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American Gods 1.08 Review – ‘Come to Jesus’

June 18, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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American Gods 1.08 Review – ‘Come to Jesus’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Sunday’s season finale of American Gods.]

The first season of American Gods can be essentially boiled down into a good faith showing by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. The showrunners have put a lot of effort into showing devotees of the Neil Gaiman source material that they have the novel’s best interests at heart in adapting it to the small screen, keeping largely to the plot for much of the season. There have been deviations here and there — Laura’s expanded backstory; the road trip between her, Sweeney and Salim and Vulcan’s appearance; but otherwise things have kept remarkably in step.

In “Come to Jesus,” Mr. Wednesday asks Shadow Moon if he believes. This feels like a metatextual moment, with Wednesday standing in for Fuller and Green and Shadow filling the audience’s role. He’s asking for a leap of faith even as the showrunners (who wrote the episode alongside Bekah Brunstetter) make a big leap of their own, trusting that the viewers who are familiar with the text will join them in jumping off the page for the most divergent hour from the original material yet. Some may hesitate at doing so, remembering how True Blood and Dexter lost their way the more they jumped away from the original stories. But the creative team has earned their faith at this point and while there are many plot changes in this season closer, they take the show in a direction that viewers didn’t anticipate — a move that is infinitely exciting since we know how well they’ve captured the essence of the book thus far.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that American Gods’ closest comparison point right now is still Fuller’s last big TV project in Hannibal. While Fuller had established his name before that, Hannibal is the series that American Gods fans can look to in order to see that he knows how to create great television when he has the freedom to make significant changes to the source material. As someone who largely worships at the altar of Gaiman and this book in particular, it would be easy to feel a little apprehensive about the idea of what changes might come from the plot developments here. But what does happen is such an interesting, curious direction that much like with Game of Thrones once it moved past what George R.R. Martin has published, I find myself excited to see the creative team jumping off script and am looking forward not having any idea where things go from here.

Adaptation is an important element of this episode, not only in terms of changing the source material but also from a thematic point. Throughout Shadow and Wednesday’s journey thus far, they’ve encountered a few Old Gods who have survived only because they’ve been able to get with the times. “Evolve or die” is the message of the day for the old faiths, while the New Gods have learned how to play that into their advantage. There have been volumes and volumes written about the symbiotic relationship between pagan faiths and Christianity, which feels very relevant here. Of course, there has been plenty of blood spilled in the name of every worshipped name, but Christianity’s greatest successes have arguably come by adapting and assimilating elements of other faiths into their ways. Christ wasn’t born on December 25th and Ostara was a religious holiday for people who never had any idea that he had been crucified. Christianity was masterful at taking these holy days for other religious and adapting them into its own, conquering and bringing other faiths into it with much less resistance.

But conversely, it has also allowed those religions and traditions to survive to the modern day (albeit not in any remote level of prominence that the dominant faith has). This is given specific and literal form at Ostara’s place, where the goddess of Easter holds court but is surrounded by Jesus everywhere she goes. We’ve already learned seen that there Jesuses of multiple cultures and they all show up here: the Latino Jesuses, Asian Jesuses and, of course, several Caucasian Jesuses including Jeremy Davies as the presumably Catholic (most dominant in America) one. The humor of this is acknowledged and touched on more than once, but it plays for more than just a laugh. Ostara is powerful — and her effect on Shadow is hilarious, seeing a man who’s been so cool and serious get boyish and fawning — but she’s surrounded by an institution of religion, an army of cultural appropriation that was in place long before it became a social media buzzword.

But Ostara isn’t the only person who’s found herself having to adapt to fit within the times. As Mr. Nancy narrates in the opening sequence as he makes Wednesday and Shadow their suits, others have found the need to change with the times. In flashback montage, we see Bilquis’ rise and fall. The Queen of Sheba’s heights in 864 B.C.E. may be long past, but there was still plenty of room for her in 1970s Tehran because while faiths may come and go, passion and fervor is a constant. But as her power wanes, she becomes more vulnerable to other religions and has to flee to a place that no longer has time for superstition and belief. That puts her in the vulnerable position of having to adapt or die and when Technical Boy comes with an offer, she has no choice but to accept.

