Money and Race in America: American Gods Season 2 Episode 4

The Greatest Story Ever Told: American Gods Season 2 Episode 4

In the last episode, we saw Shadow making his way to Cairo, Illinois with the help of Sam Black Crow. The Old Gods and the New Gods tried to convince Argus, the God of Surveillance to take sides, only to be killed by Laura so he could not join either. In this episode, we see a new (old) god being introduced, Money, and Mr. World and Wednesday courting him to choose sides. The episode also has a powerful discussion about race, which is particularly relevant in our current political environment.

So let’s discuss the religious themes in Season 2 Episode 4: “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” From now on beware of spoilers…

From Bach to Pong, or How Technical Boy was Born

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Writing the code that will create Technical Boy (Image courtesy of Starz)

The episode begins with a young kid playing Pong in one of the early Atari consoles. Since the console and the game were released in 1975, we are probably around this period. The kid is clearly obsessed with video games, and we see him transitioning from the Atari to the Gameboy (1989) in what seems to be a life-long love (obsession) with video games. His father has other plans for him and he wants him to focus on music. He plays for his son Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne to explain to him the difference between the art and precision of music and that of video games. Bach, the father tells him, composed the piece (between 1718 and 1720) right after returning from a trip and founding his wife dead.

For the father, the notes of Bach’s piece are like a prayer, a prayer that allows him to connect with the depths of human’s existence in all of its beauty and sadness (the writers seem to have read this piece from Onbeing in which the Chaconne is discussed and Bach’s music is described as prayer). For the son, though, it is in computer games and programming where he finds his solace. It is through the binary code of ones and zeroes that he can find and even create order out of the chaos of the universe. The father is praying to the old, the son is worshipping the new. This becomes clear in the scene in which the son, once in college, has figured out a program that can create (compose?) music based on Bach’s compositions. When he shows it to his father, he really likes it, but when he finds out that the music is the product of a computer program he seems shocked, heart-broken. Ironically, the son plays the music generated by his program at the father’s funeral, and this is when Technical Boy emerges. The death of the father implies the death of the old and the birth of the new.

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Writing the code that will give birth to Technical Boy (Image courtesy of Starz)

Shadow Gets a Break… with the Egyptian Goddess Bast

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Image of Bastet from the British Museum (Image courtesy of the British Museum)

In the next scene we see Shadow, who arrived to Cairo, Illinois at the end of the previous episode, resting after his misadventures in the previous two episodes (he was kidnapped by the New Gods, and rescued by Laura and Mad Sweeney). In the middle of the night, he is awoken by a mysterious woman and has sex with her. Although this is not made explicit in the scene, she is the Egyptian goddess Bast (the cat imagery makes it quite clear). Bast was a warrior goddess, protector of Ra, the Sun God. This scene just seems to give Shadow a much needed break after quite a bit of pain and suffering over the last few episodes.

Meeting Mr. Ibis (the Old Egyptian God Thoth)

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Mr. Ibis (the Old Egytian God Thoth) in the funeral home he owns with Mr. Jaquel (the Old Egyptian God Anubis) in Cairo, Illinois. (Image courtesy of Starz)

In the morning, Shadow wakes up and meets Mr. Ibis. Although we have encountered Mr. Ibis before, this is the first time Shadows meets him. Mr. Ibis is an Old God, an incarnation of the Egyptian god Thoth, responsible for writing, the invention of science, and resolving disputes among gods. In the context of the novel and the show, he is also the official historian of the show, keeping tabs on the stories of all of the gods that have made their way into America. In America, he is also, together with Mr. Jaquel (the Old Egyptian God Anubis), the owner of a funeral parlor in the small town of Cairo, Illinois. In this scene, Mr. Ibis tells Shadow about their origins in Ancient Egypt, but it also sets the tone in the episode for a complex discussion of the issue of race in America:

“Well,” said Mr. Ibis, smiling just a little smugly, “we go back a very long way. Of course, it wasn’t until after the War Between the States that we found our niche here. That was when we became the funeral parlor for the colored folks hereabouts. Before that no one thought of us as colored-foreign maybe, exotic and dark, but not colored. Once the war was done, pretty soon, no one could remember a time when we weren’t perceived as black. […] Mostly you are what they think you are. It’s just strange when they talk about African-Americans. Makes me think of the people from Punt, Ophir, Nubia. We never thought of ourselves as Africans-we were the people of the Nile.”

