In “A Murder of Gods,” American Gods looks at why people sacrifice their life. Is it for a chance to live in a country that’s full of opportunities? Is it to be with the person you love? Is it to protect your friends and family?
More importantly, is it worth it?
The opening of “A Murder of Gods” shows people trying to cross the border from Mexico into America. It’s a beautiful and harrowing opening that shows viscerally what sacrifice can mean. In the middle of a dark night, a group of people enter a swift river on their journey. One man, who can’t swim, almost doesn’t make it. He’s saved by Jesus Christ (Ernesto Reyes), literally, when Jesus reaches down to lift him from the water. But when the man reaches dry land, people in trucks start shooting at him and the others, killing many, including Jesus himself.
Symbols of Christianity are everywhere: The shooting guns have “Thy Kingdom Come” engraved on their side; a rosary hangs from a hand holding a gun; the crosshairs in the gun form a cross that looks like the one Jesus was hanged from. When this version of Jesus is killed, he falls with his arms stretched out, as if crucified, with his hands and heart bleeding. A soft wind blows tumbleweed over his head and gives him what looks like a crown of thorns. This Jesus sacrifices himself to save the people he cares for, but it doesn’t work. They die anyway, themselves a sacrifice for the chance at something greater.
After all that, was it worth it to try to cross the river into America? It’s not up to me to say, but a man who couldn’t swim got into a rushing river because of what might be on the other side. It seems like it was worth it to him.
An old friend of Wednesday’s (Ian McShane) ends up sacrificing his life for something he probably doesn’t believe is worth it. Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) built a town that shares his name, full of people who worship the firepower he provides in the form of guns and bullets. He isn’t suffering like the other old gods, because he is prayed to every day, every time someone shoots a gun. And the blood sacrifices don’t hurt either—both people dying in the bullet plant in Vulcan and people shot and killed with the bullets it makes feed the god and make him stronger.
As a recently lynched black man in a town where everyone is white, has a gun and wears armbands reminiscent of Nazi uniforms, Shadow (Ricky Whittle) looks nervous the entire time he’s in Vulcan, Va. “Everyone looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face,” Wednesday says as he explains the town to Shadow. “Even if it crumbles under questioning.” He says the people in Vulcan are determined to protect and defend their version of America, which may not be the America everyone else sees, and which doesn’t include black men like Shadow.
But Vulcan doesn’t need his religion to be moral, he says. He just needs people who worship and sacrifice. Lest you forget Wednesday is a con man, Wednesday uses this idea to trick Vulcan. He asks Vulcan to build a sword for him, and Vulcan forges him a beautiful weapon. But this act becomes as a pledge of allegiance to Wednesday, whether Vulcan means it to or not. After Wednesday confirms that Vulcan is working with the new gods, Wednesday repays Vulcan by killing him and accepting his death as a blood sacrifice.
It’s not moral, but it works.
While Shadow and Wednesday are navigating Vulcan, Va., Laura (Emily Browning), Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Salim (Omid Atahi) are navigating Indiana. The unlikely group comes together out of necessity, when Salim catches Mad Sweeney and Laura trying to steal his cab. The misfits make a wonderful team. They’ve lost their luck, their life and their love, but they find solace, or at least some company, in each other. (I like Shadow a lot, but I would still watch a show entirely about Laura, Mad Sweeney and Salim’s road trip across America.)
The three of them face the unknown and supernatural, accepting that there are mysteries in the world they can’t answer, at least not yet. Laura seems to be struggling the most with her new (after)life. She visits the town she used to live in to see a family she claims she doesn’t miss. Salim isn’t looking back on his old life, and Mad Sweeney is only looking toward the moment he can get his coin back from Laura. The group—I hesitate to call them friends—is trying to figure out the narrative of where their lives will go next.
The stories people tell about gods are what make them real, but the stories people tell about each other are equally powerful, and can create heroes and demons. American Gods creates its heroes by focusing on which stories it’s telling. Look at where American Gods directs your empathy: to those who have less power, fire and otherwise. American Gods focuses on the humanity in those who are gunned down by people who can likely think of a million reasons why they are justified in shooting; in a gay Muslim man who pauses a road trip to pray; in a depressed woman who is beginning to fight for the life she wants. By telling their stories, American Gods makes them heroes, and makes it clear that seeing the humanity in each other is always worth the sacrifice.
“A Murder of Gods” opens and closes the episode with prayer in a language other than English, with no subtitles. By once again using other languages, American Gods shows that you don’t have to know exactly what someone is saying to make their story worthwhile. To see someone’s humanity, you just need to believe in them.
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.