REVIEW: American Gods S01E03 – “Head Full of Snow”

american gods e3 02The third episode of STARZ’s American Gods has just been uploaded to the STARZ website, and I have just finished watching it, so it’s time to continue reviewing what’s quickly become my new favorite show currently on TV. This week’s episode was written by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and was directed by David Slade (Guillermo Navarro directed the Salim and Jinn scene). In Head Full of Snow, Shadow begins to question his decision to work for Mr. Wednesday after all that happened at the end of last week’s episode and the discovery of Wednesday’s plan to rob a bank. As if all that wasn’t enough, Shadow makes a startling discovery when he returns to his hotel room, one that might change his view of things. As always, this review will contain spoilers, so watch the episode before reading this review! 

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Chris Obi as Anubis.

This week’s episode begins with a “Somewhere in America” segment (as opposed to the usual “Coming to America” segments). This one features Anubis (also known as Mr. Jacquel, played by Chris Obi) as he helps a woman (Mrs. Fadil, played by Jacqueline Antaramian) through the experience of dying. It would be easy to just say that this scene is beautiful, but that feels like it doesn’t do it justice enough. The whole thing just feels so accepting. I mean from the beginning, the scene just shows this elderly Muslim woman and immediately normalizes her. She’s the same as any other American, just cooking dinner for her children (and maybe grandchildren?). Then Anubis arrives, and she just casually goes “You probably have the wrong room” which was cute, and then the whole thing kicks into “Egyptian Afterlife” gear, with Mrs. Fadil worrying whether the fact that she’s doesn’t really follow the Egyptian faith will count against her. Followed by Anubis judging her heart on the scales (if her heart weighs more than the feather, he eats it.) and her ultimate choice of which door to go through to the afterlife. And it’s just so kind. The past two episodes’ openings have been dark and violent (appropriately so), but this one is so nice and calm and it just makes you feel good. It’s beautifully shot, the visual effects are stunning, and Brian Reitzell’s music continues to elevate the scene into beautiful art. Plus, Chris Obi was the perfect choice to play Anubis. He’s nothing like how I imagined the character would be, but from the moment he opens his mouth, he’s perfect. His voice is so deep, and calming, yet commanding. The perfect voice for someone who’s supposed to lead you through the steps of the afterlife.

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Shadow’s (Ricky Whittle) fortune is read by Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar).

From there, the episode essentially picks up from where the last episode left off. Shadow has lost the match of checkers with Czernobog (Peter Stormare), and with it, potentially his life. In the dead of night, he wanders onto the roof of the house and encounters Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar). Here, she tells Shadow about herself (and the mission she and her sisters must do: keep watch over Odin’s Bear in the sky, lest he gets free and devours the world). This leads to her telling Shadow his fortune and offering him protection, after an adorable bit where she kisses him because she’s never kissed anyone before. She, quite literally, offers him the moon, chastising him for already giving up the previous protection he was given, the Sun (the coin Mad Sweeney gave him.) Zorya Polunochnaya is only on screen for a few minutes, but Erika Kaar is great in the role. She’s the youngest and oddest of the Zorya sisters, but also the purest. She’s young and innocent; she has a line about being a virgin. It’s short, but I really quite liked Zorya Polunochnaya. She’s exactly how I imagined her to be, and the scene pretty much follows the book verbatim.

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Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) embraces Zorya Verchenyaya (Cloris Leachman).

Shadow challenges Czernobog to another match of checkers by playing off of Czernobog’s insecurities – since he hasn’t used his hammer in a long time, can he actually manage to kill Shadow with one hit? The stakes this time are the same: if Shadow wins, Czernobog goes with them to Wisconsin; if Shadow loses, Czernobog gets an extra swing at Shadow’s head. Meanwhile, Wednesday (Ian McShane) visits Zorya Verchenyaya (Cloris Leachman) and has his fortune read. She tells him that his mission will fail, and he’s doomed to be killed by the New Gods. This sets up a foreboding atmosphere as the scene cuts between Shadow and Czernobog’s game of checkers and Wednesday and Zorya Verchenyaya’s walk outside in the rain. Czernobog only has the one strategy, something that Shadow had previously figured out. As a result, Shadow easily defeats Czernobog, ensuring his cooperation in Wednesday’s plan. Outside in the rain, Wednesday and Zorya Verchenyaya reminisce about the old days and share a kiss. It’s a sweet moment, perhaps one of Wednesday’s most vulnerable to date. Zorya Verchenyaya still doesn’t trust him, sensing he’s up to no good. All that’s happened since the “Somewhere in America” segment is excellent foreshadowing for events that occur later in the novel. All of them are infused with this ominous, dangerous atmosphere. Lighting plays a big role in all of this; Shadow and Czernobog’s game is played out in darkness, illuminated only by the lights outside and the flash of the lightning. It’s similar to Shadow’s scene with Zorya Polunochnaya. Here, there’s less thunder and lightning, but it’s still caked in cool light. It’s supposed to feel calming but is also infused with that sense of ominousness. Contrast that with the scenes between Zorya Verchenyaya and Wednesday; both those scenes use similar lighting, but end up feeling warmer and safer. Some of that’s because there’s some subtle warmer lighting in this scene, but much of it comes down to the writing and the acting of the scenes. They’re all executed well, and in combination, they play together extremely fluidly.

