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How American Gods Uses Religion to Craft Its Portrait of Obsession

TV Features American Gods
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How <i>American Gods</i> Uses Religion to Craft Its Portrait of Obsession

It isn’t easy to make a group of dying gods feel relatable and, more than anything else, human: They’re meant from their inception to represent something otherworldly and all-powerful. Yet that’s exactly what American Gods does, pitting a more traditional form of religious worship against today’s version, which has us bowing down not to cosmic gods in a holy place, but to tangible things we can touch and interact with on a daily basis. That’s what’s burning at the heart of the series’ impending war between the new gods and the old, and through that conflict the series uses its depictions of religion to visualize our obsession with attention, devotion and the desire to feel wanted in striking and thought-provoking ways.

But before American Gods even throws the two sides into battle, the series takes the time to lay out their differing ideologies, in particular what it is that both say about the modern world. The new deities (Bruce Langley’s Technical Boy; Gillian Anderson’s Media) allow for the show to criticize our ever-growing attachment to materialism, while the older gods (Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis, goddess of Love; Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, goddess of fertility) emphasize just how easily our desperation for deeper connection can be taken advantage of.

What’s special about American Gods is that it feels like a series that could only have worked in the post-Facebook, post-Twitter world, even though it’s an adaptation of a novel, by Neil Gaiman, published in 2001. After all, the world is a much different place now than it was then, when the Internet was not nearly as all-encompassing, social media was (at most) in its infancy, and phones still folded and flipped up. Luckily, Gaiman’s narrative, which follows an ex-con named Shadow Moon (played in the series by Ricky Whittle) and his mysterious employer, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), had an eerie sense of where society was headed, and because of that wisdom, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are able to take American Gods and expand on Gaiman’s ideas to devastating effect.

Before the invention of social networking, the goal of being followed—and perhaps worshipped—on a large scale had only been chased by a select few. Now, though, the term “followers” refers to how many people subscribe to your Twitter account. And how many of our Facebook “friends” are actually that, rather than strangers or mere acquaintances whose thoughts and posts we read in lieu of ever meeting them? More often than not, the people we meet on Facebook, Twitter or any other such platform wind up feeling more like faceless companions, similarly along for the ride.

Fuller and Green tap into that notion, and begin to elaborate on Gaiman’s novel, when they introduce Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) near the end of the first episode, “The Bone Orchard.” While the decision to change the look of the new god—from a fat and pimpled nerd to a Silicon Valley rip-off who vapes and curses in every sentence—feels obvious and necessary, Fuller and Green choose to emphasize the danger of the character not through his actions, but through the depiction of his followers.

Unlike every other god, Technical Boy creates his followers, beings he calls “The Children”—which the series visualizes as faceless goons, following every order that their master gives them. In “The Bone Orchard,” after pounding on Shadow in Technical Boy’s limo, The Children take him out to a nearby field and start beating on him again, tying a rope around his neck and slinging him up from a nearby tree. They’ve transformed into a lynch mob, hurting Shadow not because of what he’s done wrong, but because of who he’s associated himself with—and because their god told them to do it.

Online “lynch mobs,” of course, are a far cry from lynching’s long, disturbing association with white supremacist violence—an allusion that drew criticism from several observers, including Vulture’s Oliver Sava, who wrote, “If a black character is going to get lynched, American Gods better have a good reason.” The series has also caught flack for its depiction of that violence, which is not only highly aestheticized, but also filmed in what some may consider gratuitous fashion. I respectfully disagree with that sentiment: Not only does the pacing of the violence accord with Shadow’s dazed, dying state, but by making The Children faceless men, men of flesh and blood, rather than pixelated characters, Fuller and Green turn the dangers of social media and our mindless worship of technology into a visual set piece. For threats and other forms of online harassment are toxic and harmful, even leading, in some cases, to fatal outcomes. Like everything else in the series, the attention to detail and unspoken nature of the message, keep what might be on-the-surface, an over-emphatic visualization of a technologically-created lynch mob from turning American Gods into a preachy, after school special about the dangers of modern day vices, and transforms it, rather, into a haunting fable. (Shadow is ultimately rescued from that fate by an unknown savior, who tears up The Children before snapping the rope around Shadow’s neck and setting him free.)

Unlike Technical Boy or Media, so easily accessible and inviting that they eventually become like an invisible limb, the old gods, like Mr. Wednesday, don’t just need people’s attention to thrive—they need a different kind of belief, to be felt in the hearts and minds of their followers. “The only thing I fear is being forgotten, I can survive most things, but not that,” Mr. Wednesday says to Shadow in the forthcoming “Head Full of Snow,” and when Shadow tries to argue in favor of the value of forgetting people, Wednesday cuts him short. Instead, Wednesday posits that, in all likelihood, the thing Shadow will forget first about their day together is the sudden burst of magic they conjured up and experienced—and what exactly that says about the things we choose to forget.

Shadow doesn’t have a reply, and Wednesday’s argument taps into the very thing that makes the old gods so different from the new ones. They don’t just offer a religious fulfillment, but a spiritual one, something for people to connect to when their phone’s battery dies. It’s a stirring argument, because as our attachment to tangible, physical things we can see, hear, and touch continues to envelop everything else in our lives, a brewing existential crisis is bound to grow at the same time—a longing to connect to something deeper and otherworldly. Longing, not satiated within a suitable period of time, eventually twists and turns into desperation.

Maybe it’s that state of longing and desperation that led Fuller and Green to change Bilquis from a sex worker into a dating-app user for the TV series. Instead of hooking up with men looking to get their rocks off as quickly as possible, Bilquis chooses to meet with men (and women, as the second episode reveals) yearning for some kind of deeper human connection, and who are so eager to worship her in bed that she literally swallows them up.

In the book, Bilquis’ introduction comes off as mostly predatory—which Fuller has said was a tone they tried to avoid—and which makes the accomplishment of the series’ interpretation that much more notable. Taking a different approach, Green and Fuller, with the help of director David Slade, shoot Bilquis’ introduction with a surprising level of tenderness and sensual energy, which makes the situation not only believable, but also understandable. She’s still preying on these men and women, but she’s also offering them a form of fulfillment, allowing them to feel the indefinable kind of love that they swiped left looking for in the first place. By changing the character, Fuller and Green have changed the entire context for how she receives her newest worshippers—not through their carnal desires, but through their spiritual, emotional ones.

Now, now none of this is meant to suggest that American Gods solely condemns society’s obsession with the new gods’ everyday vices, or fully supports the offerings of the old. Instead, the series posits that both can accrue large levels of indiscriminate support that’s harmful to their own followers. Both Bilquis’ scenes and the pilot’s opening sequence, which shows a Viking crew stabbing their own eyes out and killing each other in the hope that they’ll receive the favor of their god, Odin, demonstrate the perils of casting your beliefs blindly into one god or faith.

As Shadow admits later, even he believes in love, a product of how he felt about his wife, Laura (Emily Browning). But that was the only thing he ever believed in, and the destruction of what he thought was a strong relationship with Laura—following the discovery of her adulterous relationship with his best friend—sends him on an aimless path to find something new worth believing in.

There are more than a few destinations on the road to belief, and more often than not, one of the most popular turns out to be obsession, when the worshipper believes in something so wholeheartedly that he or she loses sight of everything else. American Gods highlights that intense desperation to find something (or someone) worth putting our trust in, and the fanaticism we direct toward whoever or whatever that is because of it. The only question after we do is how much longer it will be before it eventually swallows us up.

American Gods airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.

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