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‘American Gods’ charges into the firestorm around guns, immigrants, and religion

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Jesus makes a controversial appearance this week, along with the god of guns.

Christianity has finally reared its head in American Gods, depicted as provocatively as you’d expect.

As Mr. Wednesday explained in an earlier episode, there are many versions of Jesus Christ, each shaped by their own followers. Mexican Jesus is the first to appear onscreen, sheltering a group of immigrants as they cross the U.S. border in the dead of night. It’s a tense scene, culminating in the unarmed Mexicans being gunned down by an American militia—along with Jesus himself. In the midst of the carnage, the camera pans round for a rather on-the-nose piece of symbolism: a crucifix dangling from a gunman’s hand. These self-proclaimed border guards are just as “Christian” as the people they want to kill.

Previously: The New Gods turn religion into business in American Gods episode 5

These dual religious identities mirror the New Gods’ attitude to religion, outlined by Mr. World last week. Mr. World marketed the New Gods as a business alliance, offering an illusion of choice to consumers. You believe you’re acting as an individual, but whether you choose spicy, medium, or chunky, you’re still buying salsa from the same source. Jesus is the organic version of this process, a New-Old God who has evolved to mean different things to different worshippers, depending on their own values.

Back in Shadow’s story, he and Mr. Wednesday have just escaped their brush with law enforcement and the New Gods. After another pointless but poetic argument about the nature of reality (“I’m not so young nor so narrow to assume that the dead are dead and there’s no spectrum of spectral in-between,” says Wednesday), they’re back on the road.

american gods vulcan Photo via American Gods/Starz

Wednesday’s latest recruitment target is Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen), an old, old friend. Gaiman devised this character after discussing America’s gun fixation with the showrunners, a concept that wasn’t covered by any existing characters in the book. Inspired by the Roman god of fire and metalworking, Vulcan bridges the gap between the New and Old Gods, as an ancient deity who survived by giving himself a modern makeover. Reimagined as the CEO of a bullet manufacturer, he’s the de facto king of a factory town, combining the roles of mayor, boss, and preacher.

Christianity has an implicit presence in Vulcan’s town, couched in the imagery of conservative America. (Just to drive the point home, the border guards used Vulcan-brand bullets in the episode’s opening scene.) But the town’s real deity is guns, illustrating the primal way its citizens respond to Vulcan’s old-school brand of religion. It’s the first time we’ve seen modern people worshipping an Old God en masse, and it’s not a pretty sight.

The citizens offer human sacrifices in the form of industrial accidents in Vulcan’s factory (Gaiman apparently based this on a real town in Alabama), shooting into the air in ritualistic fervor during the latest victim’s funeral. Dressed in militaristic, quasi-fascist uniforms and armbands, they’re a threatening group—and tacitly hostile toward Shadow.

american gods vulcan Photo via American Gods/Starz

After several episodes of Shadow being freaked out by supernatural weirdness, this feels like a more meaningful threat than, say, getting stabbed by a magic tree. He’s a black man in a small town in the South, populated by heavily-armed white people with an obvious distaste for outsiders. When Vulcan invites Shadow and Wednesday back to his house, he points out the noose in his garden—an intentionally disturbing gesture toward Shadow, who wants to get out of there as soon as possible.

There’s a realistically unsettling dynamic to their interactions, with Vulcan being subtly aggressive toward Shadow while excluding him from the conversation. Corbin Bernsen is perfectly cast as a bully who enjoys making people uncomfortable, hinting that Vulcan holds all the power in the room. Mr. Wednesday ignores Shadow’s discomfort (and the warning signs) out of a desire to rekindle his friendship with Vulcan, perhaps the first time we’ve really seen him have a personal relationship. It’s also the first time we’ve seen a chink in Wednesday’s armor, because if you were paying attention to last week’s episode, it’s easy to see what’s coming.

The New Gods are responsible for Vulcan’s modern makeover, rebooting him in exchange for joining their side in the war. Wednesday was so blinded by camaraderie and a faint sense of jealousy over Vulcan’s power, he never considered that Vulcan might betray him. Their long friendship ends in a fittingly symbolic way, with Wednesday beheading Vulcan with a giant sword, and pissing into the molten metal of Vulcan’s bullet factory.

laura sweeney american gods Photo via American Gods/Starz

Elsewhere, the show branches out into more uncharted territory. Following Laura Moon’s reintroduction in episode 4, she’s teamed up for an unlikely roadtrip with Mad Sweeney the Leprechaun (whose Irish accent is unfortunately prone to slippage). They’re a pair of cynics who utterly loath each other, but they’re tied together by a pact: Laura will return his lucky coin, but only after Sweeney helps her come back to life. For now, her reanimated corpse is decomposing in the hot summer weather.

Their journey is facilitated by an unlikely helper. Expanded from his single-scene appearance in the book, Salim now has a recurring role. He wants to find the Jinn, giving the show its first (and only) genuine romance. Salim’s sensitivity contrasts with Sweeney and Laura’s vulgar sniping, but he’s just as determined to reach his goal. These interlocking roadtrips are an interesting addition to the original story, which has a tendency to meander. Although Shadow and Wednesday’s adventures are interesting on an individual basis, their overall quest lacks a sense of urgency. Meanwhile, Laura’s journey has time-limit imposed by her decomposing body, and Salim is driven by a compelling emotional objective.

American Gods mythology corner

Vulcan’s role brands me a hypocrite. After criticizing the dearth of female characters in earlier episodes, I have nothing but praise for Gaiman injecting another grizzled old white guy to act as Mr. Wednesday’s foil. Of course, it helps that this character kind of has to be a grizzled old white guy. I would’ve enjoyed a gender-bent version of Mad Sweeney or Mr. Ibis, but Vulcan’s role is defined by macho American militarism. Minerva may have been the Roman goddess of war, but she’s also the goddess of wisdom. She would’ve been the Clinton to Vulcan’s Trump, a fiery populist.

Vulcan is a smart choice for a New Gods crossover, because he’s not a god of a concept like love, or death, or war. He’s dedicated to something more tangible, and therefore he’s an easier target for Mr. World’s commodified view of religion. Depicted as a blacksmith like the Greek god Hephaestus, Vulcan is the god of volcanoes and metalworking. So, unlike the regal nature of Odin, Anubis, or Bilquis (the Queen of Sheba), he’s a god who works with his hands. Pragmatic and lacking the iconic nature of A-listers like Mr. Wednesday, Vulcan is exactly the kind of guy who would make a deal with the New Gods.

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested.