Continuing our conversation about American Gods: in New York City, we meet a variety of Middle Eastern gods and believers, while in Chicago, Wednesday and Shadow are robbing a bank. This is “Head Full of Snow.”
It’s Sunday night, which means one thing around these parts — it’s time for our weekly worship at the altar of American Gods. The Starz series, which was renewed for a second season earlier this week after the wild response to only the first two episodes, just keeps upping the ante, with episode 3, “Head Full of Snow,” which includes a huge turning point for Shadow as well as the introduction of yet another Old God in one of the book’s most explicit, empathetic and eye-opening side stories.
In our conversation recap this week, writers Natalie and Brittany discuss Shadow coming into his power on the path to belief, the cultural impact of a love scene like no other, the similarities between author Neil Gaiman and showrunner Bryan Fuller as creators, and just what America’s identity crisis is all about.
Brittany: “Who the fuck is this?” “You the fuck is this.” *dies* I have to say, episode 3 jumped around a lot, but felt the closest to the book from what we’ve seen so far. I loved the tone shift in the Wednesday/Shadow scenes. They felt much more comedic than I was anticipating. Loved it.
Natalie: Oh, yes, the robbery was the closest book to my brain to screen adaptation I’ve seen in a long time. Not just on this show – it’s one of the closest things I’ve ever seen, in a very positive way.
Brittany: And I know we’ll talk about it, but the Salim scene was spot on.
Natalie: Yeah, that’s a whole other deal which has a lot of interesting implications. I have to say, Ricky really got me this episode. There are a lot of little moments or idle thoughts Shadow has in the book that make him really loveable, and a lot of that came through in this one.
Brittany: “Yeah, I like marshmallows.”
Natalie: I died ten thousand times. But the phone call where he’s pretending to be A. Haddock, in the book, it’s written out about how he slowly starts to enjoy himself and get into acting out the part, and it’s very endearing, and you could really feel that watching him take the call.
Brittany: I think the entire plot, in the book as well, of getting Shadow to think of something as simple as wishing for it to snow sets the stage for him to play. It’s just a basic childhood dream, wishing for snow and being excited when it does, that it instantly lets him enjoy playing with Wednesday. They are playing cops and robbers on a snow day. Something that sounds so simple, but has such great stakes in reality. But the lines between reality and fantasy are blurring for Shadow and this scene was such a brilliant way to introduce that. I don’t think I appreciated it as much in the book to be honest. In large part I think that is due to seeing Shadow lean into it. I don’t think the Shadow in my mind ever quite got there.
Natalie: Yeah — the snow is where everything changes. To me, Shadow in the book always kind of… took things as they came, and shrugged them off. like “Huh. Okay.” – less outward turmoil or questioning. Ricky’s Shadow is a little more excitable.
Brittany: Yes, exactly.
Natalie: I don’t think that’s bad — I think it’s needed to help express in words what he has in his head. There is a very fine line of taking it too far and losing the essence of the character, but they haven’t crossed it. He’s just a little more outwardly reactionary.
Brittany: In large part that has to do with the person he is playing against. Wednesday is not treating him any differently when he chooses to have a little faith than when he is resisting. He is not reacting to Shadow’s process. Which he finally seems comfortable with in this episode. The Wednesday who says, “You the fuck is this!” is the same Wednesday who reveals the fear of being forgotten a few scenes later. The characters are playing the same scenes I’ve read quite a few times, but they are entirely new.
Natalie: There’s also the fact that Neil Gaiman has such a placid voice — on the page, as well as his actual voice, I mean – that reading his prose always has a certain tone to it, even if there’s action or emotion. Fuller, on the other hand, is hyperactive as a creator. I think that difference shows. Reading Neil creates sort of a calm state of mind. Watching Bryan is like having a constant panic attack.
Brittany: I don’t know if I agree that reading Neil is a calm state of mind. Maybe on the third or fourth read. But definitely not the first. I do, however, think that both Neil and Bryan are not one and done creators. Their work flourishes in watching/reading, rewatching/rereading. But the first time around, both can be panic and madness-inducing because of the pure clarity that they offer.
