Guests come to visit with presents for their hosts. Worshippers leave offerings for their Gods. It’s never bad practice to come bearing gifts, but on American Gods, where hosts can be gods, are you also required to believe?
In the opening scene, a man (Conphidance) asks Anansi (Orlando Jones) for help with the promise, “Help me from this place and I will sing to you all my life.” On a slave ship to America in 1647, the man is being held in chains but his lament is not having the means to extend more gifts to Anansi. That’s not an obligation. That’s believing, and in return, Anansi speaks to them in English and gives them a sneak peek at a future where they are identified as black.
When Wednesday gives Shadow a list of gifts to buy at the store for Czernobog (Peter Stormare) and the Zorya sisters (Cloris Leachman, Martha Kelly, Erika Kaar), each item is chosen personally but with motives that surpass and – for Shadow – resist belief. Everyone, from Wednesday to Lucy Ricardo, keeps telling Shadow to take his time, it’s his decision, but Shadow’s decisions were taken away when he accepted Wednesday’s job offer. What he wants to believe, and what he’s going to believe, aren’t the same thing.
Even his one act of ‘rebellion’ is a lie. Wednesday commends Shadow for being able to read a list but, from his reaction to Shadow’s cell phone purchase, Shadow took the liberty of adding an item. Protesting that they need a phone so people can reach them, Wednesday responds by throwing the phone, plus Shadow’s phone, out the moving car window. The odd part is neither Shadow’s defense or Wednesday’s reaction refer to the list that is in dispute. If they did, they might notice that, among the other items, is a note to buy “two cell phones.” The handwriting is the same. We saw Wednesday give Shadow the list. If Shadow should be admonished, it’s for buying the wrong amount.
Why have Wednesday pretend he didn’t ask for two phones, and why have Shadow not contest it? Increasingly worn down, Shadow’s stopped imagining a better future for himself and you can see that in his growing resolve to the strange world he’s been hired into. He’s taken on Anansi’s philosophy, down to the obscenity: “I think that we’re all fucked anyway…,” and lets himself get roped into a game of checkers that’s to-the-death out of indifference.
Playing against Czernobog, where the other Gods flaunt charm and personality, Shadow and Czernobog are men of craft, which makes them an even match. It’s during this game that the discussion turns back to skin color. Just as we never saw any of the white slave owners on the ship Anansi visited, we never meet Czernobog’s brother, Belobog, who is known as the white – or good one. Czernobog is the black, or evil one. These are the bookend scenes of the episode but both make different associations between color and morality. On the slave ship, white is a color of cruelty. On Belobog, white is angelic. As Czernobog’s story ends with him and his brother both old and grey, color can be linked to anything yet gets so much hate stacked upon it. Czernobog understands the hypocrisy but, in equal measure, wants to hit Shadow with his hammer because he misses killing cows. For gods that want to be believed in again, they don’t make a convincing platform.