There are a lot of ways to feel deeply alive. It can come in the rush after surviving danger, during steamy sex, or after being hit with massive grief. Each of these scenarios happens in this week’s American Gods, reminding each character that there’s more than to living than the war immediately in front of them.
And thank god(s). “The Ways of the Dead” takes a break from gathering recruits and uses all of the series’ storytelling tools: flashbacks, conversation (instead of exposition), haunting music, sharp editing that keeps things moving, and even actual ghost stories. The result is much more interesting than “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
The tale of Will James (Warren Belle) reminds me how much American Gods depends on looking at the past as well as the future. Having Emily Browning do double duty again as Laura Moon and the white woman in Will James’ story works well. Laura doesn’t need anyone defending her, and women in the past didn’t need defending against a false threat with hidden racist intentions, designed to trap and hurt black men. Using Ricky Whittle as a momentary stand in for Will James reinforces this theme of tying the events of the past to those living today.
The repetition of past and future is also reflected in the images of the young black man in Cairo and Nancy’s (Orlando Jones) feet walking toward each other on the street corner—with Nancy heading to the future and the other man heading to a repeat of the past, falling into an echo of Will James’ story and culminating in seeing his head aflame on a stick. These visual echoes appear throughout “The Ways of the Dead.” For instance, Shadow looks like he borrows Ibis’ (Demore Barnes) clothes, which fit right into a scene of Will James’ past that Shadow walks into. Past and present continually fade into each other, and people are unable to escape it.
In his death, Will James came to worship death, which is, of course, Ibis. With a never-ending supply of black men following James’ fate, it doesn’t look like Ibis will ever be short on worshippers—of which Nancy takes note. It’s not only Wednesday (Ian McShane) who hides his intentions within stories and tricks. It’s all of the gods. Shadow is starting to see that for himself.
As Will James says, “The way of the dead is to know nothing of the living.” But Baron Samedi (Mustafa Shakir) and Maman Brigitte (Hani Furstenberg) might disagree. In New Orleans, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Laura find the two death loa to try to bring Laura back to life. The loa are spirits of Haitian Vodou, and this husband and wife pair seem to know quite a bit about living, or at least about having a good time.
To know that one day you will one day die is to know you are alive. That’s the idea of memento mori, and that’s what American Gods is exploring in “The Ways of the Dead.” Baron and Brigitte value the sensations of being alive because they know that’s what the dead will miss when they can’t have them anymore. Laura—being dead herself—knows it, too. She wants to taste and feel touch again. She’s closer now than she’s ever been to getting her life back, but it’s not that easy when you’re dealing with requests to gods.
Wednesday has succeeded in putting doubt in Laura’s head, and now she’s not sure if what’s happening to her is because of Wednesday or because of her free will and that of others around her. Not knowing what’s real is apparent in the way the sex scene of her, Baron, Brigitte, and Mad Sweeney is shot. It starts with Baron and Laura having rushed sex on a table, then switches to Brigitte and Mad Sweeney. Eventually, the couples switch partners, but because of the blurred effect and slowed-down, dreamy camera angles, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s a fantasy, if the pairs decided to switch on their own or if Baron and Brigitte have something to do with it.
“The Ways of the Dead” is a good reminder that life has stakes, bringing meaning back to the story. Death doesn’t matter unless life matters, and war doesn’t matter unless there’s something to fight for.
Rae Nudson is a Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.