‘American Gods’ gets a tremendous update and examines race in America.
The second episode of American Gods, just like the first, begins with a “Coming to America” scene. But it’s a far cry from the Vikings of last week.
This time we open in the hold of a slave ship, on a desperate man praying. This is new. While the book does have a long and very disturbing chapter about slavery, it’s been very much revamped for the show.
And so has Mr. Nancy.
In the book, Mr. Nancy (played here by Orlando Jones) is a laid back, dapper old man. He’s sharply dressed if a little run down. He’s up for a good time and not especially responsible. He tells a hell of a story. He is Anansi, the trickster spider god of West African folklore. He’s the one our desperate man is praying to. And while Anansi answers his prayer, he’s very different from his character in the book.
He still tells a hell of a story, though.
I spoke in my preview article about the difference between diversity in representation and discourse. The Mr. Nancy of the book stops at representation—he’s one of the key players in the action, but the implications of his being in America are never really discussed. He doesn’t actually appear in the slavery chapter.
This Mr. Nancy, however, is one of discourse. There’s a reason he’s been brought to America, and it sure isn’t the spirit of exploration of last week’s Vikings. The creators of the show are well aware of this, and they’ve made a conscious decision to engage with that fact by updating Mr. Nancy’s character and allowing him to engage with it, too.
And I think it’s the right decision. Having a laid back old character who was brought to America on a slave ship would have left a bad taste in plenty of mouths.
As it stands, Orlando Jones’ opening speech is a glorious mix of wry humor and pure rage. In an ingenious move, the show has given this Mr. Nancy of 1697 foresight into modern America. (He’s a god, so why not?) This nuance works beautifully to explain the change in Mr. Nancy’s character and the anger that he feels.
Anansi is known for his quick thinking, for being able to squeeze out of tight situations. This is why the desperate man prays to him. And because of his personality, it only stands to reason that a 1697 Anansi would have hope, would be confident. But this Anansi knows the score:
“Once upon a time, a man got fucked.”
Anansi never gets fucked. But in being brought to America he does, along with everyone who believes in him. It’s enough to make anyone change, to make anyone get angry. It only makes sense in the context of history, and it had to be done in order for the show to be taken seriously.
And with this scene, it earns the right to be taken very seriously.
Race is a thread that carries throughout the episode. If we had any doubts about the racial connotations of Shadow’s lynching last week, we can safely let them go now. You don’t cut from a slave ship to a man of color hanging from a tree by accident. It’s a much more modern image in a completely contemporary context, a stark reminder of “the story of black people in America.”
It comes up very notably again at the end of the episode when Czernobog (Peter Stormare) asks Shadow if he’s black. This is the start of a fabulous monologue by Czernobog that’s equal parts fascinating and uncomfortable.
It’s also oddly reminiscent of Mr. Nancy’s monologue from the beginning.
These two speeches function as bookends to the episode. Though they have very different sources and tones, they both meditate on the American experience and the nature of prejudice. And they both touch on some key points that are too specific to be accidental.
The most obvious is, of course, the idea of relative shades. Mr. Nancy’s audience doesn’t know they’re black yet because, as far as they’re concerned, they’re just people. By the same token, Czernobog’s countrymen don’t know they’re white—they have to base their prejudice on a different context.
(Though to be fair, Czernobog’s homeland always had a very strong notion that black was bad).
A more obscure parallel comes in the discussion of anger. It’s a key element in Mr. Nancy’s speech: “I like angry. Angry gets shit done.” But while Czernobog is definitely angry when Wednesday and Shadow first arrive, he’s calm during his own monologue. The anger he focuses on is, interestingly enough, the anger of cows.
It’s a classic trope that fear spoils the meat. Everybody knows that. It’s the reason we have people like Czernobog to slaughter quickly and efficiently.
You never really hear about the taste of anger. Especially in beef.
But that’s what Czernobog focuses on. “You have to do it right or the cow gets angry and angry meat tastes bad.” It’s too strange a distinction not be a deliberate reference to Mr. Nancy’s anger. But what could it mean?
For one thing, it’s a representation of the situation Czernobog and Wednesday are in right now. Angry gets shit done, it’s true, but only if it gets the chance. If angry gets put down before it can build, there’s no hope. The man or the cow who could’ve gotten angry just dies.
