This article contains massive spoilers for the climax of the American Gods novel, as well as spoilers for the first season and speculation about the Starz series going forward. Read at your own risk.
Like all good adaptations from literature to television, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s gorgeously rendered version American Gods has made many changes from the original text that Neil Gaiman first wrote in 2001. Some are small, like the Technical Boy’s more stylish appearance or the Irish accent Mad Sweeney now speaks with. Others, like the expanded presence of the various female characters, fundamentally change the story in ways beyond what’s contained in the book — and arguably for the better, in some respects. But so far, the biggest alteration of all isn’t the added storyline for Laura Moon, or the way the show’s updated its aesthetic for a 2017 audience; it’s the fact that Mr. World, the enigmatic leader of the New Gods, is even a character in the damn thing. In giving Mr. World some actual facetime, the show had to practically create a God from scratch, and the way in which he manifests says interesting things about American anxieties over its place in the world.
When I say the show creates a God in Mr. World, it’s not really an exaggeration: in the book, Mr. World barely registers as a character except to occasionally menace our heroes from the shadows. We hear more about him from the point of view of one of his lackeys, Mr. Town, than we actually see him; his first appearance is three hundred pages into the book, and his back is turned to the camera that’s broadcasting him so Shadow never sees his face (although he thinks his voice is familiar). Then, it’s another hundred pages until we see him again, and by the end of the book it’s clear that there’s something different going on entirely with him. The show’s adaptation of Mr. World is obviously much more visible than his literary counterpart; we’ve already seen his face, although we know it’s capable of shifting.
From the arch monologues he delivers to Shadow and Wednesday, we know a few key things about him; he’s against the idea of the “rugged individualist,” which happens to be the single most defining aspect of the national American identity. When he’s making his pitch, he sounds like the narrator in a dated exhibit about modern innovation, but with a malevolent edge that’s more Fallout than World Of Tomorrow. He considers himself a global capitalist, and cares more about a product’s success than its usefulness. “Ultimately everything is all systems interlaced.” he explains. “A single product manufactured by a single company for a single global market. Spicy, medium, or chunky! They get a choice, of course! But they are buying salsa.” Most troubling, he knows everything and records everything, which suggests he has some connection to the data mining and mass surveillance that’s currently utilized by internet corporations. Or maybe it’s just a symptom of his interest in “systems.” Either way, he’s scary in the way that a world without Net Neutrality is scary, or a mysterious government organization spying on our phone calls is scary. He’s that feeling at the base of your stomach when you realize that almost everything on your supermarket’s shelves are manufactured by the same handful of companies.
Basically, he’s Big Brother from 1984 and Henry Ford from Brave New World and Lex Luthor all at once. And yet, none of these ideas really coalesce into a specific portrait of an individual deity. True, Ancient Gods often exhibit different and sometimes contradictory powers — Odin, for example, is a god of healing and death, of war and poetry. But Media and Technical Boy are derived from a specific type of innovation, so their abilities and personalities are very finely tuned to the traits inherent to those mediums. Media is flashy and cares about her message; Technical Boy is a genius, but arrogant and emotionally stunted. Mr. World is… just sort of creepy, I guess. Even his name is vague. He’s the God of… the world?
Of course, there is a very simple (and very spoilery, final warning) explanation in the book as to why Mr. World’s true nature is so slippery: because he’s not Mr. World, or even a New God, at all. As we learn in the climax of the novel, he is actually Loki in disguise, who’s running a very long and elaborate con with Mr. Wednesday to pit Gods against one another and feed off the ensuing battle, which would be dedicated to Odin. “It’s not about sides,” he says to Laura. “But since you asked, I’m on the winning side. Always. It’s what I do best.” It’s because of Mr. World’s inevitable betrayal that I wonder if his powers are meant to be intentionally vague — not just so that he can represent all of our anxieties about modern life at once, but because his true nature is trickery.
Mr. World’s ultimate role is to be a convincing enough antagonist to rally the Old Gods against him, as well as a convincing enough leader to rally the New Gods to him. More than any other character in American Gods, he’s not real — he’s a means to an end. Then again, perhaps not. Like I said, TV shows change things in adaptation all the time, and maybe the showrunners have something else planned for Mr. World. Given the brilliance of that twist ending and the way it perfectly encapsulates Odin’s bloodthirsty, self-serving nature, however, I’m inclined to say that it should remain intact. What Mr. World will become in the meantime, though, will be exciting new territory that’s worth keeping an eye on.