The vision is so clear and precisely directed in both print and on screen that it is disarming. I never felt more exposed than while reading some of Gaiman’s work and watching Fuller’s shows. Mainly Hannibal, but Ned in Pushing Daisies certainly made me unhinged at moments too.
Natalie: One of Neil’s novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, really wasn’t calm for me first time around, but with American Gods it was really sort of a pragmatic, understated tone which is why it seems to unfold slowly for Shadow, because like I said earlier, there’s a lot of the “Huh. Okay.” moments. But I think what you are saying about similarities is super valid, what you say about clarity. Here’s what it is, I think. It’s that they really just serve it up, and it’s like too much, too exposed, and the audience just has to come to terms with it immediately. There’s no slow gentle warnings or hand-holding. Neil does it very matter-of-factly, in a very “I don’t want to make a bother, but… this.” way. But they present ideas that people aren’t used to handling: too confronting, too evocative.
Brittany: Yes, that to me is not calming on a first read. But it is what makes me remember and want more. It’s uncharted territory and not what I’ve seen or heard before. It’s all there for me to sort through. The story doesn’t end when the credits roll or the last page is turned. Which is why I was reacting your “calmness” comment. Neil may be calm and saying, “Here. It is what it is,” But I am like Ariel in her underground cove. There is A LOT to sort through and I can’t pick which thing I want to show off or examine first. If that makes sense.
Natalie: It’s just in terms of the narrative voice, I think, is what I find presented calmly. And that drugs me into it to the point where it washes over me and I accept and and I’m like nodding being like “Sure, Neil. Okay. Mmmmmm.” It’s usually when I re-read that I’m like “What the FUCK was that?”
Brittany: Interesting. I am the exact opposite.
Natalie: That’s okay! For me, I like these creators because they basically very subtly open the mind without the mind realizing it’s being opened. Bryan’s work is like an impressionist painting — I do see all the colors up close as they hit me, but really need to take a step back to see what he’s achieved on a cultural scale and then lose my shit. But I think the presenting of ideas in such a fearless way and just making the audience deal with it is a real similarity.
Brittany: And I’m sure, by the time we reach the season finale, these individual pieces will each change as they fold into the larger tapestry of what he has planned.
Natalie: Another fantastic moment for Shadow was when he re-negotiated the terms of the deal with Czernobog, in a new game, seemingly inspired by the conversation with Zorya Polunochnaya about how he doesn’t value his own life. It’s like a wake up call about his self preservation, which is quite terrible — but to be fair he didn’t actually know about the protection coin, and only seemed to half-believe the first bet.
Brittany: The entire conversation on the rooftop about him giving away his life, multiple times, contrasted with Zorya Polunochnaya’s lack of living, as she points out having never been kissed, was such a great scene to watch. Again, he is unsure what is reality and what is fantasy, but he finds some way to merge the two into faith that he could take some agency in his future.
Natalie: Yes — I think the fact that she even sees any sort of future for him at all is interesting, as is Wednesday’s comment that his coffee grounds are only his fortune today, very much that the choices can change the future outcome. Read it one day, that’s a glimpse of the future based on the events that will come from your current mindset. Make different choices, the future will change.
Brittany: There are so many things out of his control, like robbing banks and avoiding highways, that he needs to win the smaller battles. Have a little faith in Shadow and see where it takes him.
Natalie: Zorya Polunochnaya sees nothing for Shadow because his current decision is getting killed by Czernobog, but then as he thinks, she goes on to see and predict a huge future for him — a path from believing in nothing to believing in everything. This episode really tackles the idea of belief — of course the show will always do so in general, but as Shadow comes to the understanding that yes, something is going the fuck on outside his current realm of reality, they really start facing it head on and talking about it in the dialogue.
Brittany: Exactly. It directly reflects what Wednesday was getting at in the car in their final scene. When Shadow looks back on that day is he going to remember the silly names he and Wednesday used? No, he is going to remember when he chose to believe that he could think snow into existence, and what that did for his future. When, like you said, he went from nothing to everything.