Czernobog mourns the rise of the pneumatic cattle gun, the new “mechanic bullshit,” because it’s taken away the specialization of killing. It’s a fast and efficient way to quell the angry before they get angry, and it’s precisely what Wednesday is asking him to fight against. The new gods, like Gillian Anderson’s hi-def Lucy Ricardo, are the mechanic bullshit—Wednesday wants Czernobog to get angry and get shit done before they’re both slaughtered.
Both Mr. Nancy and Czernobog are telling the story of their own plight, of the main plot of the show.
There is, of course, a much starker way to read the connections between Czernobog and Mr. Nancy’s monologues. It’s hard to ignore that one is espousing the virtues of anger and other the best ways to keep it down. And a lot of attention is paid to Czernobog’s cigarettes, Mr. Nancy’s only silver lining because it’s “gonna give a shitload of these motherfuckers cancer.” The bottom line is that Mr. Nancy is black and Czernobog is white, and they seem to be on opposite sides of a few key images.
But this show doesn’t seem to be one that deals in absolutes. And that hammer the man in the slave ship uses to smash his neighbors’ shackles has a familiar look to it…
Czernobog’s own identity goes a long way to muddy the waters. His speech about prejudice by shade has a few very clever layers to it. At first, Czernobog assures Shadow that he’s not hung up on skin tone, then he goes on to commiserate about how he’s been wrongly judged for his own “blackness.” It’s a lovely little example of the misguided empathy of white privilege. It pairs wonderfully with Czernobog’s final line of the show: “Shame. You’re my only black friend.”
On one level Czernobog is every white person who would never consider themselves racist but have some stark truths and frank talk they’d like to share.
But at the same time, Czernobog isn’t really a person. He’s a god. (I think we’re far enough into the show that that’s no longer a spoiler). His name means, literally, “black god,” and the brother he mentions is Bielebog, or “white god.” He is the embodiment of the arbitrary duality of black and white—his hair was black, so everyone assumed he was the bad one.
A lot like the noose imagery in the first episode, Czernobog’s monologue presents an interplay between a magical and a realistic interpretation of the same very charged situation. His dual existence as both an old white man and a divine representation of “blackness” allows his monologue to exist on two levels. It is, at once, an uncomfortable simplification of race relations and a legitimate meditation on the nature of prejudice.
It’s a layering of multiple Americas.
But “The Secret of Spoons” isn’t all about race. Between the anger and meditation are moments that are deeply, profoundly funny. Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya couldn’t be better, and the way Ian McShane plays off of her is perfect. (Her line “You are the worst man I have ever seen” gets a laugh out of him that I’m half convinced is real).
While Leachman is a joy to watch, it’s the silences that are the real stars in the Zoryas’ apartment. While Shadow’s earlier moment of crisis in the diner is perhaps supposed to be more poignant, it’s his and Wednesday’s reactions to each other, to the way they interact with other people, that start to give real insight into their relationship and their characters. Shadow’s head shake at Wednesday’s flirting with Zorya Vechernyaya speaks volumes more than his blind confusion in the diner.
As does Wednesday’s quiet starts as Czernobog pushes Shadow further and further into their checkers deal. For the first time, we see something bordering on concern, both for Shadow and for his control over the situation.
In these reactions, we see the beginning of a relationship and maybe even a fondness. But because the world of American Gods isn’t quite our own, it’s not quite a fondness we’re used to. These gods don’t love us, and while Wednesday might try to steer Shadow away from getting his skull smashed in, he’s not going to stop him. It’s a reminder of the otherworldliness of some of our characters, and the unfamiliarity of the rules they follow.
It’s a sly method of character and world building in a world we’re still getting a feel for.
“The Secret of Spoons” is, at its heart, a frank meditation on race—its first and last lines seal that deal. But it delivers this meditation with the same duality of images it established with the noose imagery in “The Bone Orchard.” It interweaves extremely real elements with fantastical ones, resulting in a final product that doubles back on itself and comes at you from all directions.
And while it’s confronting you with these pervasive, deadly serious elements, it still manages to make you laugh. It’s a tall order, but it pulls it off.