Warning: SPOILERS ahead for episode 2 of American Gods
Episode 2 of American Gods opens with the writing of another document on people “Coming to America”, but this time the arrivals aren’t traveling by choice. The scene shifts to a slave ship, where dozens of African men are chained together, side by side in the claustrophobic belly of the boat, and one man pleads to the spider god Anansi for help. The trickster god himself appears, played by Orlando Jones, clad in a modern multi-coloured suit and ready to bestow his words of wisdom to his worshippers. What follows is a fiery speech, as Anansi informs the enslaved of the fate that awaits not only them, but centuries of their descendants. “You are staring down the barrel of 300 years of subjugation, racist bullshit, and heart disease,” he tells them, and inspires them to revolt and burn the ship into the sea, dying as rebels rather than slaves. It’s a show-stopping moment of pure charisma. and it embodies the incredible power of the show’s central themes: Worship can inspire, persuade, and ultimately reveal one’s fate.
Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have promised that the show will expand upon the novel, where there are several “Coming to America” vignettes outside of the central plot between Shadow and Mr. Wednesday that illuminate the various immigrant experiences of the nation. This has proven especially enticing for Anansi (or Mr. Nancy, as he is known in the novel), as his presence there is key, but limited in comparison to the participation of other gods. His introduction in the book is much less gripping: There, he is seen in a diner, “an elderly black man wearing a bright checked suit and canary-yellow gloves.” Mr. Nancy is theatrical, but on a smaller scale than his television introduction, and he is much older in appearance than Orlando Jones.
Jones, who has wholeheartedly embraced the show’s fandom as he did when he was part of the cast on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, admitted that his interpretation of the character, and this newly added introduction was inspired by current political events, notably the Black Lives Matter movement. In an interview with Vanity Fair, who previously called American Gods the most politically relevant show of 2017, Jones said:
“It [Anansi’s speech] still has to be done in a way that’s charismatic enough to get your ‘followers’ to do the bidding. That to me felt very much in keeping with what we were seeing at rallies where these things were being said to people: ‘We’re gonna build a wall. Muslim Americans are the enemies. This woman is a liar. She can’t possibly be your president.’ It seemed like people were being led down a path to where they’re burning themselves alive. That was on my mind when we were shooting that scene.”
The political power of Anansi is nothing new either. The trickster figure of West African and Caribbean folklore was a creation of an oral storytelling tradition (which ties in neatly to Jones’s glorious command of the scorching rhetoric), and his tales were told by captives as they were crossing the Atlantic to the Americas for slavery. Anansi’s stories became a symbol of slave resistance, particularly in the Caribbean (the ship Anansi and the enslaved are on is one commandeered by the Dutch slave trade, who greatly impacted the colonizing of the region). For his depiction in the show, Anansi, who also appears to the men as a spider-headed creature, isn’t just an inspiring figurehead: He’s the leader against centuries of subjugation. Yet it’s also an insidious power. After all, he does tell the men to kill themselves, and they do. Like his fellow old god Bilquis in episode one, Anansi is unafraid to wield his power in destructive or all-consuming ways. As Jones noted in an interview with the New York Observer, “from Anansi’s perspective, there’s nothing else really to think about other than ‘here are believers. I need them to believe. And in order for them to really believe, I need them to burn down this ship’.”
Anansi’s potential within the show is immense, and it’s clear he will play a bigger part as Mr Wednesday gathers the old gods together for battle, but Neil Gaiman fans will undoubtedly be hoping that the world expands even further. Mr Nancy has his own spin-off novel, Anansi Boys, which focuses on the children of the spider god, and their difficulties in dealing with his consequences of his nature. Currently the television rights to the novel are owned by the BBC and Red Production Company, with reports in 2014 that a mini-series would be going into production soon. It has yet to do so, so there is still a chance the rights may expire and return to Gaiman, allowing for Orlando Jones to have even more fun with the character. But for now, American Gods has introduced the spider god with much panache, and we eagerly await his return.