Natalie: When they talk — I hesitate to say argue, Shadow tries to argue and Wednesday basically won’t allow it – in the Chinese restaurant, when he’s exclaiming that believing in the weatherman’s prediction and believing in his own ability to control the weather are not apples and oranges, his skepticism is understandable, because what the actual fuck? But later, after it all works out (and I love the bargain, “Will you believe in me?” — that’s the crux of everything, of course) I also love that it challenges the idea that Shadow has, his idea and a lot of people’s idea, that intelligent equals not believing in anything. That the smartest and most aware and unblinded people in the world are those who don’t believe in anything unproven, “gods or ghosts,” as he said. That’s a common measure for a lot of people, honestly. A lot of progressive people automatically lower their esteem for someone religious, or spiritual, or anything like that. The idea of religion is of course controversial and the creators did promise that this show would not be slamming faith.
Brittany: And Shadow draws his own line between what can be believed and what can’t. For example he believes in love — he felt it with Laura, he knows somewhere inside of him that it is real — yet everything else seems baseless. Those “impossible things,” as Wednesday says, like the idea that there are multiple Jesuses walking around the US.
Natalie: Yeah — it’s such a good example of knocking out the leg someone is standing on, that argument about love. Switching gears, we hung out with a few other gods as well — firstly, Mad Sweeney, who accidentally gave Shadow his lucky coin — the protection of the sun, it seems — instead of one of his normal gold coins. And so he’s used to being untouchable, and now suddenly is not.
Brittany:I would not want to cross paths with a stressed leprechaun whose luck is running out.
Natalie: POOR JIMMY PRICE.
Brittany: Bryan Fuller can’t cut this guy a break! But what a way to go. It did nothing to quell my Final Destination-esque fears of something coming through my windshield off the back of a truck.
Natalie: That kind of a death scene has happened once before in Supernatural, actually — pole off the back of a truck killing someone. It’s actually a moment that establishes a character’s faith and belief in destiny. And was way less gross. I do wonder if he’s actively trying to include a little bit of Hannibal-esque blood imagery in each episode as a tribute, the blood in the soap suds last time was very Hannibal, and the Viking slo-mo blood as well. Or maybe he’s just a sick fuck.
Brittany:I don’t think it’s a direct tribute. I think he truly does enjoy it.
Natalie: I believe you — he’s gleeful about this kind of stuff.
Brittany: And I’m glad I had the growing pains of Hannibal, because I can appreciate here without having to build the stomach for it!
Natalie: But I loved Sweeney in this, his changing accent — I’d wondered about that because in the book he doesn’t sound Irish, but here it changes around depending on who he’s interacting with, his utter shock at the barmaid shooting the bottle. His showdown with Shadow was also really… zingy. Like, they sass each other to hell.
Brittany: When he takes the food directly off of Shadow’s plate instead of from the bounty on the table and then Shadow snaps the chopstick after he leaves — all of it was brilliant.
Natalie: I kind of ship it. I’m the worst.
Brittany: Yes. Yes you are.
Brittany:But if we are talking about actual pairings, maybe we should get to the ending and then circle back to Salim?
Natalie: Yeah – so, Sweeney’s coin is not in Laura’s grave. Laura is also not in Laura’s grave.
Brittany: Dun dun dun.
Natalie: Bryan Fuller loves his dead girls, so that should be full steam ahead from here on out.
Brittany: I’m looking forward to Laura’s return. Mainly because in the press for the show it is revealed that she will have a much more expansive role in the series.
Natalie: Laura is an odd girl, like she’s another character we get a lot of POV stuff with inside her head or trying to “live” in the wake of her death, so how they do that should be interesting. But in terms of romance, who needs Shadoweeny, really? We’ll see her and Shadow’s love story, plus we also got some of the most explicit gay sex probably to ever air on television! Win win.
Brittany: That was… much more intense than I was ready for. And it goes back to what we were discussing earlier. Here is it is, clear as day.
Natalie: Yeah, and there’s a lot of difference between “oh, fade to black, they hooked up” and ongoing minutes of super-graphic astral-plane sex.
