In a visually stunning episode, American Gods erases the lines between reality and fantasy. Shadow (Ricky Whittle) has been struggling with illusion versus reality since he met Wednesday (Ian McShane). In the previous episode, “The Secret of Spoon,” Wednesday asks Shadow when he would know if he was losing his mind. In this episode, Shadow begins to accept that he isn’t delusional, and the things he’s seeing and doing may be real.
“Head Full of Snow” delves into a fantasy world so rich and beautiful, I never wanted to leave. The sky often acts as a portal into different worlds in American Gods, and the sky is a key reason Shadow begins to accept the fantasy he’s fallen into. Wednesday asks Shadow to think of snow, and when Shadow visualizes the icy crystals of a snowflake, it’s not long before they start falling from the sky. Rooftops, reached by stairways to the sky, facilitate transitions between reality and fantasy. Stairs to the roof are featured both in the opening, when a woman dies in her Queens apartment and Anubis (Chris Obi) takes her to judgment, and when Shadow ventures onto the roof to meet the final Zorya sister, Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar).
We haven’t seen much of the women in American Gods yet. Audrey (Betty Gilpin) is allowed to be grief-stricken and messy in the premiere, which was great, but the female gods sometimes seem more archetype than human. This sort of makes sense, since gods are mythical archetypes, but the youngest Zorya sister highlights the issues with this. She herself is a fantasy: a charming, if a little quirky, young and beautiful girl who doesn’t get cold on a freezing Chicago rooftop. She is a manic pixie dream god, who asks Shadow for a kiss.
The oldest Zorya sister, Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), seems more complex, thanks mostly to Leachman’s performance. She also elevates the characters around her. For example, we see more of Wednesday’s personality by the way he reacts to Zorya Vechernyaya. I love that Wednesday flirts with her as much as with any young woman—it’s nice to see an older woman feel desired. Wednesday also doesn’t seem bothered that Zorya Vechernyaya says he will die and fail; he shrugs it off as if it’s nothing at all. In fact, even after hearing this, Wednesday is so confident that he robs a bank. (Is it that Wednesday isn’t facing reality? Or can he will his fantasy into reality, like Shadow with the snow?)
The bank robbery is great fun—heists are almost always fun. But it also shows how successful American Gods is at changing tone. From horror in the last episode to a lighthearted heist in this episode, the series never balks at the mood it needs to tell whichever story it is telling. This episode alone includes comedy, adventure and romance—and the comedy is funny, the adventure is fun and surprising, and the romance is truly romantic.
In my favorite coming-to-America story so far (it’s my favorite in the book, too), “Head Full of Snow” tells a perfect short story about a worn-down salesman, Salim (Omid Atahi), meeting a tired cab driver (Mousa Kraish), who is really one of the Jinn and whose eyes are full of fire. The two men share a short conversation in Arabic, and in doing so, honor the humanity they recognize in each other. The decision to use Arabic captions as well as English is a beautiful touch, featuring a language often used on TV to inspire terror instead of kindness. Two brown men who speak Arabic is a scenario many Americans have been told to fear, but American Gods portrays them as compassionate and sensual. American Gods again takes something that could be viewed as sinister and makes it romantic during their sex scene, when it shows the men as massive ink-black figures in the desert sands, with fire in their bodies. Instead of a fearsome image against a night sky, it becomes a beautiful, loving image of the men.
By viewing this quite explicit sex scene tenderly, and without hiding their bodies, American Gods shows that it views the sex between them as beautiful, not shameful. The camera views these two men clearly and with compassion. It focuses on their eyes and faces, which are reflecting the love and passion they feel, and on full shots of their bodies, which are clearly experiencing pleasure instead of pain, anger, or embarrassment, as sexual encounters between two men are sometimes portrayed in media.
Though the Jinn says he doesn’t grant wishes, he does make Salim’s fantasy come true, both by loving him for a night and by giving him an entirely new life in America, if he wants it. When Salim takes the keys to the Jinn’s cab and puts on the Jinn’s sweater, the optimism Salim shows at this unexpected role reversal is a delight.
With a long climb up a narrow staircase, the woman in the opening leaves Queens for another world, never to return, just as the salesman does when he picks up the keys to a cab that isn’t his. Shadow makes that same metaphorical journey. Now that he knows that he can make snow, he can’t ever go back.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Real Life, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.