There are no gods without belief. It creates gods and keeps them alive, and as long as they have believers, the gods cannot die. But as we’ve seen, Shadow Moon doesn’t believe in anything anymore. He believed in love when he was with his wife, but she’s dead after cheating on him with his best friend, so he’s back to a life of skepticism despite all of the unexplainable weirdness unfolding around him. Shadow’s struggle to make sense of his new reality and believe in the impossible is at the core of “Head Full of Snow,” which reveals a greater power within Shadow that leaves him even more perplexed. He can rationalize other people pulling coins out of thin air, but conjuring a snowstorm with his mind is something that can only be explained by accepting that what he once considered fantasy is now very real.
Shadow is getting pulled deeper into a world of myth and magic with each moment. After betting away his life on a game of checkers at the end of the last episode, Shadow wakes up and climbs the fire escape to find Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar), the youngest of the Zorya sisters, stargazing at a sky that is slowly being overtaken by storm clouds. Much of their conversation involves ominous warnings about a future threat that is going to end the world, but Zorya is mostly interested in discussing Shadow’s lack of belief and inspiring him to find faith in something.
Reading his fortune, Zorya tells Shadow that he has nothing because he believes in nothing, but she also sees that he’s on a path from nothing to everything. Right now, he’s a shadow of a man, willing to lose his head to Chernobog rather than live in a world where he has to acknowledge that there’s something bigger than his pain. Zorya is a light in the darkness, and Shadow’s interaction with her inspires him to take control of his fate while he still can: He goes back downstairs, challenges Chernobog to a checkers rematch. Ricky Whittle’s characterization of Shadow changes between his interactions with Zorya and Chernobog, and he’s more confident and assertive when he convinces Chernobog to play another game. He’s playing to win this time, and he does.
That bravado begins to fade once Shadow and Wednesday leave the dingy apartment to go rob a bank, a course of action that puts Shadow on edge. He just got out of prison, and he wasn’t planning on going back a few days later. Wednesday puts Shadow in a situation with huge stakes so that when the magic happens, he’s even more shaken. The plan relies on Shadow creating a snowstorm that shuts down the city, allowing Wednesday to steal night deposits by posing as a security worker who’s sitting there because the ATM and night safe are out of order. Wednesday tells Shadow to think of snow, and as he focuses on it more intensely, the weather changes.
The visuals shift during these meditative moments, and working within a fantastic framework gives the American Gods team freedom to be more playful with the imagery they create onscreen. The shot of Wednesday’s car driving over a giant marshmallow and the montage of snowflakes growing on copier machines put the viewer inside Shadow’s head as random outside stimuli merge with the general idea of snow. Visualizing those thoughts adds another dimension to this show’s use of special effects, and how they inform the mystical elements of the narrative. There are flashy moments of CGI in this episode’s “Somewhere in America” segments, but these glimpses into Shadow’s mind are especially compelling because they’re tied to the character and bring a sense of whimsy to a mostly dark story.
When Shadow successfully changes the weather, he has another big conversation about belief with Wednesday, who tells him that belief is often determined by the company people keep and how scared they are. Shadow doesn’t scare easily, but he’s surrounding himself with people who challenge everything he thought he knew about reality. And there are plenty of things to make Shadow afraid moving forward: the coming war, gods like Media and Technical Boy, and, as revealed at the end of this episode, Laura Moon, who is a lot less dead than he thought.
Laura Moon’s fate is directly connected to Mad Sweeney, the belligerent leprechaun who returns this week, still asleep in Jack’s Crocodile Bar after his brawl with Shadow. Sweeney begins to notice that his luck is turning when the bartender’s shotgun doesn’t misfire, and after getting picked up by a good Samaritan, he discovers the bloody consequences of his newfound bad luck. The driver is impaled by a metal rod that slips out of the back of a truck, and Sweeney realizes that he gave his lucky coin to Shadow. Unfortunately for Sweeney, Shadow threw the coin on his dead wife’s grave (and it burned through the coffin to maybe bring her back to life), so he’s stuck with back luck for the foreseeable future.
Believing doesn’t necessarily mean ascribing to the religions associated with specific gods, as “Head Full of Snow” reveals in the “Somewhere in America” cold open. Mrs. Fadil (Jacqueline Antaramian) is a Muslim, but when she dies after falling off a stool, Mr. Jacquel/Anubis (Chris Oti), the Egyptian god of the afterlife, comes to guide her off this mortal coil. The stories told to Mrs. Fadil as a child about the Egyptian gods were enough to plant a grain of belief that she kept her entire life, and she walks with Mr. Jacquel out of her apartment, up the fire escape, and into a sprawling desert where her heart is weighed against a feather.
Using these cold opens to tell short stories that are separate from the main plot but still connected thematically is a smart way of integrating the detours Gaiman takes throughout his novel, and it also helps expand the world of this series. As Shadow and Wednesday make their way to a gathering of gods, each episode takes time to introduce the various gods beforehand so viewers arrive with a deeper understanding of the deities involved.
Much of the conversation surrounding this episode focuses on the gay sex scene between frustrated Omani salesman Salim (Omid Abtahi) and a cab-driving djinn (Mousa Kraish), who make a connection in a taxi that turns into a scorching hookup. (If one of your characters literally ejaculates fire, you better deliver a hot sex scene.) This is the episode’s second “Somewhere in America” segment, and it shares more in common with Bilquis’s segments in the first two chapters than Mrs. Fadil’s. Salim and the djinn’s story is much more developed than that of Bilquis and her victims, and we get to see Salim’s insulting, wasted work day before he seeks solace from his cab driver. This isn’t a predatory sexual encounter, and the actors capture the intimacy that quickly develops between these characters. When the sex does happen, it’s driven by an emotional connection, and the frankness of the sex is tied to how open and liberated Salim and the djinn feel in the moment.
I’m a firm believer that sex is a valuable storytelling tool for building an intense bond between characters, but it’s not often that we see queer characters get substantial, explicit sex scenes in mainstream media. We see Salim’s erect penis as the djinn penetrates him, first in the small bedroom, and then on the sands of a nighttime desert, where the wind blows away their flesh to reveal two obsidian statues having sex under the stars. This is sex on an epic scale, and when the djinn finishes, he unleashes a wave of fire that fills Salim’s insides, leaving him forever changed. The sex scene needs to sell the idea that this is a life-changing experience, and that jump into the desert brings an overwhelming extravagance to the intimate event.
Salim wakes up alone without his belongings, and the djinn has given him the opportunity to build a new life for himself as a cab driver. I mentioned in my recap of the series premiere that American Gods traffics in a lot of stereotypes, and while Salim assimilating in the U.S. by becoming a cab driver plays into a stereotype, the character is much more than that. We get an idea of who he is, what he wants in life, and why he decides to step into the djinn’s old role. He’s remaking himself in America, and in the process accepts an identity that has been perpetuated by American culture for people of his background. I’m eager to see where he’ll go next.