American Gods and The Leftovers: When Modern TV Gets Medieval

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Photo: Starz/HBO

The first episode of American Gods begins with a prologue. A man carefully writes “Coming to America,” dipping a pen nib into a pot of ink, and then a narrator’s voice tells us a story from 813 C.E. about Vikings landing in North America for the first time. When they step foot on land, the Vikings immediately get stuck: They meet resistance from the unseen people who already live there, and at the same time, their ship is useless because the wind refuses to blow. The only solution is to sacrifice to “the All-Father” and beg him to change the weather, but their god doesn’t know to look for them in this new land. They slaughter each other to force the All-Father’s attention. It works, the wind picks up, and they go home.

It isn’t the only prologue on TV this month, nor is it the only one set in a distant past. HBO’s remarkable final season of The Leftovers begins with a weirdly similar opening. Much like the sequence that kicked off the show’s second season, the prologue to season three is entirely disconnected from the rest of the series in terms of character and setting: It’s a story about a 19th-century family that follow a minister who’s predicting the end times. Time and again, the minister performs calculations and arrives at a date, and time and again, the family climbs up on top of their roof, dressed in white, waiting for the rapture. The father eventually grows frustrated and leaves the church, taking their son with him. At the end, only the mother stands on the roof in a harrowing rainstorm, waiting fruitlessly for the second coming.

In both cases, it’s a strange, risky way to start a television season. There’s something inherently off-putting about a prologue, especially one as starkly self-contained as these. Each of these scenes require attention and thought, which means we spend time getting used to the actors’ faces, the little narrative arcs, and this specific moment in time. Then the prologue ends, which, frankly, can feel like a relief. Ah, you might think, now we can get to the good stuff. So why do it? Why present these strange, disorienting stories before letting us see a show’s main characters? Why delay when viewers want to dive in? Why start so far in the past?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both of these series tell stories about faith. They offer radically different approaches to the topic: Where American Gods is a narrative about deities frantically scrabbling to exist, grabbing for lost power in an era of new, distinctly modern idols, The Leftovers is a gorgeous, elongated, fantastically illuminated question mark, asking whether faith and the search for meaning have any point at all. Underneath, though, the shows pose remarkably similar questions. Where does belief come from? What does it look like? What drives it? How do you create it where none was before? How does it get lost? And, of course, is it ultimately better to believe or to doubt?

In both cases, the prologue recasts those questions as collectively human concerns, regardless of whether the people are Vikings or 19th-century zealots. After all, both series are preoccupied with time. The Leftovers takes the date of the Sudden Departure and reframes its anniversary as a potential apocalypse, while American Gods circles around careful, ritualistic timing through its pilot and its subsequent episodes. The prologues, seen from a point far in the past, explode some of that precision, making it clear that however stuck we may be inside a doomsday ticktock, the questions posed by each show are much bigger than Kevin and Nora or Shadow Moon and his dead wife Laura. Isn’t that what a prologue is meant to imply? It makes a story bigger, more epic, more expansive. It’s a gesture outward. This is a story about these characters, but it’s also about so much more!

But something pointed happens in these examples, too. It’s not just that American Gods and The Leftovers set their prologues in the distant past, or that they tell little fables about people yearning for divine contact. In both cases, the characters in each prologue have no names and no dialogue. American Gods uses a narrator, who explains the Vikings’ plight with the abstract distance of someone telling a story from a great remove, while The Leftovers’ opening has no words at all. In both cases, the effect is a raw, painful directness; faith becomes an idea entirely about action, not discussion. Still, it’s hard to describe the fantastic bloodiness of the American Gods prologue or the sucking mud of The Leftovers’ beginning as sparse storytelling. They’re intensely tactile, even if they’re remarkably lean. They draw their stories in bold lines, relying on archetypes and old, familiar narrative structures like repetition and escalation more so than detail or description.

In other words, they’re like parables. And there’s something so fitting about two TV shows about faith, belief, and doubt using one of the most recognizable devices from religious texts to tell their stories. The “Coming to America” motif in American Gods is one that returns throughout the series, and as far as we know, The Leftovers’ story about 19th-century Millerites will remain its own perfect little bubble. But as a way to kick off a season, both of these opening sequences present more universal perspectives on faith, while also starting in the way every good doctrinal text should: “In the beginning …”

In the beginning, these prologues tell us, there were people. They were individuals with their own specific obstacles, but they also act as object lessons about how to believe and what belief can cost.

There’s yet another TV show on right now about faith and the horrible costs of belief: The Handmaid’s Tale. It grapples with many of these same questions, but there’s no prologue to its story. Where The Leftovers and American Gods root their explorations of faith somewhere — even if it’s somewhere as existentially uncertain as it is in The LeftoversThe Handmaid’s Tale is about a world trying desperately to erase its past. The show doesn’t begin with a parable set centuries earlier; it begins as Offred is torn away from her life and family. The moment in history it’s drawing is not some distant, parable-like past; it’s now. If nothing else, the wordless prologues of American Gods and The Leftovers reveal exactly how horrifying the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is. These series offer three dramatically different takes on faith and belief, but what ties them together is the way they insist on presenting those ideas as part of a long view of history — and how disturbing it is when that history gets erased.

The Leftovers and American Gods: A Close Read of Prologues