WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the pilot of American Gods.
The adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel, American Gods, has been awaited with anticipation from avid fans and curious novices alike. Brought to the small screen by Starz, courtesy of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Heroes), the nation-traversing tale of the battle between gods old and new for eternal dominance has been in development hell for close to a decade, finally making its debut to rave reviews. The novel is a dense piece of work, imbued with multiple intertwining mythologies from across time and the world, and a rich ensemble that embodies the best and worst of humanity. It was never going to be an easy book to adapt, and there were certain scenes fans were eager to see translated to television, even if they wondered how on earth anyone could ever pull them off - chief among them: the Bilquis sex scene.
As if to remind viewers that they’re not messing around, Fuller and Green (along with pilot director David Slade) gave the audience one of the book’s most iconic and shocking scenes in the very first episode. The encounter with Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a goddess of love and figure from the era of King Solomon, is one that caused many readers to double-check the page to make sure that yes, that just happened. In her scene, Bilquis takes a man to bed, and as he follows her commands to worship her body through to a confession of love, she devours him whole with her vagina (no teeth involved). Seeing it in the book is surprising enough, but watching it on TV is a whole new level of radical - a level that marks an important milestone in depictions of sex on TV.
The sequence itself is a pretty graphic sex scene, even without the unusual climax (figuratively and literally). It takes the viewer a few seconds to realize the poor soul engaged in worship with Bilquis has begun to sink deeper into her body, although it’s relatively tame when compared to the scene in the book. Bilquis is shown fully nude, but always in control, demanding satisfaction and giving it in return. While advancements in television as an art form and the presence of cable and streaming services mean it’s not as rare to see sex on-screen as it once was, it’s still an anomaly to see sex of such feminine force. She is on top, she is the one who makes the rules, and it’s an act that greatly pleases both of them (although one person clearly more than the other in the long run).
American Gods has promised more scenes of sexuality throughout its first season, but what makes that opportunity more exciting is the chance for Fuller and Green to explore sex not merely as a physical act but as a form of worship. The show sets up humanity’s relationship with the gods through highly visceral means, with the opening of the pilot telling the story of the first Viking settlers in America, who seek assistance from the Norse god Odin when they need a strong wind to take them home.
Odin is a god of war, and so violence is what the Vikings turn to in order to appease him. When their first sacrifice of each Viking’s right eye does not do the trick, the men burn one of their own alive. That fails too, so their desperation escalates in graphicness and evident agony until a full-on bloodbath of war eventually does the job. Men require the assistance of a god, and so they use violence of the most viscerally graphic nature. Bodies are sliced in half with a spray of ruby blood drenching the sand; a dismembered arm flies through the air with a sword in hand and kills a man on its fall to earth; one Viking meets his fate with the crushing of a rock. Contrast that with the first goddess we see, one of love, a much softer act but no less all-consuming in the worshipper’s dedication (literally).
The juxtaposition sets the stage for Bilquis portray a version of power and sexuality rarely seen on TV (or film).