TV Recap: American Gods: Season 2, Episode 5 "The Ways of the Dead"
Oh, how I hope American Gods’ second season didn’t peak with its fourth episode. For all the skepticism I’d had for the show in a Fuller and Green-less world, last week’s unexpected, strangely moving closure for a character as offputting as Tech Boy gave me hope. It recalled Season 1’s fondness for driving off the beaten path, giving its diverse side characters and myths breathing room in vignettes full of genuine visual wonder and atmosphere. On paper, “The Ways of the Dead” continued that trend but unlike last week’s standout episode, its strengths felt weighed down by the requirements of a far less imaginative show — plot, plot, plot.
It starts off promising enough. During another night in Ibis’ funeral parlor, Shadow dreams of a black man being hanged, shot and beaten in what almost looks like an oppressive Old Western town — and at one point in the nightmare, he even sees Laura in what might as well be a subliminal message. When he wakes up and looks in the mirror, Shadow puts a knife to his neck, seeing himself with bullet holes similar to those the man in his dream suffered. But before long, the man makes his reappearance in daylight, telling our chosen one, “Memento Mori.”
The phrase roughly translates to “remember that you must die” in Latin, and I wish that was the biggest lecture required for this week’s episode. It feels like a cruel joke to see Wednesday peeing on the seedling he calls Yggdrasil, the world tree — this show continues to hold its mythological exposition in a much more valuable light than the gag suggests. That’s especially clear once Wednesday crosses paths with Salim and Jinn — at this point, hands down the two characters who have been most shortchanged this season. They’re off to see the King of Dwarves — Alviss (Lee Arenberg), son of Vindalf — with Gungnir in tow. From the dialogue that follows, we learn that Alviss is no warrior, but a builder — one of the greatest craftsmen of the Asgardian era, in fact — and that “runes” may now be important to the overarching narrative, since they power Wednesday’s 18 charms and anoint the tip of his spear. Did you get all that?
Call it misguided nostalgia if you must, but I still fail to see the point of wasting what was once a gripping romance between two men of color (all too rare a sight in American television) on what’s turning into a series of mythological lectures. I keep seeing the outline of potential for Salim and Jinn to evolve as characters and lovers — particularly in how their religious perspectives differ. Jinn, when forced to choose between converting to Islam or living as a heretic demon, says he “chose heretic demon”. And while he remains beholden to Wednesday, he avoids worship toward any one deity. Conversely, Salim holds true to the first pillar of Islam — “no god but God.” He can entertain other perspectives so far as the pain he saw multiple beings face in that doomed diner during the S2 premiere, but only has a relationship with his own god.
This dichotomy has potential for genuine heartbreak — the love shown as a religious experience in Season 1 being halted by one lover’s refusal to abandon his own traditional beliefs. And their shared life experiences add another conflicted layer — you can see glimpses of a more emotionally charged episode when Jinn condescendingly calls Salim a “good little Arab boy,” one who believes what he’s told instead of what he sees. When we see their motorcycle — apparently, it’s actually Hildisvini, Freyja’s Battle Boar (finished taking notes?) — the ongoing problem becomes even more apparent. Two potentially riveting characters are being consistently weighed down by a plot that seems engineered to keep them from a loving relationship, and keep viewers from watching a more interesting one. The outline of a personal rift caused by monotheism vs. polytheism (and in turn, how that line determines a couple’s approach to their sexuality) is there, but tragically faint.
There’s a more intriguing variation of that thread at work when we catch up with Laura and Sweeney, now in New Orleans. Laura has long had a much looser sense of what defines life — and upon meeting Baron Samedi (Mustafa Shakir) and Maman Brigitte (Hani Furstenberg), her perception of love is also in question. She recalls a time when Shadow looked at her like she was “the sun and the moon” before she ruined it. But the Baron puts a positive spin on their falling out, telling Laura, “you lived your truth. That’s no betrayal.” He and his frequent lover Brigitte practice the sort of polyamory Laura chalks up to bad impulse control — the Baron only “worships” Brigitte, but sleeps with other women when she’s not around. It’s a sex-positive conversation well worth having, but another one that’s cut short to show off its place in the plot. Before long, Laura are Sweeney are caught up in a sexual ritual of sorts, one that grants the former a potion that just might be the key to reclaiming life.
It’s a good thing that Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber are such fun to watch. We’re now faced with a more literal realization of the spiteful rom-com chemistry they’d only hinted at in Season 1, one that puts the show’s most amusing dynamic at risk of becoming one from a far more cliched series. I can only hope that it leads to less of a hackneyed love triangle between Laura, Sweeney and Shadow, but rather a unifying force for the three of them — despite their conflicts of interest, they all have concerns about Wednesday. Like Jinn, Sweeney has no major love for the Old Gods’ leader — he’s just indebted to him. Perhaps we’d be in for a more interesting show if Sweeney does find his own war to die in, something Laura insists he’s incapable of.
But for all the hypothesizing we can get lost in, this is still Shadow Moon’s show. His conversations with Ibis continue this week as the funeral parlor takes in the late Jamarr Goodchild, who allegedly died of an opiate overdose after running from cops. It turns out that Jamarr’s wounds are posthumous, a fate that often befalls young men of color in Cairo, Ibis notes. And while it seems more a systemic injustice than a complete accident, the similarly wounded man in Shadow’s dreams was just Will “Froggy” James, who frequently provides “dream fodder” at the parlor. But it turns out that “oppressive Old Western” town from earlier was actually Cairo — where, years ago, James was killed in connection to a white woman’s death.
If it doesn’t provide Shadow much hope for his place in this country (or the holy war he’s called to join), it does lead him off the beaten path toward that doomed man from his dreams. Seeing James’ burning head on a pillar is every bit as ominous as the visions he’s had since the show started, but this has a more personal twist. Ibis speculated that James felt abandoned by his own people as he hung from a rope — one wonders if Shadow faces a similar dilemma, with his allegiance to the Old Gods and an increasingly fleeting wife further removing him from his own identity. In any case, James says he worships death, and offers Shadow an option that might be closer to an omen. “Walk with my burden,” James tells Shadow. “When you share it with the world, I will release you.”
If the funeral procession Shadow goes on to speak at is any indication, perhaps that exchange is a sign of things to come. With a newly kindled fire in his eyes, our typically indecisive fish out of water claims, “I look into the soul of death and I welcome it.” Putting our lead character on the brink of demise this early into a series could be a bold move — but in an increasingly vision-less season, it seems more like desperation. Shadow’s dilemma is one challenging his identity as a chosen one, a doomed lover and a black man in America — it’s a lot to chew for a series that just might have bitten off too much. The fact that I haven’t even touched too much on Bilquis, Nancy and Ruby — inarguably MVPs not too long ago—probably speaks volumes of where we are with American Gods — an increasingly unwieldy epic in need of the more personal touch it once had.
I hope to be reporting back with better news next week, but for now, I’m finally starting to see where skeptics of this season are coming from.