Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Review - 'American Gods', S01E06 - 'A Murder of Gods'

After finally bringing the impending war between the Old Gods and the New Gods into the spotlight, with its previous episode, American Gods seems set on returning to somewhat familiar territory with its sixth. We may have a better idea of the nature of the central conflict, now – but, it seems pretty clear that the series still isn't in any rush to get to that point.

Returning to the basic 'road movie' structure that has carried much of the season, up until this point, this episode sees Wednesday and Shadow making their way to a small town known as Vulcan – where they hope to recruit the actual Old God, Vulcan, the ancient Roman god of fire and the forge. Unlike so many of the other Old Gods, though, it seems that Vulcan has manage to successfully reinvent himself in America – essentially taking on the role of god of guns and firepower in modern America. Naturally, this gives him quite a bit of power and influence – and, he certainly seems to be quite comfortable at the heart of his own personal little empire.

Meanwhile, at the same time, Laura and Mad Sweeney find themselves somewhat reluctantly thrown together, as Laura is eager to set out in pursuit of Shadow. Sweeney is just as determined as ever to get his coin back – but, realising that she is never going to return it willingly while she still relies on its magic, he has come to the conclusion that his best option is to actually help her. As they prepare to set out, though, Sweeney's decision to attempt to steal an oddly out-of-place New York taxi leads them to cross paths with Salim – who, it seems, has set out on his own quest to track down the Jinn he met a few episodes ago. So, the three resolve to travel together – their respective goals lining up quite conveniently.

There was actually an odd conflict at the heart of this episode, for me. While, on the one hand, I did genuinely enjoy the time spent with Laura, Mad Sweeney, and Salim, that sub-plot obviously came at the expense of fleshing out what is clearly the much more important plot-line – that being Wednesday's efforts to recruit Vulcan. Due to the way that the focus is evenly split between these two parallel journeys, it just doesn't feel as though we really have enough time to get a proper impression of exactly who Vulcan is – which is definitely a shame, since what we do see is very impressive.

In his relatively brief time onscreen, Corbin Bernsen is able to make Vulcan into a genuinely fascinating figure. He is complex and charismatic, but also intimidating – and, all of his talk about the power of guns, and firepower, gives him a very dangerous edge. He is a deity who, quite literally, draws power from the violence of the modern world. Every act of violence committed with the bullets that his company manufactures is, essentially, a blood sacrifice made in his honour – and, it is very obvious that he is perfectly satisfied with that. Given that this may very well be the only episode to feature this complex, and morally very ambiguous, character it is definitely a shame that he only really has a small handful of scenes. But, unfortunately, that is the direction that the writers choose to go.

At the same time, though, while I might have been disappointed with the way that the focus was split, throughout this episode, I also can't really deny that the episode's secondary plot-line also provided plenty of genuinely entertaining moments. As we have already seen, previously, Laura and Mad Sweeney play off of each other very well – and, their mutually antagonistic relationship continues to be very entertaining, even as they find themselves tossed together as somewhat reluctant allies. Unexpectedly tossing in Salim also proved to be a very entertaining decision – as the essentially very good-natured, and well-meaning, character finds himself caught in the middle between these two more extreme personalities. It's a very entertaining dynamic, overall – I just wish that it didn't come at the expense of the episode's main plot-line.

More than anything we have seen previously, it seems that this is an episode clearly intended to court controversy. Just as we have some rather pointed commentary on the nature of gun-violence in modern America, through Vulcan's status as the god of firepower, the episode also delves into the issue of illegal immigration through its opening vignette. Here, we see a group of immigrants attempting to sneak across the southern border into America – only to find themselves confronted by some very hostile Americans. Clearly, this was a sequence already determined to play on the current political climate in America, even without any overtly supernatural elements – but, then, the writers choose to take things a little further by having this be the moment that we meet the American Gods version of Jesus. Or, one of them, at least.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who had assume that Wednesday's talk about multiple versions of Jesus, created by different groups of faithful, had simply been a one-off joke. Here, though, we actually meet Mexican-Jesus – coming to the aid of a drowning man, and finding himself caught in the middle of the sudden outburst of violence. With the scene going out of its way to draw attention to the fact that both perpetrators, and the victims, of this shocking act of violence actually shared the same faith, and by having Mexican-Jesus be among those gunned down, it is pretty obvious that the writers are striving to make a point – especially when you consider how this opening sequence feeds into what Vulcan has to say, later in the episode. It's definitely the most overtly political the series has ever been – and, as such, it is a sequence that is certain to rub some in the audience the wrong way. For my part, at least, I found it to be reasonably effective – even if it was, maybe, a bit heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, the end result of all of this is still an episode that felt unbalanced. The amount of screen-time devoted to Laura, Sweeney, and Salim took too much attention away from Vulcan – hurting the pacing of the episode's primary plot-line, and leaving it feeling rushed as Wednesday and Shadow seemed to abruptly finish their business. While it is still an episode with plenty of great moments, this lack of proper focus on what felt like the episode's most important elements still left it feeling like a bit of a weak-point for the season.

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