In American Gods, Starz’s gorgeous, ambitious adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 fantasy novel, humans, be they slaves or migrants, bring their individual gods with them when they land in America. The country is populated with hundreds of deities who will die if they’re starved of belief. If people start bowing before new deities—if they exchange Odin and Athena for, say, television and Twitter—the old deities go extinct. War ensues between the new gods and the old, spilling out into crocodile-themed bars and blocky cities and barren highways. This conflict ultimately takes the shape of America itself, and provides a gory, fantastical lens through which to view a national crisis of faith.
In the show as in the book, action centers on the improbably named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). He is released from prison to find his wife dead and his job prospects gone. But an unusual opportunity arises, and he grudgingly agrees to become the bodyguard for a con man named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). It quickly becomes evident that divine undercurrents are at work beneath Mr. Wednesday’s human facade, and that Shadow has transferred out of prison into a parallel world. Here humans can make snow by thinking about it. They can create gods by believing in them. And Shadow’s wife Laura (Emily Browning) isn’t nearly as dead as her obituary suggests.
Shadow has unwittingly been conscripted into the war between the gods. Mr. Wednesday, it turns out, is an incarnation of Odin. The new gods are personified forms of aspects of modern technology. (The Technical Boy—aka the internet—is a weedy, foul-mouthed little prick who smokes toad skins.) This twist is an important tell: American Gods is a story about America pretending to be a story about magic. Gaiman, who immigrated to this country from England, published American Gods during the dot-com boom, when America stood toes out over a cultural precipice. Our love of tech had acquired a religious quality: part wishful thinking, part hubris.
This has become only more apparent in the years since the book’s publication. From space flight to Juicero to universal basic income, Silicon Valley wants to change the world—and we are eager to let it. The problem, as American Gods depicts, is that change and progress are not the same thing. At one point the Technical Boy orders his minions to bash Shadow to death. “We’re going to delete you,” he threatens, and here, deletion doesn’t mean death as much as a kind of existential erasure. His savagery mirrors the show’s opening sequence, in which Vikings put out their eyes and sacrifice shipmates to honor Odin. The value of a human life has changed little over the centuries.
That’s directly at odds with what Silicon Valley believes about itself. The industry’s most prominent evangelists—near deities in our own world—say they are enriching the human experience, making us more connected, more tolerant, and more satisfied. We reward them with offerings: biopics and TED Talks and, most importantly, money. The problem is that such utopian projects are always undermined by the human beings tasked with carrying them out. Nobody ever lives up to the adoration, not even Steve Jobs, and so it is in Gaiman’s universe. The Technical Boy possesses frightening power and the fealty of billions, but he also reflects the flaws of his architects and acolytes. A company like Facebook assumes its products possess some inherent transformative value, only to see Facebook Live used for evil purposes.
In this way, American Gods is about much more than technology—it is a commentary on the American project itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the show’s second episode, when the trickster god Anansi—played by a perfect Orlando Jones—warns a ship of black captives that they may think they are just people now, but in America they will be black. “Let me paint a picture of what’s waiting for you on the shore,” he says. “You arrive in America, land of opportunity, milk, and honey, and guess what: You all get to be slaves. Split up, sold off, and worked to death. … A hundred years later, you’re fucked. A hundred years after that, fucked. A hundred years after you get free, you still getting fucked out of jobs and shot at by police. You see what I’m saying?”
The show depicts America as a patchwork place that pulls itself apart as often as it tries to stitch itself together. America is the ultimate myth, and the borders of this myth shift as the idea of America shifts. It’s unclear if its inhabitants are even aware that this myth is as flawed as they are. America, Wednesday tells Shadow at one point, is the only country in the world that worries about what it is. “Americans know who they are,” Shadow responds, but Wednesday demurs. “They pretend they know, but it’s still just pretending,” he responds. “Like I’m pretending now. Just like you … You are pretending you cannot believe in impossible things.”
And what about progress? It’s simply one of those impossible things. The show is as skeptical of the notion as it is of technology’s utopian claims: “When you die, you rot,” Laura tells Shadow before her demise. “It’s a fixed system. Physics don’t take Sundays off.” The joke, of course, is that Laura doesn’t stay dead. So much for physics. But that doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong: The world really is a fixed system. Even in Gaiman’s universe, magic obeys certain rules. Chief among them is that humans are irrational creatures, destined to undermine their noblest dreams and their most enlightened enterprises.
“The chief tenet of the Enlightenment is that the growth of knowledge is key to human emancipation,” John Gray wrote in his 1999 essay, “Progress: The Moth-Eaten Musical Brigade.” “Yet faith in progress through the growth of knowledge is itself irrational.” The encompassing truth American Gods grasps so well is that irrationality is written deep into human behavior. Hope is irrational. Love, as Wednesday reminds Shadow, is irrational. Even the act of migration is an irrational act of faith, based on the belief that happiness waits just over an invisible line. We once bodied these emotions and called them gods. Now we project them onto our works, and call it progress. But none of us can escape our endings, not even gods.