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American Gods Mid-Season Catch-up: Identity Crises Culminate in ‘Sister Rising’

Shadow and Cordelia sit together deep in thought (courtesy of Starz)

Due to the Superbowl last weekend, American Gods took a week hiatus and returned with a significant episode, ‘Sister Rising’. During this time, statements from Evan Rachel Wood and multiple other women detailing Marilyn Manson’s abuse led to his character being edited out of the episode. Many allegations of abuse had already been made against him prior to being hired for the show, yet he was still involved in two episodes this season. Since Johan didn’t appear in the novel, his presence was more of a novelty than a necessity, so Manson’s removal didn’t have a major impact on the plot.

Other characters who are unique to the show include Cordelia (Ashley Reyes), Demeter (Blythe Danner), and the Orisha (Wale, Herizen Guardiola, Bridget Ogundipe, and Karen Glave), who are much more key players. Despite this, statements regarding closer loyalty to the source material certainly reflect the feel of Season 3 so far! The slightly increased number of episodes has also allowed a bit of breathing space for character development, as has the splitting of the ensemble into various groups. Let’s pick up from where we last left off, shall we?

Much to my relief, Laura didn’t stay dead, unlike Mad Sweeney. Her storyline since the start of the show has really been milked, but she’s now alive at last. As in, alive alive. First of all, she went to Purgatory after dissipating into ashes, and after some wandering about, she ended up in a cinema that played her memories as a movie. In this scene, we learn more about her life, as she blamed herself for ruining her parents’ marriage by encouraging her dad to cheat on her mum.

However, Laura was misremembering the situation, and re-discovers that he cheated entirely unprompted. It’s an interesting moment, as Laura takes full responsibility for her actions as an adult, such as cheating on Shadow, although the replay of a childhood memory that is framed as her ‘origin story’ provides sympathy with her, and reads a little as a problematic justification. Laura has always been a complex character, and these scenes with her independently serve to flesh that out even more. 

The design of Purgatory is fascinating too—waiting in queues, potentially for eternity, is the epitome of existing in-between, feeding off feelings of boredom and anxiety simultaneously. Having to rewatch old memories is a daunting concept, and one that brings philosophical questions surrounding identity to the surface. Is our identity forged entirely by our self-perception and false memories? Does this define our course of action and sense of self throughout our whole lives? Laura receives a pamphlet about “acknowledging reality”, also tying in with overall themes about believing what you see.

Laura is in Purgatory beside one of the admin people, holding a ticket and looking lost
Laura looking lost in Purgatory (courtesy of Starz)

She’s not in Purgatory long before the potion from Baron Samedi inexplicably works thanks to Mad Sweeney’s love-infected blood mixing with it, resurrecting her completely. The romantic subplot between Laura and Mad Sweeney that began last season was quite a surprise, and not a pleasant one. Their frenemy dynamic was entertaining, but not a healthy grounds for an actual loving relationship. I mean, are we forgetting that Sweeney killed her in the first place? Plus it would have been super weird considering Laura still has feelings for Shadow.

Now she’s alive and well again, she’s buddied up with Salim, who has lost his way since he’s no longer in pursuit of the Djinn, due to Mousa Kraish’s departure from the show at the end of Season 2. The pairing is familiar and thematically sensical; Laura and Salim have both gone through identity changes that have revolved around following a loved one. Additionally, Salim reflects Shadow, as a man whose perception of life has been challenged, causing him to come to terms with believing what he’s witnessed. We’ve seen it before with Shadow two seasons ago, so it feels a little ‘been there, done that’ at times. However, there is the added layer of Salim having a pre-existing faith as a Muslim, which opens up another dialogue path and adds an important perspective to the show.

Salim and Laura’s respective journeys have been rather repetitive since Season 1, so hopefully this development will make way for some progression there. At the end of ‘Sister Rising’, we see Laura meet Shadow as a living being, so it will be intriguing to see if this changes their interactions or relationship. Further throwing a spanner in the works is Laura’s continual plan to kill Wednesday (currently unaware that he’s Shadow’s father). Again, this motive has been explicit since the end of Season 1, so either a resolution or change is to be expected.

