[Ed. note: This article contains some spoilers for American Gods and Trickster.]
Fiction is full of heroes whose journey begins when they learn they have inherited power from parents they never knew. From Arthur Curry learning he is the heir of Atlantis to Harry Potter studying wizardry at his parents’ alma mater, stories about “children of powerful parents” usually set their main characters on the path of great adventures that are dangerous could, but mostly allow, improve their lives and the world.
These narratives create a kind of magical eugenics that makes power and the right to use them a gift to certain groups or families. The idea that your boring life could be shaken by learning that you have a secret line is an appealing escapist fantasy, but it also urges the protagonists to make choices on their parents’ choices, possibly even before the protagonists are even born. Their journey requires them to accept their parents’ lives and follow their paths.
Two recent shows have given this classic archetype a twist by turning supernatural inheritance into a curse rather than the usual mixed blessing. Starz American gods and the CW’s recently canceled Canadian series Scammers Both depict manipulative, abusive fathers who want to ruin or end their sons’ lives. They urge the children to grapple with their complicated legacies on their own, arguing that they would probably be better off without their fathers and gifts.
Neither American gods‘Shadow Moon or ScammersJared’s are in good positions when their shows begin. Shadow (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison after a botched casino heist. Jared (Joel Oulette) is probably even worse. He tries to support his parents by making ecstasy and selling while attending high school and working in a fast food restaurant. His family situation is already extremely complicated. His mother Maggie owes her drug dealer Richie so much that he threatens both of them. Jared’s father, Phil, is a recovering oxycontin addict who has just learned that h is girlfriend is pregnant.
Then it gets worse. Shadow loses his wife and his planned job after incarceration at the same time as he works with his best friend when a car accident kills them both. When they found out they were having an affair, she just poured salt on the wound. In this state of desperation, he works for Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), from whom he finally learns that he is the Norse god Odin, the architect of his misfortune, and his father.
It turns out that Wednesday’s car accident ensured his son had nothing to lose, making him more of a loyal bodyguard and soldier in the coming war between the old gods of mythology and the new ones representing abstract concepts like media made and technology. He is a master manipulator who plays with the emotions of almost everyone he encounters in order to win them over to his cause. He left Shadow’s mother and didn’t help his son when she died of cancer, but now that he needs Shadow he won’t let him go.
Odin is a pretty classic charismatic offender. The climax of the second season of American gods is an episode depicting Odin’s betrayal of his perfectly divine son Thor, aka Donar Odinson. Hoping to benefit from the worship his son might get from becoming a famous strong man, he urged him to work with Nazis. When Donar tried to run away with the woman he loved, another divine performer in cabaret on Wednesday, Wednesday sabotaged their romance and assaulted his own son. American godsSeason three begins similarly when Shadow finally found peace, only to disrupt his life by Wednesday’s request to move to a small, cold town for reasons Wednesday won’t even explain.
Shadow’s divine inheritance gives him prophetic visions. It also brings him a ton of powerful enemies and warnings from almost everyone he encounters that Wednesday’s work will not be good for him. If the show stays true to the plot of Gaiman’s book, things will likely get worse for Shadow. Unfortunately, the season 3 show is a meandering mess that is constantly plunging into flashbacks and subplots that undermine this central conflict.
Scammers, based on Eden Robinson’s Trickster book series, is more focused and nuanced when it comes to dealing with family luggage. Jared’s real father turns out to be Phil’s old friend Wade (Kalani Queypo), who drives back to town on a cute motorcycle, enormous bragging rights and dangerous charisma. He offers Jared to improve his life as it continues to spiral out of control due to conflicts with Maggie and Richie.
But Maggie isn’t a victim, and Wade is even more dangerous than Wednesday. Maggie is a witch who used her powers to kill Wade when he was trying to steal her newborn ba by. But Wade could not be killed because he is an almost immortal old shapeshifter who has shirked his responsibility to maintain the balance between the mystical forces of the world – a duty that requires him to die at the hands of his son.
Complementing the Oedipal theme is the fact that Wade’s powers literally wane as Jared’s grows. As soon as Jared begins to manifest his own shapeshifting powers and the ability to recover from almost any wound, Wade begins to weaken. This is supposed to be the natural process by which a father gives what he can to his son and then moves on, but Wade refuses to walk gently even after living many normal lifetimes.
Many narratives present the family in rather rosy terms, depicting parents who would do anything to protect and care for their children. Harry Potter’s parents sacrificed themselves to protect him, and Aquaman’s mother left him on the surface to keep him a secret from those in Atlantis who would kill him. But Scammers is exceptional in its brutal honesty about parent abuse and neglect and how sometimes children have to take care of themselves, even if they are all that keeps their parents afloat.
Maggie’s mother was an abusive alcoholic who left her and Jared, and these scars affect her ability to be a good mother. She will do anything to protect Jared, but she also regularly ignores his wishes and leaves him to solve serious problems. Phil loves Jared too, but he’s basically the kid in their relationship, depending on Jared’s money to survive. Wade makes himself seem like a better parent than either of them – he could save Jared from his miserable situation. But he feels nothing but hostility towards his offspring because they are a symbol of his own mortality.
A contrast to Jared: Sarah, a foster girl who behaves so that she can be brought home from home and uses the removals to look for her real parents. If Jared has a panic attack in class, she suggests running away together and giving up all of his chores. But he refuses, bound by practical and supernatural considerations. It’s a powerful comment on how family can be a source of strength, but it can also keep us from leading better lives. This concept is in direct contrast to the normal supernatural family narrative where a powerful family is the germ that leads to anything you ever wanted, including love, friendships, wealth, and power.
Wednesday and Wade both claim they must hold on to their power to achieve a greater good. in the American godsIt’s about damaging the new gods who want to dismantle humanity for more worship. Wade’s claim in Scammers is more complicated – he thinks he should be allowed to live because it is a repository of knowledge that would otherwise be lost due to the atrocities committed against Canada’s indigenous peoples. But it doesn’t seem to be important to Wade to share these traditions. His equally long-lived enemies seem more willing to pass on lost lore to those who would help put the trickster in his place.
These kinds of father-son conflicts don’t just exist Scammers or American gods. Luke Skywalker inherited his father’s ability to use the Force and used that power to defeat Darth Vader in battle, although his greatest strength was actually the compassion and compassion that kept him from actually killing his father and acting on the Dark side to fall. Scammers goes a similar way. Jared knows that Wade is a monster that certainly deserves to be killed, but he’s determined to find a way to help everyone without actually harming Wade. It’s unfortunate that the show’s cancellation means we can’t see on-screen whether Jared can succeed. American gods still pulling behind. Shadow hates Wednesday, but the best he can do to stop him is to ignore his calls.
Magical inheritance narratives are problematic in that they tend to enforce a view of the world where genetics is fate, and some families literally have a divine right to power. Stories like American gods and Scammers Take a more critical look at the tropics by recognizing that parents are not always benevolent or even capable of salvation, and that children should not be forced to follow the paths their parents set for them.
Shadow and Jared both receive supernatural powers from their fathers, but those skills don’t make their lives better. They are more of a burden and a reminder of their terrible aftermath of betrayal and violence. Both Wednesday and Wade may think that they blessed their sons by allowing them to exist as part of powerful bloodlines. And both seem to believe that their sons owe them something. But they refuse to give them the greatest power a parent can offer: the agency to lead their own lives.
American gods Season 3 is Streaming on Starz. Seasons 1 and 2 can be rented or purchased digitally on various streaming platforms. Scammers will continue to be streamed The CW website.