American Gods Is Relying Too Much on Its Heady Subtext

Crispin Glover as Mr. World and Bruce Langley as the Technical Boy.
Image: Starz

American Gods’ anthropomorphic deities are multidimensional concepts made flesh, but they’re also flawed, emotional beings very much like the mortals whose collective beliefs willed them into existence over the millennia. Striking the right balance between the gods’ larger-than-life personae and their everyday human lives is the difficult task the show successfully set out to do in its first season, but in its second, it’s been stumbling more often than not.

“The Greatest Story Ever Told” is an ambitious episode asking interesting questions about what it means for a god to want and need things in the same way their worshippers want and need of them. But those questions get lost in the complicated subtext of the episode, and the story does its players few favors by trying to tell us things rather than them playing out in captivating, visual ways.

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Now that both Zorya Vechernyaya and Argus Panoptes have been murdered, both sides of the god war have demonstrated their ability to hurt one another significantly. Neither Wednesday nor Mr. World are the kind to ever play total defense, but their respective followers now have a keener sense of their mortality, which brings out new facets of their personalities in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” While Shadow and Wednesday prepare to make a pilgrimage from Ibis and Jacquel’s funeral home in Cairo to meet the Bookkeeper (William Sanderson)—the god of money—all of the other gods have posted up in their corners to make sense of recent developments.

Though Bilquis has long-since defected to the New Gods’ side, she still has respect for the Old Gods and appreciates their commitment to recognizing her as the biblical queen she is. When she comes to meet with Anansi and Ibis in Cairo, the episode telegraphs that it’s preparing to have another stop-and-listen moment like Anansi’s speech about black suffering from season one. But the significance of the scene to come becomes muddled as soon as you begin to think about what each of the gods might have to say to one another in the wake of everything that’s happened, and how none of them have exactly been a part of it.

From Anansi’s perspective, the three of them are ancient African gods who’ve all become caught in the crosshairs of two ostensibly white gods’ war, and only one of those gods is hoping for an outcome that would leave them standing. Because Ibis is Toth, a god responsible for chronicling the lives of the living and then judging them after they’ve died, he’s committed to the concept of objectivity and staying out of the war. Bilquis, for her part, believes in survival, which is why she switched sides in the first place, but she admits that witnessing Mr. World murder Zorya has given her pause.

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Ibis, Bilquis, and Anansi.
Image: Starz

There are different ways to interpret the intention behind the speech Anansi gives standing before Bilquis, Ibis, and the deceased Lila Goodchild (Patricia Wright-Domingue), who lies waiting for her funerary preparations on Ibis’ examination table. Anansi asks: Had any one of them—one of the black gods died—would Wednesday rally the troops in the same way he did for Zorya? What are the three of them doing concerning themselves with Wednesday and World’s war while their own discounted, disenfranchised believers continue to live in turmoil in America and beyond? There’s power and heart in what Anansi’s saying and it’s all made that much more interesting when you consider that he is a trickster god—but the scene feels too mundane for what it’s trying to convey.

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American Gods has shown its ability to slip into more trippy, fantastical storytelling styles when it wants to show off the gods for what they truly are, and Anansi’s speech feels like a missed opportunity to see the stories Anansi’s telling rendered in a grander, more dreamlike way. What’s the point of a congregation of African gods—in the presence of a recently dead person who might have something interesting to say, no less—if the scene isn’t almost unbelievable to witness?

“The Greatest Story Ever Told” similarly reflects this new phase of the war by emphasizing the gods’ humanity in its handling of the Technical Boy and New Media, who’ve become both closer and more adversarial following Argus’ murder. From the moment that New Media materialized out of the ether in a cloud of glowing emojis, the sense has been that the Technical Boy’s days are numbered; this incarnation of Media is a purely digital being, meaning that there’s a degree of redundancy between the two. You can see Technical Boy’s fear of New Media in the way he tries to dismiss and downplay the potential that World sees in her, but you know he’s trying to put on a good face, because the very first thing that New Media attempted to do after entering the world was to merge with Argus and render the Technical Boy obsolete.

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New Media’s ability to connect with people on a level that the Technical Boy cannot is the embodiment of what makes a constantly-updating god like him vulnerable. He’s the reason that modern technology has taken over the world, but in making technology such a part of people’s lives, you can argue that he’s made his specific self obsolete and laid the groundwork for someone else to take his place.

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That’s what makes his reunion with the CEO (Andrew Koji) of Xie Comm, an Apple-like tech giant, feel like one of the few moments when Technical Boy’s been his true self. Through flashbacks, the episode chronicles the CEO’s path to greatness that was marked by his father’s (Chil Kong) disapproval of his fondness for coding over studying classical music. What the CEO, who’s never given a first name, and the Technical Boy understand is that art and inspiration live within all forms of technology when you trace them back far enough to their sources. A computer that’s learned to compose in Bach’s style can’t exist without the idea for such an invention ever having struck a creator, and for subsequent flourishes of brilliance pushing later iterations of the invention further.

Whether inspiration begins with a seed planted in human minds by the gods themselves is a philosophical question “The Greatest Story Ever Told” doesn’t venture too deeply into. But the episode makes obvious that while the Technical Boy and the Xie CEO have always needed one another in some capacity in the past, for whatever reason that relationship’s begun to fall apart, meaning that World has no need for the Technical Boy, who he promptly decommissions.

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The Technical Boy’s “death” serves little apparent purpose other than to give Mr. World the necessary payment to receive entry into another Motel of America. It’s staffed by one of many Mama-Jis and is where Wednesday and Shadow are waiting for their meeting with the Bookkeeper—who, like Jesus, is too-worshipped to be at all concerned with whatever the other gods are up to.

The money meeting, like so many of the other ideas at work in the episode, is more interesting in theory than it is in execution; again, it’s a moment that incorrectly assumes that the philosophical subtext at play is enough to carry the scene. But the fact is that it isn’t in that moment, or in any of the others, makes it seem like American Gods really might be losing its path the deeper it gets into this new season.

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American Gods airs Sundays on Starz.


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About the author

Charles Pulliam-Moore

io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.