As AMERICAN GODS closes out its first season, it’s difficult to see the eight-episode run as anything other than a viewer’s dream. It’s impossible to find a weak episode, and the series has given a voice to groups that have often suffered from poor representation. On top of that, despite landing solidly in the fantasy genre, AMERICAN GODS manages to deliver a strong sense of realism and several historically sound messages. The series has never shied away from showing the ugly side of America — whether through Anansi’s (or Mr. Nancy’s, if you’d like) all-too-justified raging about racism, the town of Vulcan’s gun obsession, or even just the air of faithlessness that’s created the series’ central conflict between the Old Gods and New — but it’s managed to include a lot of surprisingly fun moments, too. With a little bit of something for everyone, it’s almost as if AMERICAN GODS was created by Media Herself.
But then, what exactly might that mean? For as many stories as AMERICAN GODS has told and as many answers as viewers may have earned by the end of “Come to Jesus” — even if some, like Odin’s actual name, have been staring us in the face for weeks — Media’s actual identity might remain the biggest mystery of all.
Mentions of Media bring to mind the characters she’s embodied: Lucy Ricardo, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Marilyn Monroe, and even an EASTER PARADE-era Judy Garland. But who is she underneath it all? And if Media is to thank for bringing AMERICAN GODS to viewers, what is she trying to tell us? Other than the worship that any god craves, what does Media want from us? Interestingly enough, while expanding on the character of Media by giving her a far greater presence in the series than in its source material, AMERICAN GODS leaves that question wholly unanswered.
In a press sheet from Starz, listing AMERICAN GODS character descriptions, Media is described as follows: “A master of manipulation, Media assumes whatever form will deliver her message most effectively. And unlike some of her fellow New Gods, she favors persuasion over brute force.” Somehow, though, this does little — if anything — to describe the character that’s been expertly brought to life by Gillian Anderson.
Anderson, and by extension Media, is able to slip so seamlessly into the goddess’ chosen pop culture icons that it’s often difficult to remember that there are a minimum of two layers of imitation going into them. David Bowie did not have a conversation with Technical Boy. An actress, portraying a goddess, impersonating Bowie did. The same could be said for Media’s appearances before Shadow Moon (as Lucy Ricardo and Marilyn Monroe); and then there’s the triply-complex visit to celebrate Easter: award-winning actress Gillian Anderson, as Media, as award-winning actress Judy Garland, at least dressed as her EASTER PARADE character (Hannah Brown).
(Let’s all pause to ask how any of that was even possible.)
Media, like the actress who took on the ridiculously complicated task of becoming her, is nothing if not talented. That might be the only one of Media’s traits that AMERICAN GODS makes abundantly clear…but what else is Media made of?
The goddess’ terrifyingly calm David Bowie and proud, defiant stand-off with Odin in AMERICAN GODS’ season finale would both suggest that she’s one of the most self-confident, tough gods in America. Certainly, she has plenty of ardent worshippers, which should give her plenty of power. But if that’s the case, if that’s who Media is — one of the most powerful amongst the already powerful — why does she work for Mr. World, rather than running the show herself? More importantly, why doesn’t she simply appear before others as whoever it is that lives underneath of all of those iconic characters; and why do her masks slip so easily?
Is it possible that Media’s grasp on power is just as tenuous as that of Odin’s — maybe even moreso? For every American who devotes all of their time to sitting in front of the television or going to the movies, there’s another who couldn’t care less or — probably worse — hates the entertainment industry for all of its supposedly brain-rotting influence. And then there are so many of us constantly criticizing the media. After all, the media usually tells us what we want to hear, but sometimes? Not so much. In those situations, the utter loathing is at a far higher scale than any previous worship.
If that doesn’t have an affect on Media Herself, there has got to be some sort of plot hole involved. It would stand to reason, then, that Media has become that “master manipulator” referred to in the press sheet out of pure necessity. She must tell the right story, keeping the audience satisfied.
Otherwise, she’s toast.
There could be other reasons for Media’s constantly changing face, too. Maybe, much like many devoted fans of pop culture, Media relies on fictional characters to fill some sort of emptiness in herself. Looking at her chosen characters (at least so far), everybody is dead and gone. Is she paying tribute to a time when she wasn’t spread so thinly that it was impossible to keep up? Or to a time when she maybe had the chance to rest, rather than getting swept up in this pesky war?
Another alternative: Maybe all of Media’s theatrics are simply a means to compensate for a lack of true confidence. That defiance in the face of all of Mr. Wednesday’s ranting might have been yet another bit of acting.
It’s evident, whenever Media fails to deliver her message, that there’s at least the tiniest bit of insecurity in this otherwise powerful goddess’ psyche. There’s always that voice change, that touch of a fidget, when she’s shot down. When Shadow Moon refuses to take her offer to switch teams, it’s the subtlest of changes. Later, when Odin delivers an even stronger denial of her flashy rebranding pitch, it’s far more prominent. And when, in AMERICAN GODS’ finale, Media is on the verge of being betrayed by her supposed friend, the change is the most obvious of all. With each passing sign that her power is not as great as she might want it to be, Media’s hold on her chosen identity falters. The degree to which she loses her grasp seems to depend on some combination of the scale of the loss and — possibly — the level to which that loss is a personal one.
Media is capable of being wounded and still able to be shocked, just like anyone else. By the time AMERICAN GODS closes out its first season, her carefully constructed myths are beginning to unravel. Does that mean that she is, in any way, truly weak? Definitely not. First of all, anyone who can knock out an arrogant millennial’s teeth by blowing him a kiss is a force to be reckoned with. Secondly, she’s successfully rebranded two gods that we know of, Vulcan and Ostara. And her ability to choose the right persona to appear as in every situation is a sign of both great intelligence and an immense capacity for empathy. She gets people, and her aversion to violence means she cares — or at least wants to give the impression that she does.
Now, if only we could get past all of the illusions and finally find out who Media was in her earliest days, as well as what caused her to suddenly want to be someone — anyone — else. When AMERICAN GODS returns for its second season, Media’s origin story might be one of the biggest mysteries the series needs to solve. Then again, if AMERICAN GODS is brought to us by Media, will we ever know the real truth; or will it just be yet another masterfully crafted, entertaining marketing tool from Her?
AMERICAN GODS will return for a second season on Starz.