Head Full of Snow: ‘American Gods’ Remains Fresh and Frisky

‘American Gods’ robs a bank and does sex right.
By  · Published on May 14th, 2017

‘American Gods’ robs a bank and does sex right.

The first thing “Head Full of Snow” does is do away with the tradition the show has established in its first two episodes. Instead of another “Coming to America” scene, it opens in the heart of Queens.

Mrs. Fadil’s  (Jacqueline Antaramian) initial interaction with Anubis (Chris Obi) is a great tie-in to last week’s meditation on race. Assuming a default segregation, she directs him to the “black people family” upstairs. (And they’re up there—we saw them eating a very American roast turkey in our initial fall through the floors of the building). But as Anubis explains himself, it becomes clear that he and Mrs. Fadil are actually from the same place, both transplants from Egypt. Despite the difference in race, they’re countrymen.

It also gives us a lovely double-fakeout. As we watch Mrs. Fadil balance on her stool, we’re certain she’s going to fall. When she gets down safely, we’re left with our pent up fear—the drama has been built up with no outlet for release.

It’s only after Anubis comes to her door that we learn our fear was justified. Mrs. Fadil did fall off the stool—we just didn’t see it because we were focalized on her soul instead of her body. 

We experience death the way the dying experience it. It could be worse, but in missing the event we were anticipating, we’re stuck with that built up tension. There’s no pain in death, but neither is there the release we might expect.

Chris Obi (Anubis)

Tension aside, what follows is a powerful little scene that leaves you feeling… mostly good about death. Anubis is kind and gentle, and Mrs. Fadil’s life was good, and she’s worthy of a reward.

But of course, it’s not as clear-cut as that. The implication is that afterlives are as varied as the gods who tend them. Choosing the right god isn’t a matter of salvation, but it is something to consider carefully. And unfortunately, it’s both completely esoteric and completely eternal. You might find yourself wishing for a single right answer.

Worried that your grandmother is in the Muslim afterlife? Too bad. The cat’s working for the Egyptians.  

Catching back up with Shadow, this episode gives us some mixed signals on how much he’s willing to put up with. He accepts the moon from Zorya Polunochnaya and challenges Czernobog to a rematch for his life, but he draws the line when he apparently thinks a snowstorm into existence. And it’s a line that makes some sense—in the last episode we saw him wrestle with and finally accept the weirdness around him.

Accepting the weirdness inside himself is another thing entirely.

Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon), Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday)

But just like last week, Shadow and Wednesday’s frank conversations aren’t nearly as effective as their casual ones. Their print shop discussion about the different colors of Jesus is a gem, especially Shadow’s quiet exasperation with Wednesday’s insistence that he’s “not being racial.”

And while their conflict over the bank robbery isn’t quite as satisfying, it does place them nicely at odds in a context that Shadow can understand. He follows Wednesday with a hushed seething that’s not quite ready to bolt. Ricky Whittle’s outrage always seems to get better the more muted it is.

Speaking of the bank, did you notice the silhouette in the top hat in the security camera footage? Keep that shape in mind—I won’t be surprised if we see it again.

The grand reveal, of course, is Laura’s return. Its timing is slightly different than in the book, and I’d love to talk about the implications of that. It’s a change that makes a lot of sense but does alter the mood of the story a little. We’ll get to that.

But not yet. Let’s let Laura say her piece before we start analyzing her. So far all she’s gotten to say is “Hi Puppy.”

In the meantime, let’s address what everyone’s talking about: the gay sex scene.

Omid Abtahi (Salim), Mousa Kraish (The Jinn)

If last week’s episode was mostly about race, it’s safe to say this week is mostly about sexuality. (And not just because The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson showed up. Although he was a delightful surprise, yet another carryover from Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal).

The story of Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the Jinn (Mousa Kraish)  aren’t long, but it’s crucial.

While sex is everywhere on tv and LGBT characters are getting more screen time, you don’t often see the two combined. Even Game of Thrones, which doesn’t mind showing us every thrust, kept the sex between its one gay couple comparatively subdued, pants firmly in place in shots you could probably show today on any network channel (provided they involved a man and a woman, of course).

And maybe the root of the issue is one of intent. The sex in Game of Thrones is often graphic and rarely plot-based. It’s there because it can be, and because people like seeing it. And likely the producers have decided that the kind of sex its audience likes seeing is straight sex. It doesn’t sweep homosexuality under the rug—gay characters still exist. But the sex they have is only hinted at.

And what’s hinted at is comparatively tame—a blowjob here, a vague running of hands over the chest there. Gay penetrative sex is still exceedingly rare on television, and the result is a real disparity in the gravity of relationships. Straight couples have sex, while gay couples fool around, usually with an undertone of one pleasing the other rather than mutual pleasure. And lesbian sex is pure business—transparent fantasy fulfillment in brothels.

To be clear, I’m still an avid viewer of Game of Thrones. But its treatment of sex is miles behind that of American Gods. Instead of softcore porn or the dreaded “sexposition,” American Gods shows us sex that matters to the story. It doesn’t take for granted that its audience wants to see lots of straight sex and the occasional lesbian fool-around. It offers us the sex that it wants to, whether it be horrifying (Bilquis) or grief-stricken (Audrey) or, God forbid, gay.

Omid Abtahi (Salim)

And that’s important. The scene between Salim and the Jinn doesn’t assume it knows what we want—it shows us what it is. (And what it is is a very accurate adaptation of the book. This is no shoehorned sex for sex’s sake).

Importantly, both Salim and the Jinn are from Oman, where homosexuality is illegal. This act of explicit, passionate sex is just as unusual for them to perform as it is for us to see. It’s Salim’s wish—that he assures the Jinn he does, in fact, grant—a desire for tenderness and romance for a man who’s known nothing but furtive, secretive encounters.

And that’s good. The US is ahead of Oman on gay rights, sure, but toning down one specific brand of sex in your show perpetuates the idea that it’s taboo. While it may not score as high with particular test audiences, the key to change is the breaking of boundaries. Progress never starts out as normal. Can you remember the last time you saw implied anal preparation on tv?

Me neither.

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Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)