Tuesday, May 2, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x1)

Do you have a book that you can't escape? I mean that in a good way; I mean a novel that stays with you, one that you find yourself thinking about at odd moments, no matter how long it has been since you read it? There are several books like that for me but unquestionably and without stretching out this preamble, one of them is Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I picked up a copy of the book several years ago, being a fan of Gaiman's work in general and thinking the book would serve as a palate cleanser since, being in grad school at the time, I needed breaks from the academic books I was pouring over. I read the entire novel in less than a week and only glanced occasionally at my thesis. It was that good. The novel, and now the TV series, explores gods, myth individuality and cultural belonging and the relationship between all of those and America, a land where old and new gods rise and fall, rise and fall. The opening episode, "The Bone Orchard," invites the viewer in, to take them on a wonderfully weird journey. It's well worth our time to follow Mr. Shadow Moon and his new friend Mr. Wednesday. Let's go! 

What is a god? When I was graduate school, we had to try and tackle this question one day. You'd be amazed at the amount of tongue tying that happened as people attempted to define something that is largely undefinable. Is it a person? An object? A concept? For example, if I were to try and define god by saying "a god is a person..." then does that take away something of the majesty and grandeur that goes alongside the word god? Or if I were to define god by saying "a god is an object that is worshiped by a person or persons" then how does that fit into a religious idea that gods help, hinder, and, at the very least, interact with the other non-god people? Can an object actually have agency in your life? Okay, you might be thinking, then god is a concept representing a higher plane of existence completely outside the realm of human understanding and, to quote one of my favorite discussions on godhood from the TV show "House," penguins might as well contemplate quantum physics." But, I retort, if god is so outside of human understanding, how can we worship something that doesn't at least resemble the human condition and experience? And is god on the same level as other intangible concepts like love, justice, truth? And what about all those tales--both of a Christian and non-Christian tradition--that have a god or gods entering the human realm and interacting with mortals in very human ways. God as a concept is easy to accept because it's easier than trying to parse it out, but when we do try to parse it out, we fall woefully short; and, of course, we haven't even begun to tackle the super heady question of is/are god/gods even real or are they merely a metaphor for or simply a natural byproduct that happens when humans need someone to blame, believe in, argue about, or be the answer to the questions we have about the world and universe. American Gods wants to tackle these questions though it's less so the question of being real and more the question of what being real means to a god and how they define their realness and, very importantly, how they fight to stay real. In the western world, our definition of god usually includes an idea about immortality and being forever but for the gods that populate this America--the very real, walking, talking, smoking, cursing, fucking, obscene, profane and sacred gods--mortality is an all too real thing, breathing down their necks with every forgotten prayer and sacrifice. I do not want to get too ahead of myself or the show since I know I may have readers who have not read Gaiman's novel (what are you waiting for??) so let's actually move past this attempt to understand the metaphysical and dive into what the pilot episode is presenting.

