‘American Gods’ Boldly Takes On the Brutal Cult of Guns in “A Murder of Gods”

     June 4, 2017

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In 2008, Barack Obama, then a senator, made a pit stop in the San Francisco area on the presidential campaign trail. Describing the atmosphere in small towns across Middle America, he said people “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

A firestorm erupted as Obama tried to defend his words against the backlash they sparked. He brushed against a heated comparison between guns and religion. As those with “God, Country, Guns” T-shirts will argue, it’s every American’s god-given right to own a firearm.

Neil Gaiman first published American Gods in 2001. Since then, the U.S. has faced the Sandy Hook massacre, the Aurora movie theater shooting, the Virginia Tech shooting, the San Bernardino shooting, the Fort Hood shooting, and last year alone saw the deadliest of them all on American soil, the Pulse nightclub shooting — to name just a few. Gun control is not becoming less controversial, so it’s time for American Gods to evolve.

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Image via Starz

Enter Vulcan. Played by Corbin Bernsen, the character may be familiar to experts of ancient Roman mythology as the god of the forge and volcanoes, but Gaiman gave him a new purpose. You can now think of him as the god of guns. As he explains, guns are just handheld volcanoes.

A steel town factory in Virginia marks the deity’s new volcanic domain as smoke erupts from pillars and stains the sky. It’s a place where a couple of workers die every year because it’s cheaper for the insurance company to settle lawsuits instead of shutting down the factory for repairs. In Wednesday’s eyes, it’s the same as these executives committing murder themselves. The deaths end up feeding Vulcan, whose followers don’t seem to mind. In fact, they celebrate the bi-annual killings of their own people because they’re hypnotized by the idea of America. No, “their America.”

“Everyone looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face, even if it crumbles under question,” Wednesday explains to Shadow. “People will defend the warm, safe feeling their America gives them. They will defend it with bullets.” So, instead of fighting the system that kills their own friends and family, the blissfully ignorant citizens of small-town Vulcan, Virginia choose a new target.

The “antipathy” Obama mentioned marks the first scene of the episode when this kind of American defender slays a group of Mexican immigrants desperately hurrying to U.S. soil. Rosary beads may dangle from their rifles, emblazoned with the words “Thy Kingdom Come,” but they wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he walked across water in front of them. He did, and they didn’t, and all the while Vulcan was “not starving for any taste of honey.”

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Image via Starz

Shadow can feel this animosity when he ventures in with Wednesday. Citizens, dressed with a nod to America’s white supremacist movement, glare at the only black man in town. Vulcan claims everybody loves living here, but he taunts him with an old hanging tree in his front yard. The god seems proud to link the image to his heritage, but to Shadow, it’s a reminder of his traumatic lynching.

Two deaths a year in this Virginia town is easy to stomach if it means the rest get to blast their bullets in the air with pride, but those two people a year reflect real-world statistics on gun violence in America. This story of Vulcan is Gaiman’s dark and brutal satire on a toxic culture, and although he didn’t write the episode due to timing conflicts, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green ran with his idea.

The god is someone claiming to fight for freedom when really he wants to line his own pockets. Some have said this about the National Rifle Association; after the Pulse shooting, Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, called Obama and Hillary Clinton’s pleas for more gun control a “transparent head-fake” that “will do nothing to prevent the next attack.” The comparison to Vulture becomes more unsettling when the god utters, “Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in my name and that prayer makes ‘em want to pray even harder.” He “franchised [his] faith.” It’s a chilling response that’s not entirely out of line.

If all we send are our “thoughts and prayers” for the thousands of victims who die every year from gun violence in America, if we are “neutral in the face of injustice,” are we no better than Vulcan’s flock celebrating and clinging tighter to their firearms when it happens? If we do nothing and let it continue, is it not “as good as throwing them in intentionally”?

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Image via Starz

Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent

Other Thoughts

  • While Shadow and Wednesday are making their bold statement, a trio of unlikely travel companions have united for a grand road trip of their own. Laura and Mad Sweeney unexpectedly encounter Salim while trying to carjack his taxi, and the trio set out for Kentucky before Laura takes them on a detour to Jack’s Crocodile Bar. All three are trying to find who they are. The Jinn granted Salim a new life, but the life he wants is with the Jinn. “He is my afterlife,” he says. Laura is stuck clinging to who she was when she was alive, but Shadow has moved on. Then there’s Sweeney, who lost the coin that defined him and it’s sitting in the gut of someone who has little regard for most things.
  • You might still be wondering what the frick was burrowing its way into Shadow’s scar. Wednesday refers to him as Mr. Wood, “a very old god” who became the trees and the woods of the earth. But he sacrificed his forests in the face of industrialization and became “something else.” Mr. Wood is a character from the book, but on the page he’s a Spook, one of Mr. World’s minions who, with Mr. Stone, interrogates Shadow for information on Wednesday’s plans. This scene was revamped for the show around Technical Boy, who has thugs dubbed Children at his disposal.
  • The dialogue continues to give me life: “Fuck those assholes,” “It’s easier to pass for the living in the dark, if I felt the need to pass,” “She’s a leprec—t,” “Your piece of shit husband got a new life. Why don’t you?”, “Your kind of love is the grandest butt-fucker of them all. You can love somebody even when you know they don’t like it, even when you know they don’t want it. That’s some profound knowledge for yah right there.”

Television