As for Wednesday himself, he has (for the most part) remained separate from Shadow thus far. Instead, Cordelia has assisted him on his ongoing recruitment scheme. Resourceful and whip-smart, Cordelia has been functioning as the middle-ground between Shadow and Wednesday, and has a great dynamic with both of them. Being Wednesday’s lackey, it’s necessary that she has interactions with Shadow outside of those jobs, and their relationship is wonderfully supportive. Plus, the Ocean’s Eleven-style heist plot in ‘Sister Rising’ was great fun! Like Salim, she has a similar role that Shadow did in Season 1, but for different reasons. Cordelia and Shadow had both lost everything and were in a rough spot when Wednesday approached them, providing help and stability. It rather fits with Wednesday’s manipulative personality, as he targets vulnerable people to assist him, knowing that he’s all they have to turn to. 

For the first time, we see Wednesday directly interacting with his worshippers in the form of the metal band Blood Death. He treats them very much the same as everyone else—pawns that he uses for his own gain. Wednesday indiscriminately takes advantage of people who he knows can fuel his power. There are obvious ties between modern Norse worshippers and white supremacy, which is a connection that was made in Season 2’s ‘Donar the Great’, with Odin conning his son Thor into becoming the poster boy for American Nazis in the 1930s.

In that episode, Odin mistakes a Nazi’s armband for a symbol of one of the Old Gods, reflecting how white supremacy has adopted Norse symbols. In modern times, some white supremacists refer to themselves as the ‘Sons/Soldiers of Odin’ or ‘Odinists’, therefore the metal biker gang are implicitly emulating this type of crowd. However, the commentary isn’t made explicit, and is undercut by the fact that the leader, Johan, is played by Marilyn Manson who has also been noted as racist and anti-Semitic. Since the biker bar got blown up in ‘The Unseen’ and Johan has been edited out, it’s likely we won’t be returning to this plot.

Wednesday’s recruitments have also introduced us to Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, who he is surprised to find has been taking respite in an institution. Although she claims she is treated there with the reverence she deserves, Wednesday doesn’t believe it. In a conversation with Shadow, he reveals that Demeter was actually his wife, and shows dedication by purposely admitting himself to the same institution as her. His motives are naturally questioned by both Demeter and Shadow, but the unresolved romance with her seems to be showing a more vulnerable side to Wednesday. Much like with Zorya Vechernyaya (whose actor, Cloris Leachman, sadly passed away last month), he appears to genuinely care for Demeter. Truth-telling is certainly not a favoured pastime for Wednesday, but who can tell how this plot will pan out?

Demeter smiles mid-conversation with Odin
Demeter smiles mid-conversation with Odin (courtesy of Starz)

In the way of the New Gods, they seem to be biding their time after making reference to the “church of the mind” in ‘A Winter’s Tale’. Ms World morphed back into Mr World quite abruptly after the first episode of the season. He is still attempting to recruit Bilquis to no avail—more on that in a bit. Tech Boy is having a rough time this season, as the shock Bilquis gave him in ‘A Winter’s Tale’ scrambled his wiring and compromised his power. An unlikely and uneasy alliance with Shadow formed and rapidly ended in the latest episode.

More than this though, ‘Sister Rising’ let us in on some backstory for him. We saw that he was conned by a magician in 1893, who convinced him to manipulate his automaton exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, only to expose his lies in front of a crowd. After he starts glitching again, Tech Boy returns to an archive-type warehouse and finds the automaton again, cowering inside it as he was seen doing in the flashback. This vulnerability and lack of confidence is a first for Tech Boy, and a sort of comeuppance for the way he’s acted up until now.

