Though American Gods has been showered with critical praise for its surreal, aesthetically pleasing first season, the Starz series is not without faults. At times, it's a clunky, narrative mess that can't quite execute some of its most ambitious messages. The handling of Shadow Moon's lynching scene, for starters, was a serious misfire. But like other Bryan Fuller-led shows (namely Hannibal and Pushing Daisies), perhaps American Gods just needed time to find its footing. Episode six, "A Murder of Gods," was the first time that the show's "Coming to America" vignettes, which highlight the Old Gods emigrating to a new land, dovetailed with the overarching story of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday recruiting the Old Gods for an impending war.
Apparently, all American Gods needed was a bit of Mexican Jesus.
Yes, American Gods brings Jesus into the story (Mr. Wednesday did say back in episode three that Jesus can take many forms, including "Mexican Jesus") in a manner so on the nose, Fuller might as well show up in your living room and slap you across the face with a leather-bound Bible.
This episode's "Coming to America" opening follows a group of Mexican immigrants trying to cross the U.S. border. They reach a river; American soil's on the other side, mere meters away. One of the immigrants, who has a tattoo of Jesus on his forearm, doesn't know how to swim and starts drowning. But an outstretched hand guides him to shore, and this mystery person with long, flowing brown hair can ostensibly walk on water. "You already know my name," the divine man says in Spanish.
Unfortunately, before the immigrants can collect themselves after making it to shore, a handful of pickup trucks arrive and they're showered with bullets. These assailing militia men — wielding guns emblazoned with crosses and the words "Thy Kingdom Come," and wearing crosses around their necks — massacre the immigrants. Mexican Jesus is among the victims, and is shot through the palm and heart, falling to the ground in a style evoking the Messiah's nailing to the cross.
Indeed, American Gods is aggressively unsubtle here. Even though Fuller and co-showrunner Michael Green wrapped up filming for season one in October, before President Donald Trump was elected, the message is a clear rebuke of Trump and his supporters' anti-immigration rhetoric. Consider the fact that Jesus is only mentioned briefly in Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name, and only encounters Shadow in a postscript of Gaiman's preferred text. But here he is, on-screen and in the flesh, in an episode where the main focus is a god using guns to capture more followers (again, not exactly subtle!).
That gun god would be Vulcan, God of the Fire and the Forge, who Mr. Wednesday wants to recruit for the war against the New Gods. Vulcan literally created a town in his name: Vulcan, Virginia, a seemingly all-white community whose economic value is predicated around Vulcan Munitions, a gun factory. Unlike many of the Old Gods, whose power and influence fade as Americans continue to worship media and technology, Vulcan maintains a steady presence through guns fired off in his name (the bullets actually have the name "Vulcan" engraved on them) and occasional workplace accidents in which a Vulcan Munitions employee is incinerated — an old-fashioned human sacrifice, updated for the modern age.
So, put two and two together, and it's clear the militia men from the vignette are technically serving a deity — just not the one worn around their necks and referenced on their guns. "There aren't just two Americas," Mr. Wednesday explains to Shadow. "Everyone looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face, even if it crumbles under question."
That amounts to the show's thesis statement — America is a complex melting pot! — but the portrayal of Vulcan, his followers and the militia men is the first instance where American Gods is taking a hard stance against a belief system. In this case, it's the strain of Christianity that's practiced by people whose faith and patriotism is intermittently tied to their right to bear arms.
In previous episodes, the series explores why Laura Moon feels the need to cheat on Shadow and persuade him to rob a casino, and how a one-night stand with a Djinn caused an Omani man to literally switch places with him and become a cab driver. But it never passes judgment on any character's decisions, even if, say, you view Laura's treatment of Shadow as reprehensible.
However, by having militia men literally shoot Jesus, and — by the end of the episode — showing Mr. Wednesday decapitate Vulcan with a steel sword, American Gods quite unsubtly takes a stand against gun-toting Americans who cast themselves as virtuous. And the series is at its best because of it.
American Gods airs Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern on Starz.
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