In the last episode, we saw Laura and Mad Sweeney rescue Shadow from the hands of Mr. Town, and we learned a little more about Shadow’s mysterious past. In this episode, the war between the old and the new gods continues, and we encounter (new) New Gods, like New Media, and we meet an Old God, Argus Panoptes, the God of Surveillance, who still has not chosen sides. We also meet Sam Black Crow, a Native-American girl who helps Shadow get to Cairo, Illinois, where he will meet Mr. Ibis.
The episode is called Munnin, the name of one of Mr. Wednesday/Odin’s ravens. In Norse mythology, Huginn and Muninn are a pair of ravens who fly all over the world and spy for Odin. The title, seems to me, more circumstantial than relevant since Muninn’s only role in the episode is to tell Shadow that he needs to get to Cairo, Illinois, but it does highlight the role that Odin’s ravens have played in moving the story forward at key points of the show.
(On a side note, the use of ravens as messengers is something that we also see in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. In Game of Thrones, we also have Bran Stark as the Three-Eye Raven, a kind of seer who can see the past as well as the future. Since George R.R. Martin has acknowledged that a lot of the mythology and religious ideas of the book are based on real religions, I would not be surprised if his use of ravens was based on the same Norse Mythology that also inspired Gaiman).
The episode also explores the importance of sacrifice, the act of offering something to the gods (animals, food, flowers, etc.) in order to worship them and propitiating them. A sacrifice, by definition, is a ritual exchange. Humans give something to the gods, but they also expect something from them. As Shadow says in the episode “Gods only give gifts when they get something in return.” The episode contains several exemples or references to the importance of sacrifice in mantaining the relationship between Gods and humans.
So let’s break down the episode and some of its religious references. From now on, beware of spoilers.
The Quickest Way is the Longest
In the previous episode, we saw Laura and Mad Sweeney trying to rescue Shadow from the freight train in which Mr. Town held him hostage. At the last minute, Wednesday intervenes and sacrifices his ride, Betty (a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and the modern incarnation of his sacred horse Sleipnir), in order to derail the train. Wednesday rescues Mad Sweeney and Laura, who is seriously injured (even for a dead woman!) but leaves Shadow behind. As Wednesday tells them, for Shadow, “the quickest path is sometimes the longest.” It seems that Wednesday wants/needs Shadow to continue his search on his own.
In the aftermath of the wreck, Wednesday takes Laura to Cairo (Illinois) to have Laura patched up after the accident by Mr. Ibis. Mr. Wednesday wants Laura’s help to recruit a powerful Old God, Argus Panoptes, the old seeing god that represents our new surveillance culture. In exchange, Wednesday will help Laura slow down the inevitable fate of her rotting body. Mad Sweeney offers her an alternative: if she wants to reverse her fatal fate and be with Shadow, she needsd to go with him to New Orleans. Laura decides to go with Wednesday.
Meeting Sam Black Crow
We return to Shadow, who after receiving a message from Muninn, Odin’s crow who tells him to go to Cairo, makes his way out of the train wreck and stumbles upon Sam Black Crow, a Native-American college student who gives him a ride there (in the book, it is the other way around, with Shadow giving her a ride on his way to Cairo). She is one of my favorite characters in the book, and she gives one of the best speeches in it, the one in which he tells Shadow all the things she believes in, a beautiful, poetic, powerful ode to the contradictions at the heart of human existence… but we are still not at that point.
Introducing Argus Panoptes, the God of Surveillance
Season 1 of American Gods began each episode with a self-contained story explaining the arrival of the Old Gods to America. We saw Odin arriving with the Vikings, and Anansi coming with African slaves. They were based on Gaiman’s interludes in the novel, and were also a beautiful device to explain how ancient beliefs made it into America. Apparently, they were also very expensive to film and became one of the points of contention between the old showrunners and the producers of the show, and one of the main reasons they left. This season we have not seen any of those interludes yet, but in this episode, we see a little callback to them in Mr. Ibis explanation of the story of Argus.
The story involves Zeus, Hera (his wife and sister), Io (Zeus’ lover), and Argus, Hera’s servant. In order to keep an eye on the always unfaithful Zeus, Hera commands Argus, her servant, to keep Io away from Zeus. Argus is the perfect minder since, according to the story, he has multiple eyes. In order to keep Zeus away from Io, Io is transformed into a cow, and Argus becomes a shepherd. Zeus finds out and sends Hermes to kill Argus so he can be with Io again. In traditional mythology, in order to honor Argus, Hera preserved the hundred eyes of Argus in the peacock’s tale. In the modern retelling of American Gods, Argus is reborn by Hera as the God of Surveillance in America. Argus is a new addition to the story that cannot be found in the book, and it represents the surveillance state that has become so prominent all over the world. He is the fiber optic that connects all of our modern communications systems. In the episode, Mr. Wednesday also equates him to the Deep State, another way to make the show relevant for the America of the Trump era, with its conspiracy-filled worldview.