This is, again, a major change from the novel where Bilquis is a relatively minor character who appears in a couple of scenes. (I won’t spoil what happens there, as the storyline could still conceivably pan out that way in the end.) But beefing up her role is a smart move, because it takes a sympathetic (if not exactly benevolent) character and gives her an increased role as a conflicted enemy. Vulcan working for the New Gods set us up for the possibility, and now that Bilquis’ story arc has begun folding into the main arc it’s possible to see where things are going from here. TB wants Bilquis to use her powers to eliminate someone, likely Shadow (though perhaps Wednesday himself). It’s clearly something she’s not entirely comfortable with, but left without a choice for now she is heading to Wisconsin. This puts her in an interesting position and while she doesn’t have a similar role in the novels, she’s been presented well enough that I definitely want to see where she’s headed.

The same conflict plays out at Ostara’s party, where Media shows up as Judy Garland from (of course) Easter Parade with Technical Boy’s droogs in tow. Media has a deal in place with Ostara that has kept her healthy, but weak. It’s the same situation as Vulcan, more or less: be subsumed in the modern world and live, or fight it and be forgotten and thus die. Once again, Fuller’s talent at visuals are on display, deftly directed by Floria Sigismondi. Fuller’s sequences often look like short concepts given life, which makes Sigismondi — largely known for music video work — perfect as a helmer. The New God henchmen are disturbing, both in their black boilerplate-like images and their replication sequence here, and Anderson’s affected Garlandish ways make for a wonderfully chilling juxtaposition. Seeing TB step out of one and Mr. World take one over is just icing on the cake.

And this is where, while “Come to Jesus” may be a bit lacking in terms of the traditional premium cable finale plot developments — no major deaths, few sudden plot twists — it definitely pays off as an ending to this chapter of the story. Season one has been, in large part, about the buildup of Wednesday’s Old Gods and Shadow’s re-establishment of his faith. Both of those pay off as war is officially declared between Old and New and Shadow turns from an incredulous observer into a man who believes. What exactly that means for him considering the Old Gods’ traditional treatment of their devotees is yet to be determined, but these two developments are treated as the major things that they are. Much like Westworld’s story didn’t hang on people not realizing who the Man in Black was, the point here isn’t that Wednesday-as-Odin is a shock to us. The point is that it’s a shock to Shadow and along with Ostara’s reclaiming of her name (and her infliction of famine), they push him forward to the next stage of the story.

But not all is well for Wednesday as the season ends, nor should it be. New threats and dangers typically propel things into following seasons, and in addition to Mr. World’s acceptance of war we also have the arrival of Laura and Sweeney on the scene of the party. Sweeney intends to call in a favor and make Ostara restore Laura to life, but it turns out that she can’t intervene when a god kills someone. That’s when Laura learns what we already know: that Sweeney killed her on behalf of Wednesday. When Laura demands to know why Shadow is so special to Wednesday, Sweeney says that he isn’t but that’s clearly not true. Laura did not play this active a role in the novel and this meeting of the various powers in play leaves me wanting to know what happens next. That’s the kind of cliffhanger that is worth a thousand “Who did Negan kill”-type moments.

As the season ends, it’s clear that American Gods isn’t necessarily for everyone; it’s not going to ever be the worldwide ratings phenomenon that The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones are. And with all due respect to both of those great shows, that’s what makes this one such a great television series. Fuller and Green aren’t trying to make this show anything else; they’re less concerned with chasing viewers than they are with telling the best story they can. As American Gods ends its first season, I can confidently say that they’ve accomplished that thus far and I’m going to be anxiously awaiting season two next year.

Some Final Thoughts:

• Thanks for joining me for American Gods’ first season. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have, and I hope I’ve added to your enjoyment in some small way.

• “You look divine.” “How the hell else should I look?”

• Kudos to the wonderful Kristin Chenoweth putting a stamp that only she can on Ostara. Chenoweth should be in every television series ever.

• Catholic Jesus (real name: Oliver Jesus of Nazareth) feels guilt-ridden over taking Ostara’s holiday. Because of course he does.

• “I’ll squeeze them straight out of the sack…I swear to Jesus. He’s right outside.”

• Worth noting: a bunny caused Laura to crash on the road last episode, and Ostara’s home is rampant in bunnies for obvious reasons. That can’t be coincidence.

9
The final score: review Amazing
The 411
American Gods concludes its first season in strong fashion as it jumps off the tracks of the novel -- for now, at least -- and heads in its own direction. Even as a devotee of the novel, I find that an excellent choice. While there is a dearth of shocking moments, "Come to Jesus" feels like a natural way for the first run to end, and leaves the viewer looking forward to the exciting things to come in season two.
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