the Old Gods are trying to regroup and figure out their best plan moving forward. They are not only being forgotten and replaced by New Gods but now they are also being killed. The scene also seems to set up the stage for what it is going to be a series of interesting pairings/storylines: Laura and Mad Sweeney pair up to find and rescue Shadow, Mr. Wednesday and Anansi hit the road to further plan the battle against the New Gods, and Jinn and Salim are in charge of retrieving Gungnir, the spear of Odin/Mr.Wednesday.
It is also interesting to see in this scene the reimagining of Kali, the powerful Hindu goddess connected to death, sexuality, and destruction. In India, she is seen as having powerful shakti, or energy, and sometimes is represented “dancing on the corpse of Shiva, with her sword in her hand, often holding in another hand a severed head, an inversion of the myth in which Shiva dances all around India carrying the corpse of Sati.” (Doniger, 2009) Kali is not strange to American culture and, in many corners of popular culture it became, in fact, a symbol for Hinduism:
“For later generations, it was the goddess Kali (flanked by various forms of Tantra) that represented Hinduism. Kali became a veritable archetype for many Jungian, feminist, and New Age writers; Allen Ginsberg depicted Kali as the Statue of Liberty, her neck adorned with the martyred heads of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. […] Soon the goddess Kali became a major Hollywood star. Her career took off with the film Gunga Din (1939). […] Kali also appeared in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and The Deceivers (1988), starring Pierce Brosnan as Captain Savage, who ends up converting to the worship of a particularly violent and erotic form of the goddess as queen of the Thugs.” Wendy Doniger, The Hindus, An Alternative History
Kali was also referenced as the goddess to which human sacrifice is required in the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
In American Gods, though, Kali is portrayed as a hotel maid, barely scraping by, cleaning rooms in small motels in Wisconsin. Americans may have fantasies about her, as portrayed in films and popular culture, but not many of them believe in her.
In Search of Shadow’s Past
In the next scene, we explore Shadow’s own mysterious past. We see him as a young teenager, visiting with his mother the statue of liberty, “a Roman goddess, Libertas, [the] French gave it to the founders, just as they gave democracy.” In the book, Gaiman also adds something (although in the book delivered by Wednesday) that it is implicit in the scene: “Lady Liberty, like so many of the gods that Americans hold dear, a foreigner.” Which is part of the argument of the show as a whole, that nobody is American, that America is an invention, a creation of something new built with (symbolic) pieces that are really, really old.
The scene implies that Shadow and his mother have lived abroad for a number of years. The mother gives two reasons for that, one, she “needed to spread [Liberty’s] message abroad,” (not sure what that means, since it is not in the book), and second, and most importantly, because as African-Americans, “her dream isn’t for us.” The message of Lady Liberty is not for African-Americans, who were brought to this land as slaves, and have paid the price of America’s original sin ever since. Shadow’s mother promises they are only going to be in the States for one summer, and then they will leave again “in a world tour.”
Mad Sweeney and Laura: “you are on a fairy tale now…”
Laura and Mad Sweeney are driving trying to find and rescue Shadow (Laura somehow can see and track Shadow’s aura). In the car, Laura tells Mad Sweeney that she is an atheist, that she does not believe in gods. To her, they are not gods, since they are “made by people too lazy to find for answers themselves.” There is not much to the scene, but there is also a discussion about free will and theodicy (the origin of evil), even though only in a tangential way. Laura wants to blame the gods for what has happened to her and Shadow, but Mad Sweeney reminds her that she also made some choices that had led her where she is: dead and putting Shadow in danger. Gods might be made by humans, by their need to believe in superior forces, but that doesn’t leave us off the hook in terms of personal responsibility. We are not puppets of the gods since we need them as much they need us.
Bilquis switches sides?
Mr. World meets Bilquis and tries to convince her to work with the New Gods. Not much to the scene here, and Bilquis seems to refuse Mr. World advances.
The Awakening Man was on the Way to Himself: Shadow
Another flashback of Shadow. He is reading Herman Hesse’s Siddharta and his mom recites one of the famous lines from the book, “the awakening man was on the way to himself.” Siddharta was Hesse’s novelized take on the life of the Buddha (and one of the books that made me interested in Buddhism in the first place!), so here we have another not-so-subtle hint to Shadow as a savior figure.
