Corbin Bernsen (Photo: American Gods)

“What the fuck are you?” Laura asks Mad Sweeney in “A Murder Of Gods.” “I mean, what the fuck are any of you, but first tell me, what the fuck are you?” Shadow asks Wednesday the same question after he wrenches a squirming, digging root (a parting gift from Mr. Wood, an old god turned new god) from the wound in Shadow’s side.

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Mad Sweeney answers Laura, Wednesday refuses to answer Shadow, and both answers are equally confounding, in part because not even Mad Sweeney and Wednesday get to define exactly what they are. “People believe things,” Wednesday says, “which means they’re real. That means we know they exist. So what came first, gods or the people who believed in them?”

From the start, American Gods has been about the tapestry of identity, but “A Murder Of Gods” is even more explicit as it explores transitions from one nation to another, from one identity to another. In the opening, a group of travelers struggle to ford a river. When one of the pilgrims goes under, a god—one of the many Jesuses Wednesday described—materializes to save him.

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These characters aren’t named. Neither is the place. Nor are the cowboy-hatted men who pull up, headlights blazing and guns in hand, to take them down in a storm of gunfire. One rifle is inscribed with a wreath of thorns and the words Thy kingdom come. A rosary dangles from the shooter’s trigger hand, and his crosshairs form a crucifix.

Rescued from drowning to be killed with gunfire: This is one story of coming to America. The vignette is draped in the symbols of Christianity. But all the bullets are engraved with the name of Vulcan.

Like its gods, whose attributes and abilities fluctuate with their believers’ images of them, American Gods is a protean creature, changing tone in a flicker, shifting genre from episode to episode. But that adaptability isn’t relegated to the gods, or to the show. It’s shared by the nation American Gods is ruminating on. As Wednesday tells Shadow, explaining the stone-faced martial zeal of the citizens of Vulcan, Virginia, “There aren’t just two Americas. Everyone looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face, even if it crumbles under question.”

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As they roll through town, it’s obvious that there are at least two Americas right here in Vulcan, Virginia. One belongs to the citizens—conspicuously white, conspicuously suspicious of Shadow, conspicuously somber until the time comes to fire their arms into the air—who close down the town for a funeral march. The other America is the flip-side of this one, the America Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen), bristling with whiskers and barely submerged hostility, smilingly reminds Shadow of: the America of “hanging trees” and watching eyes. When Vulcan fires a shot into one of his own trophies, it’s not just a celebration of power, but a statement of intimidation to his unwilling guest. The locals will scrutinize a black man riding through Vulcan, but not one of them will question, much less investigate, a gunshot in their leader’s house. Not in this town where bullets fall like rain.

Nothing yet has bested Mr. Nancy’s stirring address, but Vulcan’s rhapsodizing over his followers’ devotion (and Bernsen’s delivery of it, which rises to poetic heights and delves into naked hunger as he caresses his firearm) rivals any other speech of the series so far, and it deserves to be transcribed in full:

You are what you worship. God of the volcano. Those who worship hold a volcano in the palm of their hand. It’s filled with prayers in my name. The power of fire is fire power. Not god, but godlike. And they believe. It fills their spirits every time they pull the trigger. They feel my heat on their hip and it keeps them warm at night.

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Vulcan has done more than transform himself from a god of volcanos and open flames to a god of armaments and open fire. He’s made himself god of a particular sliver of America, and it’s a sliver that only grows more vociferous in the face of threat. Vulcan gloats, “Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in my name. And that prayer makes them want to pray even harder.”

When Wednesday tries to recruit Vulcan to “join us in Wisconsin,” he uses a phrase designed to appeal to that sliver of the nation. “They’re taking over America,” Wednesday tells Vulcan.

They both know the “they” here is the new gods—and they both know Vulcan has vaulted the border from old god to new—but it evokes other times when other entitled people speak about “them” taking over. They could be talking about the band of immigrants murdered on the bank of a new home. They could be talking about Shadow, or men who look like Shadow. They could be talking about Salim, or about Ibrahim Bin Irem, who owned Salim’s cab before him.

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“Pick one,” Mad Sweeney tells Laura Moon early in “A Murder Of Gods.” He’s talking about hot-wiring a car, but he might as well be talking hijacking about a life, about choosing a future and choosing an identity, because that’s what the episode’s about: identity as a vehicle for getting where you’re going. And that’s what Mad Sweeney’s trying to persuade Laura to embrace. Maybe a new identity, but for sure a new life. Mad Sweeney will talk a god into talking a god into resurrecting Shadow’s dead wife if that’s what it takes to get back his mis-given coin, to quiet his misgivings, to retrieve his luck. He knows the only way he gets his precious coin back is if she gets her precious life back.

Life is precious to Laura, now that she’s lost it. In the last minutes of the episode, Salim smiles at her as she watches him kneeling to the west, and addresses a line of his prayer to her: “Allahu Akbar,” he says, that smile gentler than ever. “God is great.” (That’s American Gods’ translation of the takbir, not mine.)

Not disagreeing, but not agreeing, Laura responds, “Life is great.”

“Life is great,” Salim agrees before turning back, contentment and yearning mingling in his expression.

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It’s not Laura, and not Vulcan, who has best succeeded at adopting a new identity and adapting to a new life. It’s Salim. Vulcan luxuriates in material comfort and admiration, but falls prey to his own trap, becoming a sacrifice—and what a sacrifice!—a god, glutted on the worship of millions, immolated in the pyre of his own making. Laura trudges through the afterlife in a rotting body, single-mindedly pursuing her widowed husband. Salim is seeking his jinn, but he’s also reveling in his journey. He’s free to do either, and eager to do both. He’s free to pull to the side of the road, spread out his prayer mat, and worship one God while seeking another. He’s free to be who he is, and to become whoever he wants to be. As long as he survives, that is.

Stray observations

  • I keep saying it because it keeps happening: There is nothing funnier in this wickedly funny show than Mad Sweeney getting manhandled by Laura, and bless Pablo Schreiber and Emily Browning for making it better every time.
  • Jack’s Crocodile Bar is back! (More precisely, we’re back at Jack’s Crocodile Bar.) Sadly, Beth Grant isn’t.
  • Shadow’s reaction to Wednesday’s sacrifice of Vulcan is reassuringly human. “Holy shit,” he squeaks out, hands on his knees, “What did you do? Oh, fuck, what did you do?”

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