From its start, American Gods – from creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, with the author Neil Gaiman as an executive producer – has been unafraid to alter its written source, to either update it for our times, place a bigger emphasis on the book’s minor characters, or set things on a course that takes longer to come to fruition. During the first season, which ended this week, that has resulted in some fascinatingly unique episodes on television (“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”) and others that tended to meander for no obvious reason (“A Murder of Gods”).
The eighth episode, “Come to Jesus”, is far from an ideal season finale. It manages to bring together the disparate and separated cast together for a spring outing, but the show meets none of the usual expectations from a finale: there’s no big revelation, nor a setup for the next season, nor even an offer of some closure. Sure, Wednesday finally uttered his real name upon Shadow’s insistence, but since the audience has always been so far ahead of our “hero”, it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
The bigger reveal in the season finale was the story delivered by Mr. Nancy, the alter ego of the African spider god Anansi, whom we first met in the second episode. He’s a storyteller by nature, and he starts off with the most traditional of openings: “Once upon a time… See? It sounds good already. You’re hooked.” It helps that Orlando Jones is a fascinating orator, from his enunciation to his mannerisms, but the story is equally fascinating.
From the Bar’an temple in 9th-century BCE Yemen, where a queen participates in an orgy, and a nightclub in 1979 Tehran, which is stormed by Shi’a revolutionists, to her turn as a homeless person in the land of Hollywood, Nancy describes the fall of a goddess who had it all. The story is also constructed as an attack on all women by the world of men, in his own words, which serves as an allegory for the rise of sexism over time. Through it all, the show hints at her identity, with her ability to make people disappear with sex.
With her best days behind her, she is paid a visit by none other than Technical Boy, who offers her the gift of an iPhone. Or more accurately, a gift of what’s on the phone. It’s a Tinder-like app called Sheba, which gives her unrestricted access to a bigger pool. And going by what we saw of Bilquis in the season’s beginning, it’s safe to say she readily accepted the deal handed to her by the New Gods. It’s a different arc for the character from the book, but it makes a lot more sense since dating apps weren’t exactly around in the same fashion when Gaiman wrote American Gods, which was published in 2001.
Nancy, of course, is more interested in the moral of the story. Shadow doesn’t have a clue – “Did you get this one off the discount rack?” Nancy jokingly asks of Wednesday – but the old man knows what he’s referring to. After killing Vulcan, who was part of the New Gods’ team, Wednesday needs a queen of his own. He then berates Shadow for not understanding “the concept of pissed off”, and the latter eventually accepts that he’s very confused.
In a short dream soon after, Shadow climbs a mountain of skulls to come across a buffalo with fire in its eyes. He wakes up in a shock to find himself on the passenger seat, with Wednesday driving the Cadillac. The bunnies from the previous episode make a return, except there’s a colony of them this time around. Their attempts to drive Wednesday off the road, like one did with Laura, don’t work, as he knows what they represent, and instead just floors the accelerator. Thank goodness American Gods doesn’t deem it necessary for the rabbits’ killing to be given its usual graphic treatment.
What follows for the next few minutes is a gallant depiction of the production designer and food stylist’s work. The house they arrive at is brimming with the colours – Shadow is quick to remind us that it’s Easter in the show’s timeline – from the ostentatious decorations, the multi-coloured beans and macaroons, and the bright dresses worn by the guests. Wednesday then proceeds to deliver the history behind the holiday, culminating with a raised glass to Ostara.
Shadow is smitten from the first moments he lays his eyes on her, and after a brief encounter with a Jesus Christ – not the, but one of the many versions people believe in – he checks with Wednesday: “That’s Easter? Because people believe in Easter.” Easter (Kristin Chenoweth) is surprised to find Wednesday at her home, and she toys with Shadow who face turns into a full blush after greeting her.
Out in the lawn, Wednesday and Easter’s conversation gets hostile after he takes the blunt route. Sure, the holiday is in her name, but it’s Jesus Christ that people remember. Even as they enjoy searching for hidden eggs, no one prays in her name, he says. An aghast Easter drags Wednesday back into her home, and demands why he’s trying to spoil her day. Wednesday then spins the death of Vulcan as an orchestration of the New Gods – he’s a big liar, as Nancy attested – and pitches his war to Easter.
“They will worship you, if you make them pray,” Wednesday concludes. When Easter points out the bigger importance of Christ, Shadow butts in to add: “But he’s not the goddess of spring.” Wednesday’s plan is to starve people, to make them work for the food on the table. The show seems to be ignoring the involvement of science and technology in food production today, and the excuse of being a fantasy show doesn’t work when you’ve got New Gods around. Hopefully, we’ll get to see a Science God too.
Meanwhile, new guests – some familiar faces in Laura and Mad Sweeney – have arrived. After a bunny brings Easter word of dead in her home – it’s a holiday of rebirth, after all – she meets the pair in the bathroom. Sweeney asks Easter to resurrect Laura as a favour, but she concludes it can’t be done since Laura was killed by a God. A surprised Laura turns to her new favourite move – putting the screw on Sweeney, this time on his scrotum – who confesses that it was Wednesday’s plan all along.
The get-together is complete with the presence of Gillian Anderson’s Media, who’s dressed as Judy Garland from the 1948 musical Easter Parade. She has her own pitch to make, with the faceless goons from the lynching by her side. There’s talk about brand makeover, ‘religious Darwinism’, and an underlying threat as always. Frankly, it’s gotten a little repetitive considering we’ve heard it a few times already.
Wednesday crashes the party to offer his counter arguments, which is slightly newer though a retelling of the same basic principle. “People create gods when they wonder why things happen,” he adds. “Do you know why things happen? Because gods make them happen.” It’s an immediate warning to what’s about to occur, as Wednesday rejects Mr. World’s worldview and delivers lightning from above to strike the faceless goons.
It also sets up a dramatic reveal of Wednesday’s true identity, which seems anti-climactic given the show itself has undone its work over the season, having hinted at it so much since the beginning. He lists a dozen names, and finishes with the most popular among them all: Odin. The problem is that the look on Shadow’s face can’t possibly match with the viewer’s, as mentioned previously, and the moment doesn’t carry the power it had in the book.
Thankfully, the show has a trick up its sleeve: Wednesday hands the baton to Easter, and tells her to show them – the New Gods – what she’s capable of. With a simple lift of her arms, she opens the skies and makes the wind blow, as hundreds of petals start to revolve around her. As her power builds, the land around her turns from green to brown, with all the trees and crops withering instantly, receding into the sprouts they once were.
And if it wasn’t clear enough, Wednesday confirms Easter’s doing: “Tell the believers and the non-believers: tell them we’ve taken the spring. They can have it back when they pray for it.” It’s addressed to Media and Technical Boy, who control all the channels of distribution in today’s time. Shadow’s belief system has been overturned – he believes everything, he says – but the moment is interrupted by Laura, who’s interested in a tête-à-tête with her husband.
The oddness of that moment, as evinced by the two actors and the musical cues, underscored the failings of the season finale. As an hour of visual splendour, it was top-notch as always, thanks to Fuller’s sense of crafting exquisite TV. But as season arcs go, the episode didn’t deliver enough on that front. At the same time, they are only a handful of shows that spend half their first season – a shortened run of eight episodes on that – fleshing out minor characters.
Those moments and asides have given us the season’s best moments – an empowering gay scene involving an Omani native, and commentary on vigilante gun violence and Mexican immigrants among others – which have hopefully shone through despite American Gods’ emphasis on experience over narrative. Now, we pray and wait for season two.