A Murder of Gods: Unlikely Alliances and Betrayals in 'American Gods'

American Gods Season

A gay Muslim, a dead woman, and a leprechaun walk into a bar…

After last week’s prehistoric Coming to America sequence, “A Murder of Gods” starts with a scene that’s all too contemporary. It’s also been foreshadowed—thanks to Wednesday’s enumerating of the different Jesuses, it was only a matter of time before Mexican Jesus showed up crossing the Rio Grande.

What’s not entirely expected, however, is the reception he gets. Unlike the other Coming to America scenes, this doesn’t show Mexican Jesus’ first time across the border. It’s a trip he’s made again and again. And now, presumably, for the last time.

Or is it? A lot like with Laura, death is a tricky thing when it comes to Jesus.

But whether or not he’s coming back, there’s a central question about Jesus’ death: Was it a coincidence that he was present for this river crossing gone bad, or was it planned? Knowing that Vulcan sold himself out to the New Gods, maybe we can assume that these vigilantes didn’t choose Vulcan shells by accident.

That would make Mexican Jesus the very first casualty in the coming war. After all, the title of the episode is “A Murder of Gods,” plural. The count is currently one death on each side.

This means the war is really underway. And with it, the rest of the story is finally getting off the ground and the players are forming into groups.

American Gods Pablo Schreiber Emily Browning
Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney), Emily Browning (Laura Moon)

This group formation means the plot of the story is veering further from the book—Laura, Mad Sweeney, and Salim never meet each other in the original. But that’s alright. None of them got even close to this amount of attention, either. If their stories are going to be fleshed out, it’s nice to see them doing it together—it makes the action feel more compact and clean, and it helps ground the world.

Very little actually happens with our new crew, but they set themselves up as if they’re here to stay. I hope they are—they’re something of a wildcard for those of us who’ve read the book, and they have a lovely dynamic. Salim is an adorable foil to Laura and Mad Sweeney’s disillusionment, a bemused but pleasant moderator between the two of them in Jack’s Crocodile Bar. (Which, I can only assume, was such an undertaking to build that it warranted another appearance).

He’s also a grounding force for Laura, encouraging her both to move on from her family and to visit them one last time. He even gets her to say that “life is good” while enjoying a cigarette and watching the sunset. From someone who used to be so numb she sought extremity and even suicide just to feel something, this is an extraordinary advancement.

But Salim and Mad Sweeney are far from the angel and devil on her shoulder, and the two have more in common than it seems. Mad Sweeney’s “quaint sexual metaphor” is a little on the nose, but it is, when you get down to the anatomy of it, awfully similar to Laura and Salim’s peppy “fuck those assholes” mantra.

That makes not one but two cases of profound knowledge wrapped up in quaint metaphors about anal sex. One is about loving someone when they don’t want it. The other is about not loving the people you’ve left behind. Neither is exactly uplifting, and I’ll be very interested to see how our secondary heroes, all of whom are looking for salvation of some kind, navigate their own morality.

Before we leave this group, let me address the fact that I’ve somehow failed until this point to talk about Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney. And that’s a shame because he’s fantastic. Mad Sweeney is a hilarious and pitiful character as it is, but Schreiber brings him to life in a way that’s so satisfying. He’s the comic relief you can’t help but feel sorry for as you watch his luck decline.

It’s his faces, in particular, that really make it.

American Gods Pablo Schreiber
Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney)

Moving on to our other group, Shadow and Wednesday are finally back together and their bond is tightening… at least somewhat. In a surprisingly intimate scene as Wednesday rips Baby Groot’s evil cousin out of Shadow’s stomach, we see a stronger, more immediate repetition of his worry from the checkers match in “The Secret of Spoons.”

But Shadow doesn’t seem to feel as close to Wednesday, having apparently missed the big identity reveal that I confidently claimed we all saw last week. To Shadow’s credit, there was a lot going on at the time, but I’m surprised he missed it.

Something else I apparently misjudged was the significance of the tree in the police station. I think I deserve at least as much of a pass as Shadow’s getting because Mr. Wood in the book is something else entirely. It’s a new and interesting route to take, and one that promises some other, sure to be visually intricate character re-imaginings.

I’m not giving up on my interpretation that this is the same tree from Shadow’s dream of the Bone Orchard, however. It would take a certain amount of reconfiguration of the story, but that might not be a bad thing. It would make some loose ends more involved and tie the story together more tightly, much like teaming Laura, Salim, and Mad Sweeney together for a road trip.

American Gods is a long book with more than a couple one-off characters. Seeing them worked into something more contained and self-referential has the potential to be very satisfying.

But this is all book-based speculation, and that’s not what we’re here for.

American Gods Corbin Bernsen Vulcan
Corbin Bernsen (Vulcan)

So instead let’s talk about Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen), who doesn’t appear in the book at all.

Vulcan is a completely new addition, brought in to perpetuate the also-new angle of rebranding. Vulcan took the New Gods’ deal, and he’s doing great.

Vulcan’s appearance brings some gravity to the story. In a section of the book that’s devoted to recruiting gods and collecting yeses and noses, the problem of Vulcan adds conflict. It conveys a sense of urgency, of extreme stakes. It tells us we’re at war.

It also ramps up the show’s ever-present racial tension, and it’s especially discomfiting. This isn’t the blundering, misguided racism of Technical Boy—this is the deep-seated prejudice of an old man from the South.

But as blatant as it Vulcan’s racism seems, even it experiences the doubling we keep seeing. Does he not let Shadow drink Soma with him and Wednesday because he’s not white, or because he’s not a god? As far as Shadow’s concerned, it’s the former, but we can rest assured that it’s both.

Even more blatant is the discussion of the hanging tree. Just as in the first episode, the representation of nooses and hanging is very deliberately doubled. This is perhaps drifting into spoiler territory again, so for the sake of keeping things under wraps, let’s just say that Vulcan’s musings on hanging are not only racially-driven. He’s extremely aware of the doubling, and he gets a lot of joy out of exploiting Shadow’s lack of awareness.

But Vulcan doesn’t last long. The nice thing about making up a new character is that you can kill him off consequence-free.

Though not entirely consequence-free.

Wednesday is a different person in our eyes now. He isn’t just an old kook anymore—he’s a murderer. Granted, a lot of effort is put into making us be okay with Vulcan’s death. Whatever your stance on guns (the show’s stance is hard to misinterpret), the man has plenty of other bad qualities. He’s a racist. He demands human sacrifice. He helps kill Jesus for crying out loud.

So we may not be sorry to see Vulcan go. But Shadow is another matter. For him Vulcan isn’t an unlikeable character—he’s a real person his boss has just killed. And if he didn’t like being an accessory to bank robbery, he’s not going to be wild about murder.

However close Wednesday and Shadow have gotten, this new development is sure to push it to an extreme. I’m excited to see what that extreme is.

American Gods Vulcan and Wednesday
Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday), Corbin Bernsen (Vulcan)

Though it’s maybe the most action-packed and definitely the most straightforward episode yet, “A Murder of Gods” has the feel of a setup. Our major players have split into factions, and those factions are chasing each other across the country.

All that remains is to wait for the pursuit to unfold.

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Liz has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands.