Of Gods, Angels, and Humans: The Neil Gaiman Turn in Peak Television, part 1
(Spoiler Alert! For those who have not read the novel, American Gods, this post contains possible spoilers for the show)
Old gods, scattered across this vast country, live among us. You might know them as your neighborhood’s Nubian undertakers, the elderly Eastern European family in the apartment next door, the South Asian NYC cab driver, the Indian waitress at the local diner who also works a second shift at the adjacent chain motel, or the lonely, beautiful African woman who miraculously agrees to go out on a date with you. What you see when you meet them are immigrants; people who may have been somebody important back in the old country, but are here eking out a living that is as far from the American dream as their original homeland is to them now. When you first meet them, you won’t know them for what they truly are. And you won’t know that we are to blame for their meagerly existence. For as quickly as we discard our laptops and phones blithely depleting our natural resources for the latest gadgets, we trade in the old gods, upgrading them for shiny new ones. Now, Tech and Social Media have formed a new pantheon and they reign supreme.
The nature of gods and belief, tenderly mixed with the story of America’s immigrant experience, is the main substance of Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods. Guided, I like to imagine, by Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and On the Road, Gaiman has embedded another story in this tale of a subset of America’s marginalized. It is the story of one man’s epic cross-country road trip replete with a black Cadillac and a guide — but his guide comes in the form of the most powerful of the old gods who is attempting to regain his former glory by sending Shadow Moon, our protagonist, across the country to do his bidding.
Shadow Moon is actually on multiple simultaneous journeys. As he crisscrosses in and out of various states, he travels beyond the veil that separates the physical world from the spiritual realm and back again. Whenever he crosses the veil, it is an inward journey, one that takes place in his dreams where he discovers the ability to converse with other gods and sacred beings. All these crossings, it turns out, are in preparation for his (temporary) final crossing; he dies on the World Tree, a self-sacrifice which delivers him to the truth he has been grappling with about the nature of the divine. Or rather, his nature. As his name suggests, he belongs to the world of light and dark, he is of the physical and the ephemeral. And upon death, he discovers he is indeed a demi-god, the son of a woman and the All-Father, Odin, who has cruelly manipulated and cajoled his son into the sacrifice.
Though worlds and centuries apart, in the inner journeys of Shadow Moon, I am reminded of the stories and aims of medieval Sufi saints who metaphorically follow a path (an inner journey) which sometimes includes dreams of conversations with illustrious predecessors and culminates in the rare death-before-death (spiritual union with the divine) which requires a painful process of self-annihilation (shredding one’s ego). And on this journey, adepts have their guides, masters/saints, who use various techniques some of which, on the surface, seem difficult, cruel, and scandalous but are designed to prepare the wayfarer for the brutal final step.
And like many a good tale of ancient gods and medieval saints (Sufi or otherwise), American Gods contains a kernel or two about current political realities.
In the second season of the television adaptation of the novel, the writers have begun to develop that kernel into a seedling.
Apart from its story lines, American Gods, the novel, is a contemplation of the nature of things. It provides an elegant twist on the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum (did the gods need and create us or did we them?). Gaiman seems to be channeling Plato, who examined the links between the world of ideas and the world of being. As Shadow moves through the porous veil, the novel asks, if gods came into being because we thought them up, what happens to these powerful entities when they are no longer thought about? How does a god maintain its existence, its future, if he or she is not actually the creator of either? Apparently, if he is Odin, he manufactures a war; he recruits a few trusted allies, enlists those who are naturally sympathetic to the cause, and fabricates and instigates attacks by the other side to move those satisfied with the status quo into action. In other words, he adapts, taking a life of his own.
Season two of the show, by contrast, is a contemplation of the mechanics of that war mapped onto current events.* The supposed enemy, the new gods, take over a bunker (welcomed in by members of the upper echelons of our government). Social Media is coded and then upgraded in that room and she is instructed to create and weaponize misinformation at warp speeds. There, in the bunker, a whole new reality and type of warfare are created.
Substitute gods for politicians, and the questions this season’s writers seem to be asking are: if we have a government for the people, by the people how much responsibility do we bear when the government adapts and re-creates itself to work for its own self-interest or creates its own news? And more urgently, can the war machine be stopped once it has been set in motion?
In the novel, Shadow manages to stop the unwanted war by telling the gods the truth about Odin’s gambit to sacrifice their lives to reinvigorate his own. By contrast, the show’s writers have seen fit to foreshadow Shadow’s sacrifice through Mad Sweeney, the down-on-his-luck leprechaun and Odin’s unwilling collaborator. Mad Sweeney, who in the novel lives and dies tragically in the shadows, is given a new story arc in the show. He is bathed in his former glory as an ancient Irish son-god and king, although only for a short time. If I am allowed to switch gears and (over)extend the analogy a bit here, the second season’s Mad Sweeney reminds me of a different kind of Sufi, the wayward practitioner who has fallen off the path. His transgressions are many. But it is, above all, that he forgets to practice zikr (remembrance) and to nurture his soul, two of the most important tasks for Sufis. Mad Sweeney has, over time, forgotten who he is. As he slowly comes to remember the stories about himself, he also remembers his honor. As a fully “woke” leprechaun, he irrevocably breaks his pact with Odin; he tells Shadow the truth — that he killed his wife at Odin’s request — and asks him to see the dangerous path Odin has laid out before him (a shout out to all independent journalists across the globe who risk their lives doing just that). Failing to fully convince Shadow, in his final act of self-sacrifice and defiance, Mad Sweeney manages to lessen some of the destruction Odin has planned; he disappears into the sunlight, Gungnir, Odin’s beloved sword, the ancient Nordic iteration of the weapon of mass destruction.
It is easy to see how Mad Sweeney has become an adored fan-favorite. A once noble heart struggling to be let free lies buried beneath a gruff exterior and dark humor. But, he may just be the kind of hero we know we need to be in these times; aware of how we got to where we are and elevating the greater good above ourselves.
*The major headlining news at the time of writing.