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Thoth, God of Writing, Wisdom, Science and Magic

In the book, there is also a passage that adds depth to this moment. According to Mr. Ibis, Egyptians made it to America thousands of years ago (“three thousand five hundred and thirty years ago… give or take,”) and while this might be difficult to believe, this is, according to Ibis the real history of America, a place that has seen peoples and cultures visit this land for thousands of years, a history that has been ignored for a more simple narrative that, while powerful, erases more than illuminates what really happen in this country and ultimately, creates more problems than it solves, since it leaves without a voice a large amount of its population. According to Mr. Ibis:

Columbus did what people had been doing for thousands of years. There’s nothing special about coming to America. I’ve been writing stories about it, from time to time. […]sorry for the professionals whenever they find another confusing skull, something that belonged to the wrong sort of people, or whenever they find statues or artifacts that confuse them-for they’ll talk about the odd, but they won’t talk about the impossible, which is where I feel sorry for them, for as soon as something becomes impossible it slipslides out of belief entirely, whether it’s true or not. I mean, here’s a skull that shows the Ainu, the Japanese aboriginal race, were in America nine thousand years ago. Here’s another that shows there were Polynesians in California nearly two thousand years later. And all the scientists mutter and puzzle over who’s descended from whom, missing the point entirely. Heaven knows what’ll happen if they ever actually find the Hopi emergence tunnels. That’ll shake a few things up, you just wait. […] Did the Irish come to America in the dark ages, you ask me? Of course they did, and the Welsh, and the Vikings, while the Africans from the West Coast-what in later days they called the Slave Coast or the Ivory Coast-they were trading with South America, and the Chinese visited Oregon a couple of times-they called it Fu Sang.”

Mr. Wednesday also shows up and convinces Shadow to go on a journey to St. Louis to find the old god Money. As Wednesday tells shadow, “Money is the most influential God in America, untouchable asshole, but his stock never falls.” You get Money on your side, and you win the war…

A Woman’s Heart Should be so Hidden in God, that a Man has to Seek Him just to Find Her

Just as Mr. Wednesday and Shadow leave the funeral home to go to St. Louis, Bilquis appears. She enters the funeral home and interacts with a young African American woman who has lost her grandmother. Bilquis tells the grandaughter, in reference to her grandmother, that “a woman’s heart should not be so hidden in god that she cannot hear her own truth,” a powerful feminist message. But then Mr. Anansi comes out of nowhere and says that “according to Maya Angelou, a woman’s heart should be so hidden in god, that a man has to seek him just to find her.” The attribution of the quote is a bit dodgy, but the power of it remains all the same. Should women break free from the oppresion of faith and religion, a power that has kept them oppressed and silenced, seems to imply Bilquis? Or should women use religion as a path for their own liberation, as Mr. Anansi implies in the use of Maya Angelous’ quote? The first onw seems to align Bilquis with Second and Third Wave Feminism, while Anansi seems more inclined to wome of the religious currents in Womanism.

Can Technical Boy and New Media Co-Exist?

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Mr. World is not happy with Technical Boy (Image courtesy of Starz)

In the next scene, the tension between Technical Boy and New Media continues. She is young, a baby-god almost, and she does not really understand how she fits in the world of the New Gods, and even what her role in this war is. Mr. World emerges very upset at the failure of this two in the previous episode to secure the help of Argus, the God of Surveillance. Technical Boy begs for another opportunity and claims that he has a plan to fix the loss of Argus, a plan that, as we will see, involves his first believer.

