Warning: SPOILERS ahead for American Gods
Following their confrontation with the new gods, and subsequent rejection of their offer of collaboration, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and his beleaguered companion Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) continue their travels across the country to recruit the gods of old to their side for the coming war. So far on Starz’s American Gods, the lines between old and new gods have been distinct, with each on their side and little crossover in the middle ground. However, in the latest episode, “A Murder of Gods,” we were introduced to an old god who has found great fortune through a shift in faith. The Roman god of volcanoes and metalworking has found power in a new form of fire – that of guns.
Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) is first seen by Shadow and Mr Wednesday as they drive into the small Virginian town that has taken his name. The town of Vulcan is the manufacturing hub for the eponymous brand of ammunition, which the residents use in droves. Everyone in town seems to carry a gun, as their steadfast devotion to “their America” is embodied by an obsession with the second amendment. As well as packing heat, the townsfolk all wear red armbands on their left arm with the logo of the Vulcan gun factory, evoking fascistic imagery as they stride through the town in a funeral procession led by Vulcan that climaxes with a hail of bullets fired into the sky. As Mr. Wednesday notes, the town has become used to this parade, as a worker in the bullet factory dies a couple of times a year, falling into the smelting pot where the metal for the bullets is made. The first thing we see from this factory is a happy boss going about his duties on the job before stumbling into the pot and becoming the sacrificial power that makes Vulcan so powerful.
In Roman mythology (and that of Greek mythology, where he was known as Hephaestus), Vulcan was worshipped by metalworkers and praised by them to help prevent more destructive fires. Bonfires were created in his honour and live animals thrown in as sacrifice. Many metal and steel-working towns across the world took on Vulcan as a mascot of sorts: There are statues of him in Sheffield, England, and Birmingham, Alabama, the latter of which is the largest cast iron statue in the world. The steel-working boom died off in many industrial cities in the late 20th century, so it would make sense for Vulcan to tie himself to a more profitable form of metal-work, which in this case is guns. While still a bastion of the old world, and friendly with Mr. Wednesday, Vulcan operates similarly to the stylings of the new gods.
The town of Vulcan is one that inspires discomfort in Shadow, as he notes that he seems to be the only black man in the town. In Vulcan’s garden, he sees a noose hanging from a tree, evoking memories of his lynching in the pilot. Like much of the season, the plight of the gods serves to highlight the racial tensions in America – an all-white town waving around high-grade rifles as their constitutional right, uncaring of the fear and unease that evokes in Shadow or any non-white outsider. The only non-white person we see in the episode with a gun is Salim, who returns to stop Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney from stealing his cab, and the episode opens with a group of Mexican immigrants being gunned down by border patrol, one of whom has a Christian message inscribed on his weapon (ironic given that he kills the Mexican version of Jesus with it). Guns are worshipped by some, and feared by others. The line separating those groups could not be starker in this episode.
Vulcan’s sacrifice also takes the form of hunting, and his home is full of taxidermy and exotic animals stuffed as trophies, with antlers embedded on almost every wall, reminding the audience of one of the most familiar motifs in show-runner Bryan Fuller’s other show, Hannibal. Explaining his shift in focus, Vulcan tells Mr Wednesday, “I’ve franchised my faith. You are what your worship.”
Vulcan relishes this conflict as it keeps him powerful, so he tells Mr Wednesday he is ready to join them, and will forge a blade worthy of the gods for the battle. But after crafting a sword for him, he admits that he’s staying neutral in the fight, and won’t be joining his old friends in Wisconsin, where the battle is seemingly set to take place. Vulcan enjoys the power of the new generation too much to give it up, particularly in a country with such a high rate of gun fatalities, and sees no reason to return to the archaic days of worship, not when every death by his bullets is a sacrifice in his name. The old ways may die out, but a god of fire and metalwork in a nation with such a zealous devotion and constitutional right to firearms will never go out of style. Every death from a bullet is a human sacrifice to him, willingly or otherwise, and he’s not ready to give that up, even as his fellow old gods die from neglect.
This admission does not end well for Vulcan, as Mr Wednesday kills him with the sword Vulcan crafted for him. The weapon was a pledge to the Norse god in his name, and it gave Mr Wednesday the power to slash Vulcan’s throat before pushing him into the smelting pot. In a final act of cursing against his former friend, he urinates over his burning corpse, tainting the latest batch of bullets that will be sent out across the country for gun lovers everywhere.
Vulcan is the first god we’ve seen on American Gods who was not present in the novel. Author Neil Gaiman made him specifically for the show (which he admits is partly a fan-fiction take on his novel). As the politics of the series dominate each episode – from the immigrant experience to questions of faith – this episode sees American Gods as its most contemporary in focus, with arguments over gun control ever present in the media. Thematically, Vulcan also presents an interesting quandary to Mr Wednesday and the old gods: There is a way for them to become revitalized and relevant in the new age, but they have to adapt. This possibility was already offered to him in the previous episode from the new gods, which Mr Wednesday rejected. He wants his old powers at their most potent, not a second-hand substitute.
While Vulcan seems to be gone – for now, at least – his introduction offers fresh possibilities for the rest of the season, both for established gods and ones not present in the novel. Perhaps there are more gods from Greek, Roman or other mythology who have changed their lifestyles to find new blood amongst the American dream. As American Gods races towards the season finale, the possibilities remain endless, and the dangers for Shadow have only increased.