While premium cable networks have always been a place of rampant violence and sex (because they can!), American Gods didn't take long to make a statement in its first episode: Sex on this show will be weird, and it will be largely symbolic. It happened 25 minutes into the first episode with one of the craziest sex scenes in TV history. The character Bilquis (played by Yetide Badaki) has sex with a stranger she found on the internet. While they're in bed, Bilquis asks the man to worship her, and, as she orgasms, she then devours him into her vagina. It's one of the most famous scenes in American Gods, known to readers as the Orgasm of Death.
The scene plays out a little differently in Neil Gaiman's original novel, however. The man is a scumbag named John, and Bilquis is a prostitute. As the scene is written in the book:
He is inside her to the chest, and as he stares at this in disbelief and wonder she rests both hands upon his shoulders and puts gentle pressure on his body. He slips further inside her ... He feels the lips of her vulva tight around his upper chest and back, constricting and enveloping him. He wonders what this would look like to somebody watching them. He wonders why he is not scared. And then he knows.
While the show changes the man into a more sympathetic online dater and the interaction into a random hook-up, the meaning remains the same. As showrunner Bryan Fuller told Forbes:
It was very important for us to get that in there, so to speak. It was just an instinctive thing that felt iconic to the book and when we put it up on the board, it always felt right. It's the scene that totally land grabs what you're going to be doing. When we talked with Neil [Gaiman] about it later, he said it sounded like the same reasoning for him why he put it in the first 45 pages of the book. As if to say to any potential reader or watcher this is the kind of world where these things happen.
As we've outlined, most of the characters in this show are gods who came to America and are losing their power as people put their faith into technology and media rather than the ancient stories and deities from cultures around the world. Bilquis is the Queen of Sheba, a character described a number of ways in sacred Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts. Though the descriptions vary, the Queen of Sheba is said to have had sex with King Solomon, became pregnant, and raised his firstborn son. She was known to be an irresistible seeker of truth and wisdom, whom Soloman gave "every desire that she expressed."
In this scene, Bilquis represents a version of the Queen of Sheba who draws her power through sex. When the man is proclaiming his faith to her, it's not some sort of sexual fetish—he's literally worshiping Bilquis. She devours him and draws power from his devotion—the reason she looks different at the end of the scene. Their power waning through lack of faith, the gods of old are scattered and scraping a living however they can—in Bilquis's case, having sex with people she meets on the internet.
"At the core of it, there's this very basic need for human connection — to see and really be seen," Badaki told The Hollywood Reporter about the scene:
Bilquis and all of these old gods have fears. Fears of no longer being relevant. Fears of being forgotten. It's very relatable, those ideas. There's this attempt to survive. You see them as extraordinary beings, but they're in ordinary circumstances on their day to day. How do you make a living now? They find themselves in dark places. Sometimes it's worse that they used to know so much beauty and glory, only to find themselves in this situation.
Fuller says he wanted the sexual content of American Gods to explore it in "a sex-positive way the human relationship to our own sexuality." It's a show that both analyzes and challenges how our own culture—and cultures around the world—approach and depict sex. And this is how, throughout this first season, the show will depict sex—it's less about cheap thrills and more as a conduit for serious discussion. This scene, as the creators explained, was an important warning sign to viewers, that sex will be shown often in challenging ways. Or as Fuller put it, the Bilquis scene was about a woman controlling her own sexuality, where the showrunners "can treat sex not just as a means to a cumshot, but as a means to explore what it is to bond and join and physically become one with another human being and leave our individual sense of self behind and become something greater than what we were before we were penetrating or being penetrated or entwined in whatever respect we were going to be entwined with another."
Now, hopefully, you're prepared for what comes next.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.