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Pablo Schreiber returns as a down-on-his-luck Mad Sweeney.

This episode also sees the return of Mad Sweeney, played by Pablo Schreiber. When last we saw Mad Sweeney, he’d been pretty brutally beaten by Shadow in their fight in the first episode. His scene begins presumably the following day, with Jack (the barkeep and owner of Jack’s Crocodile Bar, played by Beth Grant) aiming a shotgun directly at his face as he’s passed out in a bathroom stall. He then catches a ride from a kind man, played by the always enjoyable Scott Thompson. After he gave Shadow his special coin, Mad Sweeney’s luck has run out. Giving Shadow that coin was a mistake; it was never the coin Sweeney meant to give him. Because of this, the kind man is brutally killed in a car accident involving a pole falling off of the truck in front of them and impaling the man. It’s a brief scene, but one that sets up Mad Sweeney’s arc for the rest of the season. It’s followed up by a scene later in the episode where Mad Sweeney confronts Shadow about the missing coin. Shadow informs Mad Sweeney that he tossed it into his wife’s grave. These few scenes (and the scene of Sweeney digging up Laura’s grave towards the end of the episode) show a more vulnerable Mad Sweeney than we saw in his last appearance. Schreiber gets to show his versatility as an actor through these scenes, giving depth and pathos to a character who was previously mostly comic relief. The scenes are nice moments and Schreiber plays them well.

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Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the Jinn (Mousa Kraish) discuss their memories of home.

From there, the episode takes a nearly 14 minute detour into another “Somewhere in America” segment, this time focusing on The Jinn (seen briefly last episode, played by Mousa Kraish) and Salim (Omid Abtahi), two Muslim men who meet in a New York taxi and engage in what is perhaps one of the most explicit sex scenes ever committed to film. It’s far more than just a sex scene, though, it’s a short film that follows the journey of Salim as he experiences the failure of being stood up by the person he had an appointment to see and meets the Jinn in a cab on the ride home. The whole thing focuses on the idea that the Jinn don’t grant wishes, except they kind of do. Salim is unsatisfied with his life; he’s unsatisfied with his family, he’s unsatisfied with his time in America, and he’s unsatisfied with himself. Through meeting the Jinn, and the brief love they share, Salim experiences satisfaction. The Jinn may not grant wishes in the way western people think Jinn do, but to say that the Jinn didn’t give Salim what his heart desired would be a lie. He made Salim feel special, wanted, important. And, in the end, the Jinn disappeared and gave Salim his job as a taxi driver, freeing Salim from his previous life. The Jinn gave Salim a fresh start.

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Omid Abtahi as Salim.

It’s a beautiful short, with many wonderful elements. Firstly, it’s another example of this episode normalizing minorities. These are two Muslim men just living their lives. They’re not depicted as terrorists or treated with any kind of suspicion; they’re written the way any other character would be written, just with a different background. Another really important thing is that, briefly, Salim and the Jinn actually speak in Arabic in the taxi. It’s maybe a minute of the scene, but it happens. It’s just a normal conversation, with the two talking about their lives back in their homelands. It helps normalize Muslim people talking in Arabic, the native language for many Muslim immigrants. Arabic is usually only used in American media by terrorist characters, or in some other kind of negative way. I can’t think of an example where two people just had a normal conversation in Arabic about regular, everyday things. It’s a good moment. As for the sex scene itself, it’s also a really good moment. Like most sex scenes in Bryan Fuller shows, it’s shot in a sensual, poetic way. It strives to never cross that line into exploitative; instead, it strives to display the beauty and sensuality of two men together. The imagery of the Jinn in his natural form is intercut with the scene, elevating the entire act into something divine. It’s beautifully shot, and a rare thing on television. Most male-on-male sex scenes rarely show much, but this one really goes for it. There’s full frontal male nudity, shots where one of them is very obviously thrusting into the other. It doesn’t shy away from anything, but it also shows it in ways that feel needed for the scene. It’s a really beautiful moment in a really beautiful section of the episode.