Brittany: That said, I thought it was fantastic. I think I even said, “I’m witnessing something groundbreaking right now.”
Natalie: This story of Salim and the Jinn is another separate one which may tie in more – the Jinn was the person Wednesday met with in the diner last week – but this is presumably going to be very controversial, and that will be intentional.
Given the attitude towards Muslim immigrants in America, there’s a lot going on here, everything from the way Salim was treated by the office worker — that part of his story always crushed me in the book, and it really, really does here as well — to the unapologetic Arabic dialogue with the subtitling in English and Arabic, as well the fact that some factions of Islam itself, like Christianity, aren’t very gay-friendly, and that’s something Salim has a lot of angst about, and of course the graphic yet tender sex between two Arabic men. This story is the humanization of both of their problems, I think it’s all intended to be very pointed, perhaps, towards those who are not comfortable with Muslim immigrants in America.
Brittany: I agree that there is a lot going on in this scene and that it will set some people on edge. Here is the perfect example of where I think that the beat for beat recreation from the pages of the book, shows that the series is unafraid to hit it out of the park in a big way.
Natalie: Do you think that some adaptors would have not included it?
Brittany: I can’t speak to every person who could have touched this material. But I don’t think it would have been done in this way. I think a cut to black, or an implication of what happened is the preferred route of some creators and maybe even the network to some extent.
Natalie: Yeah, I have no idea what the difference in standards and practices are between premium cable and other networks, but I’m glad they’re airing on a platform that’s very uncensored. I mean, that much sex is pretty confronting for me no matter who’s having it, but it doesn’t exactly feel gratuitous, it feels like they’re trying to create empathy, which, given the absolute nonsense that is America’s view of the Middle East right now, is pretty necessary.
Brittany: The entire story, even in the book, hurts. You see these two people reduced to nothing in America. It’s a failed immigration story. There is no hope, nothing left to look forward to. Until the Jinn and Salim find some connection in their shared misery and connections to their home. But the Jinn leaves Salim with a future that is still not great, but at least it isn’t selling shit. It’s the slowest story of progress.
Natalie: Yeah — given the disconnect from his family, he can just walk off and make a small reliable life for himself, but I’m hoping that given this is a longer story… maybe they’ll find each other again Side note: I want that sweater.
Brittany: Add it to the wardrobe request list.
Natalie: And Wednesday’s dumb-ass driving hat. The other human we met, Mrs. Fadil, was also a Muslim, but that was a whole other story about faith and belief and religion. She was a Muslim expecting a Muslim afterlife. Instead, she got Anubis of Ancient Egypt, because she remembered those stories from her youth. So that idea, that gods can be kept alive that way, and people can have afterlives they weren’t expecting, is very interesting as a sign of what belief in this universe can do. Belief in the story is enough — it doesn’t have to be your genuine religious faith.
Brittany: I think it’s also interesting that it mirrors the final conversation between Shadow and Wednesday. They talk about Wednesday’s fear of being forgotten and Shadow mentions that “the very best part of memory is that it’s mostly about forgetting” — that what you choose to remember plays some role in your fate. And it feeds into the larger identity crisis America has — it’s just pretending to know what it is. When really it is the combination of so, so many things. Just like each person is the combination of what they remember, what they internalize and choose to give weight to. Mrs. Fadil is the perfect example of that.
Natalie: Yes — this episode includes that very famous quote about America being “the only country in the world that wonders what it is,” which is part of what inspired Neil, an immigrant as well, to write the book, as an outsider looking in at what America is like. So, as the American in the conversation, what’s going on with that? Why do you think there’s the need to understand and define what it is to be American?
Brittany: It’s an interesting time to be asking that question.
Natalie: Indeed, an eerily poignant time for this show to be airing and addressing these issues.
Brittany: Because my immediate response is– I don’t want to identify with the America the world is seeing right now.
However, that does not mean I don’t want to be an American.
There is no one answer for “what does it meant to be an American?” Every person would answer differently, or not be able to answer at all — Like me. America is what you put into and take from it. Like Salim and the Jinn, it does not always give you back what you put in.