Meeting New Media
The sudden departure of Gillian Anderson as Media from American Gods (as well as Kristin Chenoweth as Easter), after Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, showrunners from season 1, left the show due to budgetary and creative issues, created a bit of a continuity problem for Season 2. Should they replace Gillian Anderson? Can they continue without Media? It seems that the solution they have chosen is to simply replace Old Media, that of TV, with New Media (played by Kahyun Kim), that of social media. In this scene we see Technical Boy and Mr. World witnessing the emergence of this new modern god. If Media was able to communicate with Shadow through the TV by channeling Lucille Ball (from I Love Lucy), Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, or David Bowie, New Media is the goddess of social media, and manifests itself as a playful, even silly, emoji-loving goddess who is sustained by the ‘likes’ of our mindless social media interactions.
Gaiman himself has addressed how they dealt with the departure of Gillian Anderson in a way that made sense within the mythology of the show:
“The biggest thing that simply didn’t exist in the book was social media. That was why we knew we needed a New Media. You know people go “Oh, the New Media, so you’ve replaced Media?” And it’s like “No, no Media…she’s somewhere still out there wandering around. She just has less and less people watching her, less belief and power. New Media is New Media. It’s that stuff. It’s the fact that everybody…we’re in this sort of strange, Snapchat-y generation where likes seems to matter, but we don’t really know what they mean. All we know is we get this tiny little endorphin buzz from being told that we’ve been given them. That kind of thing I think is very new.”
Meeting Argus Panoptes and the importance of Ritual Sacrifice
Mr. Wednesday and Laura go to meet Argus at the Argus Corporation, a nondescript building that looks like some government agency. Mr. Wednesday reinforces the point of Argus as the God of Surveillance, but also of conspiracy: “people have called him many names before: the Illuminati, the Man in Black, the Deep State,” Wednesday tells Laura. Once in the building, they start looking for Argus, but they will need to perform a series of sacrifices in order to get what they want. First, Wednesday sacrifices a heifer (a non-maiden cow), which is a clear reference to Io, the maiden that Zeus had fallen in love with, upsetting his wife Hera in the process. In order for Zeus to achieve his goal of finding Argus and stopping him for making an alliance with the New Gods, he needs to sacrifice something he cares for or loves, in this case, the heifer/Io (we see the heifer transformed into Io after she is dead).
The central role that ritual sacrifice plays in the interaction between humans and Gods is something that can be seen in ancient religions and that it is being recreated in the show. There is a certain economic dimension to ancient ritual sacrifice: if you want something, you have to pay for it. In some ancient religions, like early Hinduism, Greek religions, and Chinese religions, the notion of animal, and even human sacrifice was quite common. In ancient Greek religion, the sacrifice of the bull to Zeus played an important role in the ritual calendar, in early Hinduism (during the Vedic period), the horse sacrifice (Ashmavedha) played a central role in establishing the authority of a king, and in ancient Chinese religion human sacrifice was also part of funerary rituals. This notion of sacrificing life in exchange for something played also a central role in Christianity, with the figure of Jesus sacrificing himself for the good of humankind.
(In the fragment above from the BBC series The Story of India, you can see a discussion of the importance of the Horse Sacrifice in Ancient India. Starts at 42:46)
As Wendy Doniger describes in her discussion of ritual in early Hinduism, (although her ideas also apply to early notions of sacrifice in ancient religions):
“The Vedic ritual of sacrifice (yajna) joined at the hip the visible world of humans and the invisible world of gods. The sacrifice established bonds (bandhus), homologies between the human world (particularly the components of the ritual) and corresponding parts of the universe. Ritual was thought to have effects on the visible and invisible worlds because of such connections, meta-metaphors that visualize many substances as two things at once.”
From: Wendy Doniger. “The Hindus.”
Jinn, Salim and the Corn (or is it Porn?) Palace
Jinn and Salim are in charge of retrieving Gungnir, the spear of Odin/Mr.Wednesday, and in order to do that, they need to stop at the Corn Palace, which turns out to be the Porn Palace, a strip club in which they are going to meet the god Iktomi, a spider-trickster like Anansi but, in this case, from Lakota culture. He is also a shapeshifter.
Tricksters play an important role in mythology. More than gods, they play the role of cultural heroes, of characters who are able to game the system through tricks that display an ability to play loose with the rules established by religion or society. Trickster stories are also usually funny (even sexually transgressive at times) because they usually contain a clever way by which the trickster circumvents traditional rules.
Sam Black Crow
While driving Shadow to Cairo, Sam Black Crow is presented as a character with some similarities to Shadow. Both represent two communities that have been oppressed in America, in the case of Shadow, African-Americans, and in the case of Sam, Native-Americans. Sam has a tattoo of a buffalo skull with two ravens. The Buffalo is a character that appears in dreams to Shadow in the novel on important occasions. It also made a brief appearance in season 1. The Buffalo is a symbol of the land of America, of its promise and its power. It is also a symbol for America before the arrival of the Spaniards and the Puritans, an America almost forgotten. The Buffalo also plays a very important role in the novel by constantly reminding Shadow of the importance of belief. So maybe Sam plays a similar role here? Is she a reminder to Shadow of the importance of holding on to the older layers of religion and faith in America?