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Did Shadow really make it snow?

Once the “Somewhere in America” segment with Salim and the Jinn ends, we are returned to Shadow and Wednesday as they arrive at a bank Wednesday intends to rob. Much of this scene plays out like an updated version of the scene in the book, with Shadow and Wednesday casing out the bank, printing out signs and business cards, and pulling the heist itself. What’s really interesting in this scene are the bits that they added – the scene where Mad Sweeney confronts Shadow in the diner about his missing coin – or expanded upon. After leaving the bank, Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow to think of snow. Wednesday needs it to snow for his heist to work correctly, so he essentially asks Shadow for some. Naturally, Shadow thinks this is just more of Wednesday’s bullshit, but he does it anyway. And he keeps doing it throughout a few scenes, ultimately leading to actual snow falling from the sky. It’s an important moment in Shadow’s journey; it’s the first time he really starts to consider the possibility that something fantastical could be happening. Wednesday notices this and really tries to get Shadow to open his eyes to the endless possibilities of the world. As it turns out, Shadow’s belief in the impossible is about to be tested as, at the end of the episode, he opens the door to his motel room and finds his dead wife sitting on the bed and speaking to him. Pretty good cliffhanger. (Side note: Wednesday and Shadow have a fun discussion about the various forms of Jesus.

Wednesday notices a woman’s sign that talks about Jesus dying for sins and says, “That woman thinks Jesus suffered for her sins. They’re her sins. Why should Jesus do all the suffering? Plenty of pain and suffering to go around, although that White Jesus could stand a little more suffering. He’s doing very well for himself these days.”
Shadow replies with, “And how many colors does Jesus come in?”
“Why, you got your White Jesuit-style Jesus. You got your Black African Jesus. You got your Brown Mexican Jesus. You got your swarthy Greek Jesus. You’ve got–”
“That’s a lotta Jesus.”
“There’s a lotta need for Jesus, so there’s a lotta Jesus. Now, the Mexican Jesus came here the same way a lot of Mexicans do. Illegally. No, that’s not being racial. You can ask Him. He’ll tell you. He waded across the Rio Grande, his back as wet as the epithet suggests.”

It’s a nice nod to something that’s mentioned briefly in the deleted Jesus scene from the 10th Anniversary edition of the novel: the gods exist in different forms depending on what people need and how they imagine them. I assume this will be explored later on in the season as multiple Jesuses have been cast. I look forward to it!)

Belief is a central theme of the episode. It begins with a woman rediscovering her belief in the gods of Ancient Egypt and ends with a discussion from Mr. Wednesday on belief. In particular, Shadow’s belief is important. Zorya Polunochnaya discusses Shadow’s lack of belief with him in their scene, hinting at the dangers of believing in nothing in this universe. And Wednesday keeps bringing it up throughout the episode, culminating in a speech towards the end where he discusses how America is a country that doesn’t know itself and how Shadow has a choice in whether he believes what’s happening is happening, or whether he thinks it’s a delusion. It’s a powerful scene that really ties the theme of belief together. This episode, and the show, in general, is about Shadow’s journey towards belief. Wednesday wants Shadow to believe in him and to believe in himself. Belief is the currency of the gods; in the American Gods universe, belief is the ultimate power. So, naturally, a lot of time is going to be spent on Shadow’s unwillingness to believe. And it’s a good thing, as it’s an interesting and entertaining arc to watch unfold.

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Mr. Wednesday reflects on America.

This episode is another slow burner. I mean, nearly 20 minutes are taken up by the two “Somewhere in America” vignettes. But, like last week, it doesn’t feel like they’re dragging their feet. The pacing feels just right. You don’t wanna go too fast and miss the opportunity to explore these characters and their stories to their utmost potential, but you don’t wanna go so slowly that nothing happens. I liked how this episode balanced the main plotline with the vignettes. In a way, this balancing act is reflective of one of the main ideas of the story in general: how America balances the different cultures that reside inside its borders. The cultures don’t always mesh smoothly together, like the vignettes and the main plot don’t always smoothly mesh, but regardless, they coexist and it ends up working out in such a way that you can’t imagine how else it could’ve worked out. As always, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have delivered a strong script, David Slade and Guillermo Navarro brought their A-Game, the actors delivered strong performances across the board, and the episode ended up working really well. I’m excited for next week’s episode!

I give Head Full of Snow five out of five wands.

American Gods airs Sundays at 9 pm on STARZ and is available on the STARZ website/app and Amazon Prime (with a STARZ subscription)).

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