Sex on television has a rocky history, to say the least. Whether it’s because of FCC restrictions on broadcast content or failed attempts to find a way to satisfyingly integrate physical love within the shorter, more episodic nature of television storytelling, TV has often thoroughly misunderstood the significance of sex scenes.
From passionless, sanitized love scenes on network dramas to the unnecessarily brutal and overused rape scenes on cable mega-hits like Game of Thrones, TV shows continue to struggle in striking a proper balance between steamy and tasteless, passionate and necessary—a difficult to discern but undeniably present line that separates good sex on TV from the bad. In a sea of poorly conceived attempts, though, there’s a series that somehow managed to find that balance and deliver some of the most memorable, well-shot, and narratively justified sex scenes in TV history: American Gods.
A relatively short-lived supernatural drama series that aired on Starz from 2017-2021, American Gods (adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name) followed newly freed ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) after his life is thrown into chaos when he begins working for mysterious con man Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane)—who, unbeknownst to Shadow, is an ancient god. Sucked into the world of deities and dangerous creatures, Shadow comes across all manner of mystical beings. Over the course of his journey, the series takes ample opportunities to use its mythology-rooted characters to concoct a number of visually striking and utterly unforgettable sex scenes.
Most frequently, American Gods built these scenes around a specific character: Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba and goddess of love. Though it may seem strange for a series to anchor the majority of its love scenes to one character, Bilquis’ sensuality and sexual appetite (no pun intended) is built into the very fabric of her character. Early in the series, American Gods features surreal, borderline ceremonial sex that features Bilquis entirely consuming a man with her vagina.
Yes, you read that right; and no, it isn’t the only time it happens. One of the key ideas in American Gods is the concept that the old gods (like Bilquis or Mr. Wednesday) need followers to keep their powers alive and maintain their strength, and while some like Wednesday are simply able to recruit loyal followers, Bilquis gets her kicks through creating sexual pleasure and then devouring whichever poor souls have followed a beautiful woman into bed that night. It’s a narrative device that means American Gods has a reason to justifiably include a sex scene in virtually any episode, but it also allows the series an opportunity to generally challenge established dynamics and attitudes in and about sex on TV.
Where sex on TV is typically the result of overwhelming passion (or in the case of the dreaded rape scene, hatred) between two characters, American Gods uses Bilquis to simultaneously elevate and demystify the sanctity of sex. By divorcing it from simple ideas of “love” and “romance,” it allows the scenes to be built on the strength of the mesmerizing visuals, as well as the intensity and brutality of Bilquis devouring her sacrifices. As strange as it sounds, the sex scenes in American Gods often veer closer to the realm of performance art than they do conventional love scenes—a product of the show’s signature visual flair that bleeds into how the series shows Bilquis hunting her prey.
At the same time, though, Bilquis is hardly the only character on American Gods getting action; nor are her cannibalistic power-driven orgies the only type of sex scene. The series also has its fair share of more conventional, relationship-driven love. Where “What’s Love Got to Do With It” could be Bilquis’ anthem when it comes to sex, that doesn’t mean the series is entirely devoid of romance, either.
For American Gods’ first two seasons, the begrudging frenemy relationship between Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Laura Moon (Emily Browning) quickly developed into a will-they-won’t-they, which culminated in one of the show’s more bizarre (and that’s saying something) sex scenes. While on a quest to find a way to reanimate Laura’s corpse body, the two end up crossing paths with a magical couple in New Orleans; Laura went off to hook up with the man while Sweeney went off with the woman.
Things get steamy quickly (not to mention that the magic actually seems to be working to fix Laura), but in the middle of their respective sex scenes, Laura and Sweeney begin to realize they’re actually having sex with each other. It’s yet another example of how the series uses these moments as multifunctional tools: not only does the New Orleans hookup switcheroo drive the narrative forward and provide for one of the show’s more surprising plot twists, but it also acts as the kind of emotional catharsis that two characters as bottled up as Laura and Sweeney never would have found otherwise.
As with all of the sex scenes in American Gods/, the camerawork is visually striking and certainly sensual, but it never feels exploitative of the performers or overly leery towards its women. Instead, whenever the series decides to make things steamy, the same signature color grading, dreamlike visuals, and surreal imagery are continued from the show’s typical cinematography. It’s an unspoken but undeniable demonstration that American Gods/ isn’t just interested in sex for the sake of it, nor does it shy away from embracing the sensuality that’s inherent in watching characters on TV hook up.
The Mad Sweeney/Laura romance exemplifies the show’s dedication to maintaining thematic integrity and a visual sense of self while also not being afraid to give viewers an eyeful. When Sweeney and Laura get together it is cathartic for the audience, most of whom have been rooting for the two since the beginning. But the show is also self-aware enough to understand that narratively, Sweeney and Laura would never have gotten over themselves and hooked up of their own volition—the metaphysical foursome is the show’s way of both indulging the audience while staying true to its characters.
But perhaps the show’s most publicized sex scene (and without a doubt its most romantic) is between Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the Jinn (Mousa Kraish). In stark contrast to Bilquis’ violent tendencies or the disorienting voodoo that led to Sweeney and Laura’s orgy, Salim’s sex scene is more appropriately tied to the gentle nature of his character. A soft-spoken salesman from Oman who falls instantly in love with the mythical Jinn when the two meet by chance after Salim gets in his taxi (no, that’s not a play on words), Salim’s arc on American Gods revolves around his coming to terms with his sexuality and finding the inner strength to pursue what he loves even in the face of danger—an arc jumpstarted by his steamy one-night-stand with the Jinn.
Where many sex scenes on TV are the culmination of a budding romance, American Gods works backwards, using Salim and the Jinn’s torrid encounter as a jumping off point that prompts Salim to start a journey of self discovery. Before he sets off, though, his night of passion with the Jinn is an unforgettable sequence that features (in addition to the Jinn’s impressively large genitalia in full view) the two of them transforming into fiery sand creatures halfway through.
The dreamlike visual of Salim and the Jinn together is as mesmerizing as it is unconventional, and though a character transforming into a sand dune and shooting “fire” into another being might sound like the most bizarre visual metaphor a writer’s room could come up with for sex, there’s a reverence and respect with which American Gods treats the Jinn and Salim’s relationship that moves their sex scene out of the realm of strange and squarely into that of a religious experience.
It’s American Gods’ willingness to take its sex scenes so seriously while also remaining thoroughly strange that makes them such a delight to watch. Where so many shows are busy hand-wringing over when and where a sex scene is appropriate, American Gods reviled in challenging expectations and demystifying sex on TV by taking things over the top and delivering something truly revelatory.
Lauren Coates is a freelance entertainment writer with a passion for sci-fi, an unhealthy obsession with bad reality television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. She has contributed to Paste since 2020. You can follow her on Twitter @laurenjcoates, where she’s probably talking about Star Trek.
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