Shadow decides to go for a walk and gets beat up and mugged by a group of African-American kids who accuse him of being white. When he runs away he is detained by the police, who treats him like a criminal. Shadow is confronting the sense of alienation of not fitting outside of America, but not fitting inside of America either. To me, that’s at the center of this show: what is America? And, who is an American? If you are white and feel comfortable with a narrative that grants you a special status in America, you are erasing a long history of repression and suppression, of genocide and slavery. And if you are African-American or Native American, the reality of your belonging, of being American because your ancestors were here before the arrival of the Spaniards and the pilgrims, or because you were brought here in slave ships, you have been continuously told that you do not belong, maybe not with words, but with a systemic suppression that goes back generations. And that is what the novel is trying to explore. An answer to Shadow’s past, to the mystery of his identity, is also an answer (Gaiman’s answer?) to a different way of looking at America and American identity. Shadow is Gaiman’s attempt at offering a more complex narrative to what America is, one that owns its past, with its tragedy and with its promises.
At this point in the show, though, Shadow is still looking for answers about his past, mostly trying to find out who his father is, without getting any answers.
There is a Devil in the French Quarter in New Orleans…
We are back with Laura and Mad Sweeney. Mad Sweeney wants his lucky coin back, the one that allowed Laura to come back from the dead, but Laura will not give it back until she can find another way to be alive again. Mad Sweeney suggests that she may find some help in “a devil in the French Quater of New Orleans he knows.” This might be a way to introduce one of the interludes from Gaiman’s novel that focuses on the famous Voodoo practitioner, Marie Laveau… we’ll see.
Mr. Wednesday and Anansi
Most of the scenes with Mr. Wednesday and Anansi are transitional, and they mostly play as comedic relief… not much to comment here.
Goodbye Media, Hello New Media
There is an interesting scene in the episode in which we have Technical Boy looking for Media, who is nowhere to be found. The scene is mostly a way to say goodbye to Media, who was played in season 1 by Gillian Anderson, and who decided not to return for season 2 after the change of showrunners (as it was the case for Easter, played by Kristin Chenoweth). In upcoming episodes, we will see New Media, “the goddess of global content.” If Media, as presented in the book and season 1 of the show was mostly the goddess of TV, New Media is the goddess of content as delivered through tablets and smartphones, more Youtube and less CBS.
Shadow Gets his Coin
While waiting for his mother at the police station after being mugged and wrongfully detained, a mysterious figure (we never see his face), does a coin trick and gives him the coin only to simply disappear. In the book, as well as in the show, we see Shadow constantly practicing little magic tricks, mostly with coins. This seems to be the beginning of it. Without spoiling anything, in the book, Shadow has a silver coin, given to him by Zorya, which represents the moon, while the gold coin that Shadow was able to get from Mad Sweeney, and that now animates Laura, represents the sun. The sun and the moon represent absolute dualities, life and death, night and day, you get the point of it… I will probably talk more about this when the show unveils more about Shadow’s real identity.
The episode also begs the question as to who is Shadow’s mother. There are not many clues as to who she really is, and only some vague references as to why she left America to “spread Liberty’s message,” or how she gave Shadow “the light.” In the episode, she also dies, leaving Shadow alone in the world, struggling to find who he is.
The End of the Road?
Laura and Mad Sweeney literally hit the end of the road and Mad Sweeney proposes a shortcut to get to Shadow, basically traveling behind the scenes, the backstage of our plane of reality. After doing that, they reach the train and rescue Shadow.
The Rest of the Episode
There are a few more things in the episode: we see Shadow’s mother die, and Laura and Mad Sweeny rescue Shadow. Mr. Wednesday also sacrifices his car, Betty, a 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham (to be run over by the train in which Shadow is being held?), in what seems to be an attempt to get back Sleipnir, his horse. There is also a scene in which Shadow, after the death of his mother, goes to a church and tries to pray but seems unable to… he does not believe… yet.
Next Week: Munnin
And that’s it for this week’s episode. Let me know what you think or if there are other interesting religious references I might have missed.