“Nobody's American," said Wednesday. "Not originally. That's my point.” The idea that America is--and always has been--a country of immigrants is central to the main conceit of American Gods. There is a very popular metaphor that America is a melting pot but this has always rung false to me. America is not a homogeneous mixture but more of a fruit salad. Put all the ingredients together and you get a fruit salad but you can clearly pick out the lettuce from the apples from the orange slices. We like to think that America is blended to the point that each individual portion is unrecognizable from others, but we have always divided Americans by a variety of facets: race, gender, sexual orientation, ancestry, and, most importantly, in the case of American Gods, religion. In this country, even if you aren't looking very hard, you can find Christians, Jews, and Muslims (these first three having various subsets found within), atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindi, ect. If you move back into the far past, you'll find the religions of Native Americans and various original settlers, even if those were just passing through. Every time one of these immigrants came to the shores of America, they brought with them more than just the clothes on their back. They brought their gods. The pilot episode doesn't want to give away much about this idea except in noting that when the Viking settlers came back to the shores of America one hundred years after the first visit "they found their god waiting for them." The episode, instead, prefers (wisely) to stay with our protagonist Shadow Moon, and so I too shall follow in the show's footsteps but the pilot is not totally without overt godly imagery. A tall Irish bloke named Sweeney claims to be a leprechaun (that midget idea is just a vicious rumor!) and somewhere out in Hollywood a beautiful woman named Bilquis swallows a man with her vagina which is pretty inhuman. However, let's focus on Shadow since we have acknowledged that the gods are waiting, biding their time out on the edges of our story. Shadow Moon is a hardluck hero if ever there was one. He's spent the past three years in jail; his wife dies while screwing his best friend and it turns out that he has neither money nor job to go home to. Shadow's meeting with the strange (and delightfully cheeky) Mr. Wednesday on an airplane is about as unromantic a call to adventure as they come, but that's what it is. The hero's journey begins the same: a divine force, or an agent of the divine, invites the would-be hero to come enter their world, which by default is not the same as the one the hero is currently suffering through. In this case, Mr. Wednesday needs an errand boy, someone to use violence when called for and (oddly) someone to sit vigil for him, should he perish in his whatever-they-are-endeavors. It's not exactly Princess Leia's plea for help in droid form. Shadow himself isn't a typical hero; he's an ex-con! He's clearly done bad things in his life; he's not a wide-eyed noob and he does not find this new world of blood, guts, weird dreams, and technology boys who smoke synthetic frog skins amazing. If anything, Shadow's introduction to the world is really alarming and like any sane human being, he wants to run from it. He finds Mr. Wednesday neither charming nor endearing; he sees Wednesday for what the old man is (sort of): a too-talkative grifter. Shadow's a good salt-of-the-earth kind of guy which really makes you root for him automatically, complicated flawed past and all. Shadow only becomes Wednesday's errand boy because he lost a bet. He's a reluctant hero and that's smart, both on Gaiman's part and on the show's part. No one wants to enter this world, especially when the world comes with this level of bloodshed. Even if you don't know about the gods, there's clearly something off about a man who is a self proclaimed cheat, thief, and trickster needing your help and making you swear (over mead of all things) to sit his vigil if he dies. I'd run far away too. Shadow, in other words, becomes a really good surrogate for the audience who are all probably just as confused as he is here in the opening act of our story. Hang on, Shadow. It only gets weirder.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Bone Orchard 

--I don't think I've been this excited to review a show in forever. I hope to have these reviews up after every episode, but it may be every other week (sort of a la Westworld).

--The opening credits were perfect; a harmony of new and old bringing together classic religious iconography (the Buddha, the crucifixion) with the new (neon, machines, drugs).

--The Bilquis sex scene was spot on.

--Ian McShane is doing god's own work as Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle isn't far behind.

--"Even a salad would do."

--Mr. Wednesday is right...Shadow Moon is "one outlandishly improbable name!"

--There's a lot of social commentary woven into this episode. It's not subtle but the show doesn't need to make their visual cues into text by having characters comment on it, which is welcome since other TV shows are using some of the same motifs but going out of their way to talk about said motifs. For example, the episode is book-ended by two heavily violent scenes against some sort of "Other." To open we have Viking immigrants who come to the new world, hungry and miserable, and met with hostility and violence. To close we have a black man strung up a tree, lynching style, by "men" who appear to be Caucasian.

--I am thrilled that this opening episode included one of my all time favorite quotes from the novel: "We have reprogrammed reality. Religion is the operating system and prayers are just so much fucking spam."

--"You're just the first person I've talked to who wasn't an asshole." "Give me time."

--Know Your Gods: I'd like to try something in these reviews since my background is in comparative religion. Every review, I'm going to pick a god who was featured in the episode and highlight some of their stories. I am not an expert in all world's religions but I have enough in me (I hope) to talk a bit about each of the characters. This week is Bilquis in what was easily the most memorable scene of the pilot. Bilquis is probably known to you by a different name: The Queen of Sheba. She's found in Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Ethiopian and Coptic traditions and has become one of the more well known female figures, known for her wisdom, her faith, and her riches. Her stories differ but the one that usually stands out is of her one night of passion with King Solomon. The story goes a little something like this: King Solomon needed materials to build his grand Temple in Jerusalem and upon hearing reports about all the fabulous things in the capital city, Sheba went to see them (and Solomon) for herself. The two apparently got on like a house on fire and (because this is how these things normally go) she converted to his religion before spending a magical night together though it's all done through clever trickery. She is given a ring as a token and, naturally, gives birth to a son on the way back to her own kingdom. Some myths have her as also being half-jinn which might explain the almost demonic, all consuming (pun!) need that comes over her worshipers when offered a chance to pay her homage. Because her most well known story involves sexual love, she becomes associated with other love goddess, someone who is worshiped as a sexual deity which obviously Neil Gaiman and Starz delightfully took up.

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