American Gods Recap: Burn, Baby, Burn

American Gods

A Murder of Gods
Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating *****
Corbin Bernsen as Vulcan. Photo: Jan Thijs/Starz Entertainment

American Gods hasn’t shied away from political commentary in this first season, but “A Murder of Gods” goes harder in this regard than any of the preceding chapters. The episode opens with a “Coming to America” segment following a group of immigrants crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. with Jesus Christ’s help, and later visits an all-white rural town obsessed with guns and steeped in Nazi imagery. Writers Seamus Kevin Fahey, Michael Green, and Bryan Fuller realize that the current political climate gives them a lot of new material to incorporate into the general concept of Neil Gaiman’s novel, and they use this episode to directly address topics like immigration, gun control, and racism.

These are all complex subjects, but American Gods prefers to paint a picture with broad strokes. It can do that because it isn’t trying to create a sense of reality, but as a result, its exploration of complicated ideas can feel very superficial. “A Murder of Gods” is very short on subtlety, beginning with the prologue that has Jesus and his immigrant followers gunned down by border patrol officers with “Thy Kingdom Come” engraved on their rifles. The writers are making a very loud statement about how Christian values are corrupted by xenophobes who don’t understand what Jesus actually preached, but the storytelling is so heavy-handed that it diminishes the impact of message.

The first bullet that hits Jesus goes through his palms to make sure viewers realize that this is a metaphor for his crucifixion, and a close-up of the engraving on the rifles highlights the hypocrisy of the shooters. That’s enough to make the statement clear, but then there’s a shot of Jesus dead on the ground in the same position as when he was hung on the cross, which is the visual equivalent of the creative team grabbing a megaphone and screaming in the audience’s face. Killing people who are trying to find a better life for themselves is antithetical to Jesus’s teachings, and the people shooting guns in the name of God’s kingdom are crucifying his son with every bullet fired.

Ammunition also plays a major part as the industry that gives Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) his power. Vulcan is a new character created for the TV series, and the Roman god of fire is reimagined as an ammunition manufacturer whose factory employs the residents of a Virginia town that shares his name. Vulcan has the kind of influence that Wednesday wishes he had, and Wednesday turns to his old friend in hopes of getting some extra firepower in his war against the New Gods. Or so it seems. Wednesday is very wise and crafty, and I find it hard to believe that he could enter the town of Vulcan and not see a connection to the deal Mr. World and Media offered him in last week’s episode. They promised him greater name recognition by attaching Odin to an instrument of destruction, and that’s clearly going on with Vulcan, except he’s creating bullets rather than missiles.

Vulcan puts up a friendly front to Wednesday when he sees him, but it’s obvious to Shadow that he’s bad news. Granted, Shadow is extra wary of any new gods because his last encounter ended with him becoming the host for a magical parasite. Shadow’s discovery of a world behind the reality he thought he knew has reminded me of Neo’s journey in The Matrix (probably because I recently rewatched it), and that connection solidified during the scene where Wednesday pulls a rootlike parasite out of Shadow’s abdomen. It’s so similar that I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a direct homage, and I like the idea of the writers giving a nod to a story that has a lot of thematic similarities to the one they’re telling.

The giant abdominal parasite is something that will always freak me out, so this moment of body horror also worked well to put me on edge before the pair heads into Vulcan, an environment that is especially unnerving to Shadow. He’s the only person of color in a town of armed white people, and everyone reacts to his presence with suspicious disapproval. We’ve seen plenty of cultural stereotypes in American Gods, and white Southerners have their identities simplified this week when they’re presented as gun-loving racists who embraced fascist ideals to keep undesirables out of their community. Dressed in black with red Vulcan armbands, the citizens of the town have a very Nazi-inspired look, and their dronelike behavior indicates that they’ve handed all authority to their aging white male leader.

Vulcan’s disregard for life is emphasized by his home, which is filled with taxidermied animals, and it only becomes more pronounced throughout the episode. The country’s horrifying epidemic of gun violence is what gives him strength, and he relishes the senseless loss of human life if it comes from a bullet. At one point, he even brags that every gun fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in his name. Vulcan shows Wednesday what he could be if he accepts the New Gods’ offer, Wednesday only sees a backstabbing coward.

I think Wednesday realized that Vulcan made a deal with the New Gods, so he put a plan in motion that would allow him to take a powerful player off the board. Knowing that Vulcan is prepared to betray him, Wednesday works quickly to have Vulcan pledge his allegiance and create a sword for him, creating the conditions that will allow Vulcan’s murder. Because Vulcan doesn’t want to reveal his deception, he goes along with what Wednesday asks as he waits for the New Gods, but they don’t arrive before Wednesday beheads Vulcan with the newly forged blade and kicks him into a vat of molten metal. The New Gods made a move against Wednesday, and so he made a move against them, using a past friendship to get close to a powerful enemy who thought he could pull a fast one on a master con man.

While Shadow and Wednesday discover Vulcan, Mad Sweeney and Laura Moon team up with a familiar face from a “Somewhere in America” segment. Sweeney is desperate to get his lucky coin back, so he offers to help Laura become completely resurrected by taking her to an acquaintance in Kentucky. (Right now, Laura is a reanimated corpse and she’s going to rot if she doesn’t find a permanent solution to her current predicament.) Their antagonistic dynamic carries over from last week’s episode, but it begins to change when they’re joined by Salim, the salesman who screwed a jinn in “Head Full of Snow.”

Salim and Laura’s situations overlap in a couple ways: They’re both trying to reunite with their lovers, and they both want to distance themselves from the lives they had before supernatural forces interfered. Bringing back a gay Muslim character in an episode focused on bigotry and xenophobia feels like another statement, especially in contrast to Salim’s calm personality. How can the world be afraid of a gentle soul like his? Unfortunately, their subplot drags down the episode’s momentum as they make their way back to the hometown Laura just left behind. (I do love that Jack’s Crocodile Bar set, though.)

“A Murder of Gods” brings Laura back home so she can firmly decide that she doesn’t want anything to do with her family anymore, but it’s a step backward for a story that’s been sprinting forward. Maybe it’s an intentional decision meant to reflect Laura’s eventual boredom with any situation she finds herself in. She got swept away in the excitement of having a second chance at life, but she’s starting to feel the dissatisfaction that dominated her old life. I appreciate this display of vulnerability, but it takes the wind out of the sails for Laura’s story, and I would have rather seen the writers ride that wave of superpowered, undead ass-kicking for a little longer.

American Gods Recap: Burn, Baby, Burn