The sixth episode of American Gods doubled down on one of the key questions the show has aimed to explore in its first season: What does it actually mean to be an American?
Now timelier than ever, that debate was illustrated on the Starz series in two stunning and fairly controversial ways in episode 6. The hour opened with one of the show’s signature Coming to America sequences, this one depicting the crossing of contemporary Mexican immigrants across the Rio Grande; their attempted entrance into America summons a vision of Jesus, who comes to their aid during the crossing but whose appearance is cut bloodily short by border militia, toting weapons incidentally inscribed with Bible verses. After that shocker of an opener, the episode finds Wednesday and Shadow motoring into a small gun-loving southern town where the god of fire, Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen), has found his niche in modern America as the regal boss of the local bullet manufacturing factory and the proximate receiver of the town’s worship from its trigger-happy population.
Both moments are extreme, undeniable echoes of a slice of modern America, so EW caught up with American Gods co-showrunner Michael Green (who produces the series with Bryan Fuller) to unpack the controversial episode.
EW: This episode’s Coming to America sequence is an important one. When did you film it, and how did your attitude towards it change over time?
MICHAEL GREEN: This is one where our attitude towards it changed quite a bit. We knew we wanted to tell that story for a very long time, but we did change how we felt about it, and for two reasons. One, it became a lot more harrowing after the election. The other was reading more and finding out that what we thought we were exaggerating exists, and then some; that these people who think of themselves as defenders will quite legally go hunting for immigrants. There’s an article in Mother Jones that’s worth linking to here. We were utterly horrified by what we found was true. The only thing that we did differently as a result of all that, and as a result of the election and the ugly rhetoric that has become all too common, is that this is the only Coming to America we have so far that doesn’t have either wonky charm or humor. All of our Coming to Americas occupy a tonally different space, but this one is more reverential and liturgical and ultimately quite terrifying. We made an effort to make sure that the blood we see in this one is not our typical “candy blood.” When blood flies and is spilled, it hurts. It hurts our feelings to see, because it’s such a perversion of the American dream to see these people be hunted.
What was the production itself like?
This was one of the ones where we wanted — again, without being a historical drama in any way — to be in a real space, one that did look like the Rio Grande. We wanted it to have as much of a feel of a true crossing as possible. But then we wanted to go to a magical space. The moment where the sinking swimmer sees Christ walking on water, we didn’t want that to be a giggle. We wanted that to be a moment where we actually felt, as a deeply believing Catholic might, that they’ve just come very, very close to the Divine, and that the Divine cares; that the Divine is watching out for you and the Divine will actively reach a hand out to help you survive to reach your dream. Then the Divine, which is an aspect of yourself as much as you are an aspect of it, is then susceptible to the same dangers you are. The Divine’s blood is spilled along with your own. It became very upsetting to watch for us as well, as the anti-immigrant and especially anti-Latin American rhetoric in this country has metastasized. Long quiet racists have become emboldened.
Is there a message you’re hoping reverberates from this sequence?
Empathy is really what it always comes down to. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who thinks hunting Mexicans is anything short of madness is watching this show. But if they hear about it, we hope that they might take a moment to experience empathy for those they blame for their own problems. We’re in a time when people want to externalize their problems and, as humans do, put that blame onto a liminal culture. It’s a tragedy that America has taken it so far and elected someone who campaigned on pronouncing those fears. We seem to have a strange relationship to empathy right now in this country, so if a sequence like this can do anything, it would just be to help people find that again. But again, we have no hopes that anyone who believes like that, who has that much hate in the heart, would be watching a show like this anyway.
The core of this episode involves Vulcan’s America — or as Wednesday says, “their America.” What was your decision tree in how you wanted to depict this gun town?