Money, the Greatest Story Ever Told

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Wednesday and Shadow in a diner in St. Louis looking for Money

Wednesday and Shadow make it to a diner in St. Louis, where they are trying to meet with Money. Shadow questions the imporatnce of actual money (the currency, not the god), since it is just a piece of paper: there is no intrinsic value in a piece of paper. But Wednesday counters by saying that Money is “the greatest story ever told.” We have convinced ourselves that some pieces of paper are worth something (instead of nothing), and that faith, that beleif, is one of the main facts of the world. In fact, Wednesday says that if Money comes to their side, Mr. World will not be able to win the war. While watching the episode, I was wondering if the writers watch this TED talk by Maneesh Sethi of the same name and inspired the title of the episode…

Race in America(n Gods)

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Mr. Ibis, Bilquis, and Anansi meet together to discuss their role in the upcoming war. Anansi has chosen to side with Wednesday, Ibis has chosen to stay out of it, and Bilquis is not sure what side to choose. Anansi, then, goes onto try to convince the other two of what’s at stake. Anansi represents the faith that African slaves brought to America, but to him, slavery, oppresion, and represion is not a condition, it is a cult. Now, he continues the Alt Right has embraced that cult. The opression of black people has not disappeared, it has been transformed, he argues. Now, they don’t bring slaves from African in ships, but the system has figure out a way to “take childrens from school to prison” faster than ever, and the lucky one can go “from school to the NFL, where they don’t even let them take a knee.” Neither of those choices are that great, since it leaves African-Americans with little agency. This is one of the most explicit and politically charged scenes/speeches of the show to date. Mr. Ibis may not see himslef as African-American, but to Anansi’s point, that doesn’t matter because that’s how America sees him. Therefore, for Anansi, war is the answer, and Bilquis and Mr. Ibis should join. If not for the Old Gods, for what they represent. Bilquis seems to be convinced, Ibis, not so much. The issue of race does play a role in the book, but the TV show is making it one of its main themes, which only seems appropiate in the context of contemporary America.

Technical Boy is Sacrificed

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Technical Boy has a plan to regain the trust of Mr. World. He meets with his first worshipper, the one who created him though the software he wrote to write Bach-like music, who is the CEO now of an Apple type company. Argus, the God of Survaillance is dead, but he represented the old system of population control, using CCTV cameras and satellites. Technical Boy proposes to the CEO new ways of controlling people, by using their personal devices, using face recognition software. He seems to imply that he can offer that technology to the CEO as long as the technology can be used by the New Gods in their battle against the Old Gods. Ultimately, as we will see at the end of the episode, New Media will be the one who will have a more interesting algorythm to offer. Technical Boy has been made obsolte by New Media, and he will be sacrifice by Mr. World in order to allow New Media to thrive. The scene shows the centrality of one of the main ideas of American Gods, mainly, that America is not a good land for Gods. As one of the characters says in the book (Whiskey Jack, who we haven’t met yet), they “don’t grow up so well here.”

Meeting Money

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Wednesday and Mr. World meet Money (Image courtesy of Starz)

In quite a funny take on the importance and centrality in America, the gatekeepers of Money are three Girl Scouts. They seem to stand as a symbol for the innocence but also ruthlesness of capitalism in America. At the end of the episode, in a scene that it is not all that well explained, Mr. World, Wednesday and Shadow meet Money, all trying to get this god to join their side. Money though, is not interested in joining either side, he only cares for profit. Unlike the other gods, Money is almost indiferent to praise bu either humans or other gods. Humans pray to him everyday without even noticing it. That’s his power. Money is not in the book, so the show is expanding the mythology of the original story by introducing new characters that reveal the symbolic fabric of America, and there is no doubt that money plays a very important place in it.

Next Week: The Ways of the Dead

This is the official description of the episode next week:

Steeped in Cairo’s history, Shadow learns the ways of the dead with the help of Mr. Ibis and Mr. Nancy; in New Orleans, Mad Sweeney introduces Laura to old friends who share their world of voodoo healing.

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