This controversial scene was inspired by real-life events.
American Gods loves to push boundaries, launching with a man-eating vagina scene in episode 1. Each episode examines themes of race, sex, religion, and immigration in America, and this week we saw Jesus being gunned down by white American border guards.
The show had already hinted at the idea of multiple Jesuses, each catering to different wings of Christianity. This version was Mexican Jesus, walking on water to help a group of immigrants crossing the Rio Grande. On the U.S. side of the river, he’s met by a hail of bullets from crucifix-carrying militiamen, highlighting how different people interpret the same religion to serve their own ends.
It’s a controversial depiction, but judging by fans on social media, it earned an overwhelmingly positive reception.
— Nadir Muhammad (@Ridan87) June 5, 2017
— blckgamingnerd (@erockbaby3000) June 5, 2017
When handling this kind of religious commentary, you usually expect a certain amount of backlash. But with American Gods, the show’s creators are—for better or worse—preaching to the choir. Anyone with a conservative attitude toward religion probably tuned out long ago.
That being said, this scene wasn’t played for shock value. The showrunners wanted Jesus’s role to be a sincere and reverent depiction of faith, interrupted by the more corrupt viewpoint of the border guards. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, co-showrunner Michael Green said, “We wanted that to be a moment where we actually felt, as a deeply believing Catholic might, that they’ve just come very, very close to the Divine.”
Jesus never appeared as an active character in Gaiman’s novel, but he was a necessary addition to the show. You can’t explore religion in America without talking about Christianity, after all. In a GQ interview last October, co-showrunner Bryan Fuller discussed the decision to introduce Jesus on an equal footing to other Gods like Odin and Anansi:
“We wanted to get an indication of the relationship between the old gods who have retained their power and old gods who have lost their power. Jesus Christ, being 2000 years old and some change, is a relatively “new” god of the older god category—and has done quite well for himself, in terms of worship. Bringing him in is a compare-and-contrast for how Christianity usurped and absorbed many other religious iconography.”
Fuller was talking about Jesus in general terms, but it’s worth remembering that this interview took place before the election. In later months, there was a noticeable shift in how Fuller and Green discussed the show’s politics.
In the EW interview about this week’s episode, Green namechecked a Mother Jones article where a reporter went undercover with a border militia. When Green and Fuller initially devised the idea of U.S. border guards confronting Mexican Jesus, they thought it was an exaggerated scenario. After reading that article, Green says they were horrified to discover how realistic the scene actually was, because “these people who think of themselves as defenders will quite legally go hunting for immigrants.”
Due to its sensitive subject matter, the Rio Grande scene uses a less fantastical style than introductory sequences for other Gods. “This one is more reverential and liturgical and ultimately quite terrifying,” explained Green, who has a background in writing religious TV. “We made an effort to make sure that the blood we see in this one is not our typical ‘candy blood.’ When blood flies and is spilled, it hurts. It hurts our feelings to see, because it’s such a perversion of the American dream to see these people be hunted.”
You can find this week’s American Gods recap here.