American Gods



Percy Jackson tries to outrun the shadow of the country.



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{shortcode-be29865d8a9c7908fa05930b7f2d42574eaa573c}n Disney’s version of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” the Empire State Building is the tallest building in New York. This is no longer true in real life — the Twin Towers were taller until September 2001, and One World Trade Center inherited the distinction a decade later — but it’s true in this show, or has to be, because that’s where the gods live.

In fact, all of Mount Olympus has relocated to the (fictional) 600th floor of the Empire State Building. This is the central conceit of the show, which is based on Rick Riordan’s immortal children’s book series of the same name. The first season adapts the first book, “The Lightning Thief,” which was published at the height of the Bush era. Percy Jackson is a troubled 12-year-old living in New York City. When one of his teachers turns out to be a monster and tries to kill him, Percy discovers that he’s a demigod: the son of a Greek god and a human. Percy flees to Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp on Long Island where demigods are protected from monsters. Right before he gets there, his mom, Sally, is killed by the Minotaur, and he spends the rest of the book trying to get her back from the realm of the dead.

At camp, Percy’s father is revealed to be Poseidon, god of the sea. This gives Percy incredible powers, primarily the ability to control and breathe under water; it also makes him a person of interest when Zeus’s master lightning bolt goes mysteriously missing. He teams up with his friend Grover (a satyr) and maybe-crush Annabeth (a demigod daughter of Athena) to go to Los Angeles, where Hades lives. The gods tell our heroes that in the Underworld, they can recover Zeus’s lightning bolt and bring back Percy’s mother. So they embark on a cross-country quest, meeting gods and fighting monsters, trying to unravel the mystery of who is behind all this.

Whether the show is good is beside the point. “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is part of a slate of recent revivals — see Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” or Max’s upcoming “Harry Potter” — aiming to upcycle Gen Z nostalgia into high-budget television. They do not have to be good, only faithful to their source material. Like many adaptations, Disney’s “Percy Jackson” knows what the books did but not always why they did it. As a result, Percy’s quest is a sequence of places and encounters strung together less by logic than vibes. Even this may not be a problem, since what is nostalgia except vibes? A better question is what, exactly, it is that the show is missing.

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{shortcode-69a9ed06c887cb075e6988b5c6d61980cc21c96c}ost of the series’s enduring fandom revolves around Camp Half-Blood. Wouldn’t it be cool to have superpowers and hang out with your demigod friends at summer camp forever? This focus obscures the fact that “The Lightning Thief” fundamentally belongs to the genre of the American road trip novel. Percy and his friends do not just happen to live here; the United States is the beating heart of their journey. Their progress is measured by the landmarks they reach, from the St. Louis Arch to the Las Vegas Strip to the Santa Monica Pier. The books’ signature sense of humor comes mostly from the juxtaposition of mythic Greece and mythic America: Hermes owns an iPod, Medusa owns a burger joint, Hephaestus built Water World. In fact, most of the major players in U.S. history are revealed to have been demigods. George Washington was a son of Athena. Harriet Tubman was a daughter of Hermes.

All of this raises the question: Why are the Greek gods the ones pulling the strings here, anyway? Why not any of the gods Americans believe in today, or any of the gods Americans have ever believed in? In Riordan’s book, Percy asks this of the centaur Chiron, who runs Camp Half-Blood. “Come now, Percy,” Chiron replies. “What you call ‘Western civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force.” The West began in Greece, then moved to Rome, Western Europe, and eventually the United States. America, the centaur continues, “is the heart of the flame.”

Wait, what? This argument would have been easy to make in 2005, as U.S. media closed ranks around not one but two imperial wars — in fact, it probably didn’t even register as an argument. If someone came to you now and claimed that America was the direct inheritor of Greco-Roman “Western civilization,” though, you’d be forgiven for thinking they might be a little fash. Indeed, when you return to the source material, all sorts of nasty things crawl out of the woodwork. Someone who read “Percy Jackson” a decade ago might not remember that Hitler is implied to have been a son of Hades, or that the American Civil War was canonically fought between Greek and Roman demigods — the Union and Confederacy, respectively — over what amounted to a family rivalry.

Well, that’s what happens when you get too close to history, and wisely, the show doesn’t even try. Disney refuses to explain exactly what it is the Greek gods are doing here. This is a difficult position, since it strips the story of its fundamental momentum. But it is also an opportunity: Severed from the yoke of historical imperative, the showrunners have the chance to make something new.

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{shortcode-dd08abb0bb2b02bf4881baaa9fb305566107f8d4}he first glimpse of what a different “Percy Jackson” could look like comes in the third episode, when our heroes are being chased by a Fury through the New Jersey woods. They stumble upon Aunty Em’s Garden Gnome Emporium, a burger joint with a lot of scared-looking statues in the yard. Unlike in the book, Annabeth recognizes immediately that “Aunty Em” is really Medusa, and instead of trying to trick them, Medusa invites them in for lunch. “Percy, don’t,” Annabeth warns him. “She’s a monster.” “We all choose who we make our monsters,” Medusa responds.