Burn Baby Burn: Sacrificing Knowledge to Meet Argus
After a funny comedic scene in which we see Mad Sweeny, the unluckiest of all leprechauns, go from disaster to disaster in his attempt to make it to New Orleans, we are back with Mr. Wednesday and Laura. They are still in the building of the Argus Corporation, looking for Argus. Now they are in what they describe as a memory of the Library of Alexandria, and in order to find Argus, now is Laura’s turn to make a sacrifice. If Zeus sacrificed a life (Io), Laura will sacrifice knowledge, the knowledge of the Ancient world, symbolized by the famous Library of Alexandria. Wednesday tells the story of the This time, they burn the library, as Mr. Wednesday tells Laura the tragic story of the library, and how it accidentally burned during Julius Ceasar attempt at breaking the siege he suffered in the harbor of Alexandria in 48 BC. In reality, the Library did not completely burn, but there is historical evidence that it did some irreparable damage to its reputation.
More on Sacrifice: the Battle of the Old Gods and the New Gods in the context of Early Hinduism
Leaving our show for a second, another interesting aspect of the needy nature of the gods and their constant competition for human attention in American Gods is that this is not so different of the way ancient gods had to compete for our worship. The battle between the Old Gods and the New Gods in the show is a reflection of a continuous battle between old and new beliefs. In the context of ancient religion in India, Wendy Doniger points out the constant tension between the gods and the antigods in the Vedic world (which probably represented different religious layers that were rearranged according to new dynamics of power around the Vedic period). In that context:
“The gods and antigods have the same moral substance (indeed the gods often lie and cheat far more than the antigods do; power corrupts, and divine power corrupts divinely); the antigods are simply the other team. Because the players on each side are intrinsically differentiated by their morals, the morals shift back and forth from one category to another during the course of history, and even from one text to another in any single period: As there are good humans and evil humans, so there are good gods and evil gods, good antigods and evil antigods. In the absence of ethical character, what the gods and antigods have is power, which they can exercise at their pleasure. The gods and antigods are in competition for the goods of the sacrifice, and since humans sacrifice to the gods, they are against the antigods, who always, obligingly, lose to the gods in the end. ”
From: Wendy Doniger. “The Hindus.”
Djinn and Salim find Gungnir
Djinn and Salim finally meet Ektomi, the trickster, who now survives as a weed dealer, and he gives them Gungnir, “a weapon of death.” He also gives them some sort of magical seed. I am not sure of what it is, since this scene is not in the book, but it could be the seed of the World Tree (Yggdrasil) that plays an important role later in the book. I guess we will see…
The Faith of the Raptured
Sweeney continues his misadventures on his way to New Orleans. While hitchhiking, he finally finds someone who will take him to New Orleans. They even look pretty cool, like a rock band, only to find out that they are an evangelical rock band “Faith of the Raptured.” When he is asked if he has accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior,” he only has one word… “fuck.” Sweeney really is teh comedic releif in this show!
What Side Will Argus Choose?
Although Argus is an Old God, he has not taken a side in the battle between the Old and the New Gods. He might be old, but his power is also surprisingly relevant for our current historical period. His surveillance abilities are a perfect fit for the worldview of Mr. World, Technical Boy, and even New Media.
Mr. World has sent Technical Boy and New Media to find Argus before Wednesday makes a deal with him, but, when they are trying to convince him to join the New Gods, New Media goes rogue and tries to cut a deal with Argus by herself, a play to circumvent Mr. World’s leadership of the New Gods. In the background, Mr. Wednesday convinces Laura to kill Argus before the deal is completed, with the promise that the sacrifice will help her reverse the rot of her body and sustain her for a bit longer. Laura kills Argus, Technical Boy leaves with New Media, and Mr. Wednesday seems to win this small battle. The whole scene is very The Matrix-like…
Writing Your Own (American) Story
Sam Black Crow is driving Shadow to Cairo. This is a nice scene in which the lives of Sam Black Crow and Shadow dramatically mirror each other. Shadow is African-American of mixed race (although we still don’t know who his father is). Sam describes herself as having a “full black Cherokee father, who call me a half-breed, and a mother who raised me with the Bible by her side.” She claims that there was no peace in the world of her parents, and she only found peace in the stories of her ancestors. Here, there is one of the lessons of American Gods, the importance of searching for your own roots (whatever those are), and create your own narrative, one that is faithful to your history, but also one that allows you to integrate the diversity and multiplicity of stories that form America. In the case of Shadow, he will only find peace when he can put together a narrative that makes sense of his past, just as Sam has been able to do that by bypassing the fragmented stories imposed to her by her parents (being a half-breed, or being a Christian), and finding comfort in the narratives of her ancestors. This goes back to one of my favorite quotes by Mr. Ibis in the book, and that can be found at the heart of the unexamined narrative of America, one that has no place for people like Shadow and Sam, and which forces them to find a new narrative of their own.
“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.”
Revelations Come When Ready, Not When Requested
Sam Black Crow finally drops Shadow in Cairo, where he meets again with Wednesday. When he demands some answers, Wednesday simply responds” “revelations come when ready, not when requested.” I guess Wednesday, and by extension, us, will have to wait a little longer to get some answers.
Next Episode: The Greatest Story Ever Told