Themes of destiny and identity have been prevalent throughout the season so far; in addition to Tech Boy’s backstory reveal, there has been an exploration of Bilquis’ past and journey. After causing damage to Tech Boy and rejecting his recruitment attempts, she took Bill Sanders, a tech CEO she’d been sleeping with, as a sacrifice. Looking troubled in the immediate aftermath was perhaps foreshadowing that something bad would come of it. At the end of ‘Ashes and Demons’, Shadow discovered that Bilquis had been taken and kidnapped by Sanders’ men. She is tortured, but this time in isolation allows for reflection. Within this contemplation, she is visited by the Orisha, Yoruba deities originating in Nigeria. In Yoruban tales, the Orisha guide all creation, and the ones represented in American Gods so far are Chango, Oshun, Yemoja, and Aye. They present Bilquis with knowledge about who she is, reminding her of her power:

“You are not who they say you are. You are whoever you want to be.”

As Yetide Badaki has said:

“Even though you may think you’re alone, you find that you are part of a larger ‘we’, and that comes up a lot. ‘I’ is ‘we’. […] So, as you go inward, you’re literally dancing with the ancestors.”

This rediscovery culminates in Bilquis reclaiming her power. In a pivotal scene, she manipulates the elements and causes water to burst through her stone cell. Just as Shadow arrives, Bilquis has suspended her captors in a flood of water, and walks out freely. We witness a conversation between Bilquis and Shadow, in which Bilquis tells him:

“I’d come to believe that what others believed of me was me. That I was… the exotic fantasy in the minds of others. […] They create an identity, an image for us that serves them. They teach us to see ourselves through a veil. And now that the veil’s been lifted? I see it all, for what it truly is. I see myself as I am.”

Her words, especially in conjunction with Shadow who is also in the process of discovering his identity and power, are a commentary on Black identity. The conversation is significant and culturally relevant. Considering Orlando Jones’ departure from the show, and the conversation this opened up about the treatment and representation of Black characters and Black spiritualism (discussed here by Moná Thomas), it feels like an especially purposeful development. It also ties in with Bilquis’ treatment in the show so far. As Sesali Bowen has addressed, Bilquis’ early portrayal was representative of “how our culture treats Black female empowerment and sexuality”. Now, Bilquis’ most recent development deconstructs this, and allows her to rebuild herself and grasp her true power by removing her from the “fantasy in the minds of others”.

Bilquis and Shadow stroll through the city at night in conversation
Bilquis and Shadow stroll through the city at night in conversation (courtesy of Starz)

Shadow’s involvement in Bilquis’ narrative relates to his personal journey as mentioned. We’ve seen a lot more of him independently this season which is always a joy. In the wake of discovering his paternity, he’s distanced himself from Wednesday, despite getting roped in to do occasional jobs for him via Cordelia. A brief alliance with Tech Boy was amusing, but destined to be short-lived, and didn’t contribute anything to Shadow’s character development. Through his recent connection with Bilquis, Shadow can now be empowered and explore his god powers with the guidance of a Black idol. Although he is still very much caught up in the world which his father introduced him to, he’s rejecting that paternity and forging his own path. 

The Lakeside segment has also given Shadow his own space, even if it was dictated by Wednesday. By this point, Alison has been missing for a little while, and in ‘Sister Rising’ we found out that someone is breaking into people’s properties and stealing “ladies’ unmentionables”. Shortly after the teenager disappeared, the residents of Lakeside were quick to assume that Shadow was the perpetrator, due to being a new arrival in town who happened to leave for Chicago on the night she went missing, but with an emphasis on implied racism.

He appears to be off the hook now, but tensions in Lakeside are still rising. In contrast, Shadow and Marguerite have been getting closer after initially getting off on the wrong foot. Romantic undertones are strong here, and with Laura’s recent arrival, this is likely to cause some friction. It’s great to see Shadow become more self-assured, even at a time of uncertainty. His interactions with the inhabitants of Lakeside have brought his warm and friendly nature to the forefront, which is just a delight.

Season 3 of American Gods has delivered a stronger purpose through more prominent themes so far. However, there is still quite a bit of dawdling with particular characters, such as Laura and Salim. Odin’s recruitment of the Old Gods has gone on for so long now, and it doesn’t feel to be leading up to a climax just yet, like it did in Season 1. Slowly but surely, the narrative is being steered in a more secure direction, and the episodes are starting to contribute something meaningful again.

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Written by Robin Moon

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