What she means, literally, is that she was once a human woman. In the myths, Poseidon rapes Medusa in Athena’s temple, and Athena punishes her for it by turning her into a Gorgon. While the book ignores the specter of rape entirely — there, Medusa refers to Poseidon as her “boyfriend” and Athena as merely “jealous” — the show comes as close as it can to saying it outright. Medusa calls herself a survivor. She tells Percy that she and his mother were “targeted by the same monster”: Percy’s father, Poseidon. Over lunch, she tries to convince Percy and Annnabeth, the children of her two worst enemies, to disavow the gods. They can save Percy’s mom without running errands for Olympus in the process. In any case, what have the gods done for them?

Her suggestion is persuasive because it is nakedly true. The gods are spiteful and reckless. They kill with impunity, abandon their children, and turn sibling rivalries into intercontinental war; it’s hard to argue that any of this makes them better than monsters. Reckoning with this dissonance is a way to reach a fanbase that has largely grown up, and at first, it seems like the show is really going to try. In one of the very first scenes, Percy remembers his mom taking him to the Museum of Modern Art’s Ancient Greece exhibit years ago. Gazing at a statue of the ancient hero Perseus — Percy’s namesake — beheading Medusa, Sally tells him: “Not everyone who looks like a hero is a hero, and not everyone who looks like a monster is a monster.” Indeed, the showrunners and writers — as well as Jessica Parker Kennedy, who plays Medusa — have framed her portrayal as a correction to the record. Medusa is not evil but damaged, struggling to move through a world that has sent dudes named Perseus to kill her for thousands of years. This is necessary, even compelling material. But after a few minutes the showrunners give up and revert to the original plan: Turns out, Medusa is just evil. When she cannot convince Percy to turn on his friends, she attacks him, and the three of them kill her, keeping her severed head for later.

Medusa’s arc is clumsily written and, more to the point, extremely dumb. It’s not quite that she looks like a monster but isn’t — it’s that she doesn’t seem like a monster but is. At least, she dies like one. This version of Medusa gets to be beautiful, sympathetic, and visibly traumatized; none of that stops her from being decapitated by our heroes, or even, the show would suggest, from deserving it.

“Percy Jackson” is at its best when its protagonists learn that they can reject the terms of the world they’ve inherited. In the final book, Percy defeats the titan Kronos and is rewarded by Olympus with the chance to be turned into a god. But Percy refuses. Instead of helping me out more, he says, stop treating your other kids like shit. Identify yourself as their parents and give them a home instead of leaving them to be eaten by harpies and hellhounds. Zeus concedes, and when we return to Camp Half-Blood in the sequel series, it’s bursting with new cabins dedicated to minor gods and their previously unrecognized children. Percy’s is a selfless act, and an instructive one: It demonstrates for us that you don’t have to be a god to reshape the world. So I am arguing that Medusa should be saved. But I am also arguing that she should be able to save herself.

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{shortcode-471488a28f98f055581c84571bdaf7c7378242a3}aved from what? It depends on the direction you look. In the book “Facing East from Indian Country,” the historian Daniel K. Richter makes this argument by way of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The Arch opened in 1967 as a monument to U.S. expansion — the gateway in question leads to the West. But Richter identifies a flaw in its design. It is meant to be viewed “facing west, from the Illinois side of the river. But unless they can walk on water, all who actually visit must approach it the way I looked through it, facing east.” This reorientation lets us see a different America, one whose Native inhabitants discovered Europe when its strange, barbarian people fled to their shores in search of salvation. Unfortunately for Richter, though, we do know someone who can walk on water.

The son of the Sea God arrives at the Gateway Arch on the run. Echidna, the Mother of Monsters, has chased him and his friends there from the train they were on. It turns out the Arch is a monument to Annabeth’s mother, so our heroes take cover in the visitor center. “This is how you show Athena your love,” Annabeth says, enraptured. “A monument to the power of perfection.”

“It’s a monument to some other stuff too,” Grover mutters, looking at the rows of buffalo skulls mounted in the exhibit. The camera lingers awkwardly on a huge painting of European settlers slaughtering buffalo herds, next to a plaque that reads MANIFEST DESTINY.