We made a lot of effort to make sure that Vulcan’s town had a distinct look all its own. We never wanted to say that we think this is what non-coastal America is like. That’s not what we believe and not our point. We wanted to have our own little isolated Stepford bubble that had chosen a certain path. What we did want to do is explore why insularity, as exemplified by gun culture, is compelling to a lot of people. Because it is. We don’t want to say that guns or gun culture are inherently bad. What does seem inherently bad is whenever anyone on either side of any debate believes their answers to questions to be complete, and so they approach conversations with no doubt, no ability to listen, and no empathy. The line that crystallized it for me the most, which is something Mr. Wednesday says in his voiceover as they drive into town, is that it gives them a warm feeling inside to feel that they understand what “true America” looks like. Having an answer is calming. And people are terrified to have the answer they’ve decided is the correct one be challenged. That goes for both sides of any debate. People seem to lose composure and compassion whenever they’re faced with evidence to the contrary of what they have decided to believe. We’ve all read articles that cited studies about how people who believe something erroneously do not change their minds when presented with fact. In fact, being presented with facts to the contrary of your own beliefs only redoubles the erroneous belief. That’s a quirk of human consciousness I’m sure has some sociobiological value, but in terms of debates that might make our country better, it’s certainly not helpful. It doesn’t help people speak to one another. Only yell at each other. Or, worse, shoot.
On a story note, I like how you didn’t code Vulcan as hero nor villain.
For the template of how he should come off in voice and in look, we looked at retired astronauts. Maurice Minnifield from Northern Exposure. A town elder who is respected and wealthy and mayoral in how well people regard him, but also in this town, the boss of the factory that employs everyone. So for a lot of reasons, they worship him. They eat and live by his paychecks, and they’ve all given him their fealty. So it is this very strange Stepford, Twin Peaks-y town that’s just its own odd bubble. And once we get there, color shifts, and everything about it should feel singular and unique to Vulcan’s palette. If Czernobog and the Zorya sisters have an apartment, Vulcan has a town.
We should make something clear: The Vulcan town in American Gods is not meant to be a representation of Birmingham, Alabama, right?
Yeah, it was inspired by that town. The apocryphal story that it was based on is, Neil [Gaiman] traveled to that actual town and was told of a factory where there were a certain number of accidents per year because of a faulty railing, and they never bothered to fix it because an actuarial had done the numbers and it was cheaper to just pay it out than actually shut the factory down for a few days. So, one or two deaths a year… what was a better sacrifice than that? The real shout-out here should go to the Partridge Family and the people who had the licensing for [“C’mon Get Happy”]. We went through a number of possibilities for what that song should be, and you would be shocked at how many rights-holders of happy-go-lucky songs did not want to see someone perish to their deaths terribly to those songs. We got a lot of nos before we got that great yes. It is a wonderful thing when the lawyers responsible for song rights have a sense of humor.
What does it mean to see one god kill another?
I think we’ll find out. And I think the thing that should be kept in mind is, we’re seeing a god die, and that means gods can die. There are different types of deaths for them, but they are not immune to cessation. They can be rendered extinct. It doesn’t mean that the idea of Vulcan is necessarily gone, because he’s still on Wikipedia. But that aspect of him, that manifestation, is no more. And for creatures of concretized ego, that’s a thing.
What does it mean, then, that this town still believes in him?
What I’ll say is, there is a town of people who would very much feel his loss and be interested in avenging it, and there are several cases of cursed bullets.
Lastly, on a lighter note: Salim joining the group with Laura and Sweeney is fun, totally uncharted territory for book fans. What’s your favorite thing you’ve achieved in bringing Salim on this journey?
We love the character of Salim, and we love Omid Abtahi, who plays him. There are a bunch of fun things happening in that triad. First of all, Salim is the only traditionally religious human we come across so far. He is a practicing Muslim man, and he does not believe that his sexuality takes him out of that running. He came out of his struggle with what his sexuality means to some aspects of his religion and came through the other side still a believing practitioner of his faith. That’s a very interesting dynamic. In a way, he has the most boring religious attitude out of everyone because he’s a practicing believer in one of the big religions. The other thing that’s fun about him is, he’s probably the first person we’ve come across that Laura’s nice to. She kind of accidentally finds herself liking him, and as nice as Laura gets, she is nice to him. There’s something to be learned there. They’re both in interesting places. They’re both chasing something that they’ve only touched once, really, and that they fear they’ve lost. They’re both worried that their lives have become about finding someone else, and neither of them are people who feel comfortable outsourcing their happiness to a relationship or to another person. And yet both of them are in a place where they have something left to say, or have a need to come back to a person with whom they are romantically linked. So there’s definitely a kinship there. And the opposite of everyone’s kinship is Mad Sweeney, who doesn’t have any kindness to spare for anyone, really.