There's a lot going on in American Gods. It's possible to spend hours reading about the social commentary in Starz's new, wildly entertaining fantasy series, which doubles as a very timely parable about immigration and race in America.
But while the powerful, almost-ten minute long opening sequence of Episode 2, "The Secret of Spoons," has plenty to say about race — the black trickster god Mr. Nancy persuades a ship full of black slaves headed to the shores of the USA to rise up and burn their enslavers, despite the fact that they too will perish in the flames — perhaps more subtle is the way #AmericanGods deploys Bilquis, the goddess of love.
Episode 2 revisits Bilquis in her boudoir, where this time a montage finds her in the throes of passion with a multitude of partners — men, women, black, white. What intoxicates Bilquis is the act of being worshipped, not the minor details, even if the resulting ecstasy is brief. All are consumed whole by her ever-hungry vagina, and afterward as she lies in bed alone, a tear streams down her face.
On the surface, Bilquis (played by Yetide Badaki, who could probably wear old Uggs and a mustard sweater and still look like the personification of lust) has clearly not been completely stripped of her power — even if there's irony (intended perhaps) in the fact that the goddess of love satisfies her needs with Tinder, which doesn't really deal in love at all.
But the scene that follows paints a lonelier picture. In a room dressed up like a museum filled with ancient artefacts from her own past, Bilquis is confronted with visual evidence that her star has faded. In another lifetime she may have been the Queen of Sheba, an indomitable object of lust and attraction, but times change, and now Bilquis has only memories and a seemingly irrepressible appetite for worship.
The casting of Badaki, a black woman, in a role defined by its sexual agency, feels revolutionary (skin color aside, the fact that such a role exists is in itself pretty unusual). Even on TV, a more liberal landscape than cinema, black women are so often reduced to being the sage, sassy sidekick — you know, the one who offers advice to the hot, white heroine.
But gender and race roles, like gods, are not a thing of fixed power. Talking to The Guardian, Badaki said that "One of the most compelling things about American Gods is that it’s a story about immigration. America is a tapestry and each person who comes in from somewhere else is a new thread." She herself, born in Nigeria, finally became a citizen of the US three years ago, crying "tears of joy" when it happened.
American Gods is paying more than just lip service to the ideological core of Neil Gaiman's story — in this vision of America, gods and mortals alike came here to achieve something. The constant hopping between one state and the next creates a sense of blurred identity, suggesting either everybody who inhabits this land is American, or nobody is. Stir into that potent brew the progressive, unhidden black sexuality of Bilquis, and the result is a TV series far more grounded in truth than its big, fantastical premise might first suggest.
American Gods continues Sundays on Starz.