This exchange is jarring, a tonal shift that’s absent from the book; what has happened is that the writers failed to plan ahead. In Riordan’s novel, the Arch has no mythic significance. Annabeth wants to check it out because she’s an architecture nerd, and Percy is ambushed by Echidna at the top when his friends take a different elevator down. In the Disney version, they’re already running from Echidna, so the show jumps through a series of hoops in order to allow the Arch fight to happen. Now the structure is sacred to Athena, so our heroes flee there; on the elevator up, Annabeth remembers that Athena is mad at her and probably won’t protect them after all; as Annabeth and Grover go back down, Echidna confronts Percy at the top; she burns a hole through the floor and forces him to jump out of it, rendering the whole excursion pointless. Having contorted the plot thusly, the show now has to explain why the Gateway Arch — a monument to westward expansion — is also a monument to Athena.

“You’re talking about what some humans want this place to be about,” Annabeth tells Grover. “I’m talking about what it actually is.” This distinction sounds nice and means nothing. What is a place about, if not what someone believes it to be? Whatever. Grover drops the subject. Percy explains to Annabeth that as a satyr, Grover just “doesn’t like it when people mess with animals.”

Well, what about messing with people? Strangely, the show offers us the painting and the buffalo skulls but makes no effort to contextualize them. After the Civil War, the triumphant Union Army hunted the American bison to the brink of extinction. They did this not to mess with animals in an abstract sense but as part of the larger project of Native genocide, in an attempt to annihilate Plains Indians’ food source and economy. But this would be a hard detail to include in a version of history whose Union Army was led by demigods from Camp Half-Blood. Better not to ask which side of the Indian Wars the gods of Western civilization stood on. This puts the writers in the unenviable position of having to justify U.S. history without being able to describe it, since description would reveal some things as unjustifiable.

The Gateway Arch is a useful example not because it is exceptional but because it is everywhere, once you look. Like the guys in the painting, Percy is moving across America by divine mandate: The prophecy he receives in Camp Half-Blood foretelling his quest literally begins with the line, “You shall go West.” The show’s set design often feels lonely, drifting between CGI landscapes that are dimly lit and sparsely populated. As the demigods get closer to Los Angeles, they get farther from civilization, hitchhiking from an abandoned water park to a liminal casino to the underworld. Even Hades’s realm does not look like conventional depictions of Hell but rather like the vast, open desert. I do not mean to suggest that anyone involved with “Percy Jackson” meant to tell a story about the frontier. But they wanted to tell a story about America. Some stains, Medusa would tell them, are hard to wash out.

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{shortcode-429a20a43b31c14ee603587b9f7215faac9b0e1d}or all its talk of good and evil, the book’s most convincing moral argument comes after the quest is over and Zeus’s lightning bolt has been returned. Percy goes home to his Manhattan apartment and tries to explain where he’s been to his furious stepfather Gabe. When his mom tries to defend him, Percy realizes from her body language that Gabe has been beating her: Turns out there’s still one monster left to deal with. Sally pulls Percy into his room and he hands her Medusa’s severed head. Weeks later at camp, she sends him a letter. Gabe has mysteriously vanished, his mother writes, and as it happens, she just sold a life-size statue of him to an art collector.

Percy’s stepfather is a cartoon villain: coarse, ugly, and smelly. That he meets a similarly cartoonish end does a good job of hiding that we have just read a story about a woman killing her abuser and getting away with it. Not only that, we have read a story about a woman who does so by literally wielding the body of another survivor. It’s the darkest, most revelatory moment in the book — hard to believe it could have been smuggled into a work for children, unless you are willing to give children more credit than many people do. Disney certainly isn’t. The show’s Gabe is annoying but not explicitly abusive, and he is spared the indignity of dying by his wife’s hand. Instead, he opens the box with Medusa’s head in it out of nosiness, is turned to stone by mistake, and that’s the end of that.

To put it gently, this is a baffling change. Sally has been an object for the entire season, suspended in golden light by Hades at the moment she is killed by the Minotaur. Now that she has been liberated, why not have her act on it? Well, as she told her son, not everyone who looks like a hero gets to be one; anyway, Medusa was a survivor too. Of course, Medusa drew this comparison explicitly, but the pilot episode makes it as well. We see the two women for the first time together, when a shot of the statue of Medusa’s severed head in the MoMA cuts to a shot of Sally from the shoulders down, headless. If one of them gets free, the camera seems to suggest, so should the other. Or so should we all.

The questions the show wants to ask about who is or is not a monster poke at a deeper, fundamentally American concern. Who can be saved? With what tools are they permitted to save themselves? By design, these questions have no answers, which is to say that “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” cannot risk real vengeance. Too much is at stake: the fans, the shareholders, the past, the country. But it is still worth considering what form such a risk would take. It might look like Echidna burning a hole in the Gateway Arch, or Medusa cultivating her garden of statues. Viewed another way, it might look like freedom.


— Magazine writer Bea Wall-Feng can be reached at bea.wall-feng@thecrimson.com. Follow them @wallfeng.