When Neil Gaiman published American Gods in 2001, Donald Trump was still a Democrat supporter and a celebrity businessman with hilarious bit-parts in Zoolander and Home Alone 2. Even when screenwriters Bryan Fuller and Michael Green took on the mammoth task of adapting the novel for TV back in 2014, the idea of Apprentice host Trump running for president was a joke. Ha ha!
But nobody was laughing by the time American Gods finally made its on-screen debut. The new Republican president with his thatch of combed-forward blonde hair was firmly installed in the White House, firing out bizarre tweets and issuing Muslim Bans and bellowing “Make America Great Again” at every opportunity.
Against this backdrop, the Starz and Amazon Prime series has gained a greater political edge. This is particularly true when it comes to new character Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanoes and metalworking.
Unique among the old gods, he has found a way to prosper by using a modern invention: the gun. How? Vulcan explains in episode six: “I’ve franchised my faith. You are what you worship: god of the volcano. Those who worship hold a volcano in the palm of their hand. It’s filled with prayers in my name. The power of fire is firepower, not god but god-like. And they believe. It fills their spirits every time they pull the trigger.”
Vulcan now runs a munitions factory at the heart of a Virginia town. “Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theatre is a prayer in my name. And that prayer makes them want to pray even harder,” he tells Mr Wednesday.
This addition to the plot – dreamed up by Gaiman himself as part of the TV adaptation – was always intended as a comment on America’s obsession with guns. But in the age of Trump it has become something more, and that’s not because Vulcan is a Trump-like figure (he isn’t, really) but because of his followers.
The inhabitants of Vulcan, Virginia stare with suspicion at mixed-race Shadow as he arrives in town. An old woman clutches her gun tighter and watches him with beaded eyes. Their insularity and fear translates into worship of the Big Boss of the town, who offers them a funny kind of reassurance. He’s a capitalist god! And he’s there to help them!
Even if his factory isn’t the safest and he lets a couple of people a year fall to their deaths in molten metal (human sacrifice, you see), they still love him. The funeral itself becomes a celebration of sacrifice, a chance to draw ever closer together.
As he drives into Vulcan through streets lined with US flags and signs reading “faith, family freedom”, Mr Wednesday explains it best: “Everyone in this particular town is a dedicated citizen. Dedicated to one sticky belief: America. Their America. There aren’t just two Americas: everybody looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face. Even if it crumbles under question. People will defend the warm, safe feeling their America gives them. They will defend it – with bullets.”
The scene may have been written and filmed before Trump’s reign began, but that doesn’t mean the new US president was absent from the showrunners’ minds as they sat down in the edit room.
“We were going to meet him and hear him speak after a funeral,” Green told The Wrap as he explained how Vulcan would be introduced into the series. “The majority of the footage had his town of worshippers in funeral expressions and funeral clothes, but we ended up favouring footage that showed them listening to their god with a sense of euphoria.
“And we realised we were looking at something that looked a bit like a Trump rally.”
A Trump rally in 2015
Speaking to The Independent, Fuller added: “We’d shot a lot of stuff pre-Trump winning the election and then after that we were in the editing suite and watching some scenes and Michael and I were just looking at each other… these scenes suddenly meant so much more than they did pre-Trump.”
Perhaps the story of Vulcan and his town-ful of worshippers feels quite so political because, by this point in the series, American Gods has built up into a show with a particular worldview that is so different from Trump’s.
Gaiman’s story of immigrant gods has always explored themes of belonging, of identity and rejection, of living on the edges of society. The novel favoured empathy over harsh judgement. But in response to a complaint from a disgruntled reader, the author tweeted:
I don't think we preach. And we didn't think we were making a politically relevant show, just adapting a book about immigrants and America. https://t.co/rDs01LayK6
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) March 12, 2017
Sure, Gaiman, Fuller and Green may not have intended to make a “politically relevant show”.
But as America pulls in different directions and lurches to the right, any show tackling the weighty themes of gun culture and immigration – or featuring an insular town which worships its manipulative figurehead – has a new political resonance. And that makes the series more powerful than ever.
American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes added every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights