American Gods Fires Off Its Most Politically Charged Episode Yet

Corbin Bernsen in American Gods Season 1 Episode 6

Mr. Wednesday and Shadow meet Corbin Bernsen's Vulcan, an old god made new in American Gods' most overtly political episode so far.

American Gods hasn't been one to shy away from touching on race, religion, sexuality, and any other hot-button topics guaranteed to jumpstart a thousand thinkpieces and explainers from week to week. This site has certainly taken part in a range of discussions around the series' frank depiction of sex and its equal opportunity exploration of nudity, as well as the show's devotion to and deviations from Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name. So far, the series has diverted from the source material in a way that has benefitted one of its main characters, giving Laura Moon a detailed backstory that affords her current undead situation additional weight as the season moves the plot forward.

This time, in 'A Murder of Gods', American Gods makes more changes by introducing an entirely new god to the mix, one that wasn't written into Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel. The hour brings about Corbin Bernsen as Vulcan, an old god who has reimagined himself into something familiar but altogether new. Vulcan, you see, is the Roman god of the volcano and metalworking, who has since re-forged himself into a god of guns and firearms in a small factory town in Virginia. In this way, the character spans the division between the two warring factions of the series – the old gods and the new. Rather than embark on a mission against the gods like Mr. World, Media, and Technical Boy, Vulcan has created a new persona for himself, he has "franchised his faith" and turned "fire into firepower", creating a legion of followers who worship him through their abject worship of guns. It's all very explicit, as Mr. Wednesday and Shadow meet Bernsen's Vulcan, in American Gods' most overtly political episode so far.

With its dreamlike imagery that has on occasion put an emphasis on style over substance, Bryan Fuller's series hasn't exactly been subtle in the five episodes it's had so far. But it also hasn't ever found a way to connect its opening sequences that serve as introductions to the many other gods manifested by their worshipper's belief like it does in episode 6. Last week's animated sequence was gorgeous but there was a familiar disconnect between it and the story that followed. This time, however, the series uses the cold open to introduce one the many versions of Jesus it has running around, while also connecting the gun violence that punctuates the sequence with Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon's trip to Vulcan.

Corbin Bernsen and Ian McShane in American Gods Season 1 Episode 6

For its part, the opening depicts several Mexican immigrants attempting to crossover into the United States. A group watching the border then meets their success with a hail of gunfire. The sequence doesn't shy away from the graphic nature of the violence or the allusion to the present-day political implications of the immigration debate between the United States and Mexico and the proposed wall intended to further divide the two countries. As politically charged as the sequence is, depicting the wholesale slaughter of people seeking a better life for themselves and, not too subtly, the death of Jesus, it also makes a series of interesting artistic choices that help to balance out the unconcealed symbolism. For one thing, while the immigrants are shown in full, their gun-toting assailants remain faceless throughout the entire scene; the only thing the camera picks up clearly is a rifle's inscription, which reads "Thy Kingdom Come" before it pans down to show the shooter is holding a crucifix. All of this before Jesus Christ is struck down by a succession of bullets leaving him lying on the ground as though he were once again positioned on the cross.

The scene is no doubt going to cause a stir, and it's an example of the urgency of the filmmaker's message overshadowing their intention to deliver it in a nuanced way, but again, American Gods is nothing if not delightfully unsubtle when it comes to the issues it wants to focus its attention on. And, as further proof that the lack of subtlety was not an oversight, but rather a deliberate choice, the rest of 'A Murder of Gods' feels of a piece in its politically charged storytelling. Most of that is seen in how Vulcan's flock are armed to the teeth, all bearing a ridiculous amount of arms (while their actual arms are adorned with armbands that explicitly resemble those worn by the Nazis) and prone to giving praise to their town's namesake with a hail of bullets fired into the air.

As far as the episode is concerned, however, Vulcan serves his purpose in the hour's devotion to symbolism and in pushing the plot forward by his forging a new blade for Mr. Wednesday. To the show's credit, the one-and-done nature of this new god works in terms of how it sets up the final two episodes of the season, especially given how cleanly Bernsen's Vulcan is introduced and then taken off the board. Vulcan's revelation that he's chosen to align himself with Mr. World and the new gods seals his fate – he winds up decapitated and soaking in a vat molten steel before Wednesday puts a curse on it that tragically is not called "Urine Luck".

Still, the series' flaws are still present; Shadow once again plays the incredulous person in the room. This can be overlooked to a certain degree seeing as how this is the first time anyone's been decapitated in front of him. But it's becoming increasingly apparent that the series needs to get its audience proxy to go all in on the story, and with two episodes to go there's a good chance Fuller and co. will find a way to do so before the season reaches its conclusion. While we wait for that to happen, however, there's always the interaction between Laura and Mad Sweeney – who are joined by Salim – to create an interesting aside and to give the series some sense of immediacy in terms of the fates of characters whose personalities and needs/wants and actions are a little more interesting than Shadow's are right now.

In all, 'A Murder of Gods' showcases just how willing American Gods is to venture into politically charged topics, and how easily the show can go off book and still provide a story that is in keeping with Gaiman's original work.

Next: American Gods Stages a Series of Necessary Confrontations in Episode 5

American Gods continues next Sunday with 'A Prayer For Mad Sweeney' @9pm on Starz.

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