After Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison in the first episode of Starz’s American Gods, the long-awaited TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel, he sets forth on a road trip at the bidding of his mysterious new employer. In a cool (but clunky) vintage car, Shadow and Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), cut through fields of wheat and small towns, half rusted-over. Mr. Wednesday’s only rule? Shadow can’t take the highway on their way to Chicago, lest they miss the views.
The camera pans out. The rock music blares. And I think: Ah, America.
Not that this is an America I’ve actually experienced. I grew up under the shadow of New York City; I’ve never taken a road trip; I’ve never witnessed purple mountain majesties or amber waves of grain. But this kind of cross-country journey is part of an American mythology, solidified through works like Kerouac’s On the Road, Paul Bunyan’s tall tales, and Little House on the Prairie. The endless potential of the American frontier is a foundational myth whose endurance is matched only our country's other prevailing story: the Great American melting pot.
As Mr. Wednesday wryly remarks to Shadow Moon, “This is the only country in the world that wonders what it is.” And this epic TV series about New World gods clashing with those of the Old on the battleground of North American certainly has an opinion on what America is.
So, what is the United States according to American Gods? In addition to following Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon’s quest, the show pans to a series of short stories, all set “Somewhere in America,” to get to the heart of that question. The answer? However inhospitable, however difficult, the United States are the shores to which people still, after all this time, doggedly swim, seeking something better.
That's because while American Gods is ostensibly about immortal beings, it’s really about immigrants. As executive producer Bryan Green told Entertainment Weekly, “[American Gods] is about people who have found themselves strangers in a strange land, trying to make their way the best they can. It’s hard not to see how human their experience is.”
From Odin to Anansi, each god featured in the show was brought into being by a believer who moved to America. After their believers died or were subsumed into American culture, the gods were stripped of their former power. Now, they live with dwindling abilities, disguised amongst mortals.
American Gods champions the newcomer, be they a god acclimating to civilian life or a newly immigrated mortal. Never is this more apparent than in a poignant encounter between a salesman from Oman (Omid Abtahi), and a taxi-driving Jinn (Mousa Kraish) with fire in his eyes (literally). Between the taxi cab divider, the men connect over their shared geography and their loss of status upon arriving in the United States. The Jinn’s eyes flame in the rear view window as he laments the grand city over which he once ruled. The Omani man, who's only been in America for one week, complains of his dire job selling junk to uninterested customers. They both speak the same languages: Arabic, and the struggle of acclimating to the ruthless terrain of New York.
Beyond The Jinn and the Omani salesman, American Gods highlights an international set of gods and mortals, from Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the ancient goddess of love whose need for affection veers carnivorous, to an Egyptian grandmother in Queens.
But this pastiche is threatened with erasure by the new gods, anthropomorphized visions of media and technology. Unlike the old gods, who were brought forth by believers, the new gods were created in America from a new kind of worship: TV, media, and pop culture. If the new gods get their way, America won't be a hospitable setting for the old gods and their unique traditions. According to the new gods, sameness is superior. As the season continues, American Gods builds toward a battle between the old gods and new — and a battle for what America believes in.
With the tides of xenophobia on the rise, perhaps American Gods is just the show we need. Author Neil Gaiman said it himself: “There’s a lovely, weird, horrible level on which it feels very appropriate right now.” And this lovely, weird, horribly appropriate series envisions an America that I believe in.
American Gods premieres on Starz on Sunday, April 30.