[Ed. note: This article contains some spoilers for American Gods and Trickster.]
Fiction is filled with heroes whose journey begins when they learn that they’ve inherited power from parents they never knew. From Arthur Curry learning he’s the heir to Atlantis to Harry Potter going to study wizardry at his parents’ alma mater, “child of powerful parents” stories usually put their central characters on the path to great adventures that might be dangerous, but mostly let them improve their lives and the world.
Those narratives create a sort of magical eugenics, making power and the right to wield it a gift of certain groups or families. While the idea that your boring life could be shaken up by learning you have a secret lineage is an appealing escapist fantasy, it also pushes agency off the protagonists’ decisions and onto the choices their parents made, possibly even before the protagonists were born. Their journey requires them to embrace the lives their parents lived and follow in their paths.
Two recent shows put a twist on that classic archetype, though, by making supernatural inheritances more of a full-on curse than the usual mixed blessing. Starz’s American Gods and the CW’s recently cancelled Canadian series Trickster both feature manipulative, abusive dads out to ruin or end their sons’ lives. They push the kids to come to terms with their complicated legacy themselves, and argue they’d probably be better off without their dads and their gifts.
Neither American Gods’ Shadow Moon or Trickster’s Jared are in good positions when their shows start. Shadow (Ricky Whittle) is about to get out of prison following a botched casino robbery. Jared (Joel Oulette) is arguably even worse off, trying to support his parents by making and selling ecstasy while also attending high school and working at a fast-food restaurant. His family situation is already extremely complicated. His mom, Maggie, is so in debt to her drug dealer, Richie, that he’s started threatening both of them. Jared’s dad, Phil, is a recovering oxycontin addict who just learned his girlfriend is pregnant.
Then things get worse. Shadow simultaneously loses his wife and his planned post-incarceration job working with his best friend when a car accident kills them both. Discovering the two were having an affair just pours salt in the wound. In this state of desperation, he winds up working for Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who he eventually learns is the Norse god Odin, the architect of his misfortune, and his father.
Wednesday, it turns out, arranged for the car crash to ensure his son had nothing to lose, making him more likely to be a loyal bodyguard and soldier in the coming war between the old gods of mythology and the new ones representing abstract concepts like media and technology. He’s a master manipulator, playing on the emotions of almost everyone he meets to try to enlist them to his cause. He abandoned 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 abuser. The highlight of season 2 of American Gods is an episode showing Odin’s betrayal of his fully divine son Thor, aka Donar Odinson. Hoping to benefit from the worship his son could gain from becoming a famous strongman, he pushed him to work with Nazis. When Donar tried to run away with the woman he loved, another divine performer in Wednesday’s cabaret, Wednesday sabotaged their romance and attacked his own son. American Gods’ third season starts on a similar note, with Shadow having finally found peace, only to have his life interrupted by Wednesday’s demands that he move to a small, frigid town, for reasons Wednesday won’t even explain.
Shadow’s godly heritage gives him prophetic visions. It also brings him a host of powerful enemies, and warnings from just about everyone he meets that working with Wednesday won’t go well for him. If the show remains faithful to the plot of Gaiman’s book, things are likely to get even worse for Shadow. Unfortunately, in season 3, the show is a meandering mess, constantly diving into flashbacks and side plots that detract from this central conflict.
Trickster, based on Eden Robinson’s Trickster book series, is more focused and nuanced in its themes about dealing with family baggage. Jared’s actual father turns out to be Phil’s old friend Wade (Kalani Queypo), who cruises back into town with a sweet motorcycle, enormous swagger, and dangerous charisma. He offers to help Jared improve his life as it continues to spiral out of control, thanks to conflicts with Maggie and Richie.
But Maggie is no victim, and Wade is even more dangerous than Wednesday. Maggie’s a witch who used her powers to kill Wade when he tried to steal their newborn baby. But Wade couldn’t be killed, because he’s a nearly immortal ancient shapeshifter who’s been dodging his responsibility to maintain balance among the world’s mystical powers — a duty that requires him to die at his son’s hands.
Adding to the oedipal theme is the fact that Wade’s powers literally wane as Jared’s grows. Once Jared begins manifesting his own shapeshifting powers and the ability to recover from almost any wound, Wade starts to weaken. This is supposed to be the natural process of a father passing on what he can to his son and then moving on, but Wade refuses to go gently, even after living many normal lifetimes.
Many narratives present family in fairly rosy terms, showing parents who would do anything to protect and care for their kids. 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 Trickster is exceptional in its brutal honesty about parental abuse and neglect, and how sometimes children must take care of themselves, even if they’re all that’s keeping their parents afloat.
Maggie’s mom was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned her and Jared, and those scars affect her ability to be a good mom. She’ll do anything to protect Jared, but she also regularly ignores his wishes and leaves him to handle serious problems. Phil also loves Jared, but he’s basically the child in their relationship, depending on Jared’s money to survive. Wade makes himself seem like a better parent than either — he could sweep in and save Jared from his wretched situation. But he feels nothing but hostility for his offspring, because they’re a symbol of his own mortality.
One contrast to Jared: Sarah, a girl in foster care who’s been acting out so she can be moved from home to home, and use the moves to search for her real parents. When Jared has a panic attack in class, she suggests running off together and abandoning all of his responsibilities. But he declines, bound by practical and supernatural considerations. It’s a powerful commentary about how family may be a source of strength, but it can also hold us back from living better lives. That concept is directly opposed to the normal supernatural family narrative, where a powerful family is the seed that leads to everything you’ve ever wanted, including love, frends, riches, and power.
Wednesday and Wade both claim they need to hold onto their power for some greater good. In American Gods, it’s to stop the New Gods, who seem to want to mine humanity for more worship, in damaging ways. Wade’s claim in Trickster is more complicated — he contends he should be allowed to live because he’s a repository for knowledge that would otherwise be lost, because of the atrocities that have been committed against Canada’s indigenous peoples. Yet Wade doesn’t actually seem to care about sharing those traditions. His equally long-lived enemies seem to be more willing to pass on lost lore to those who would help put the Trickster in his place.
These sorts of father-son conflicts aren’t unique to Trickster or American Gods. Luke Skywalker inherited his father’s ability to use the Force and used that power to defeat Darth Vader in battle, though his greatest strength was actually the compassion and mercy that kept him from actually killing his father and falling to the Dark Side. Trickster walks a similar path. Jared knows Wade is a monster who certainly deserves to be killed, but he’s determined to find a way to help everyone without actually hurting Wade. It’s unfortunate that the show’s cancellation means we won’t see onscreen whether Jared can succeed. American Gods is still dragging behind. Shadow hates Wednesday, but the most he’s considered doing to stop him is ignoring his calls.
Magical inheritance narratives are problematic in that they tend to enforce a view of the world where genetics are destiny, and some families literally have a divine right to power. Stories like American Gods and Trickster provide a more critical look at the trope by acknowledging that parents aren’t always benevolent or even capable of redemption, and that children shouldn’t be forced to follow the paths that their parents have set for them.
Shadow and Jared both gain supernatural powers from their fathers, but those abilities don’t let them improve their lives. They’re more of a burden, and a reminder of their terrible legacies of betrayal and violence. Both Wednesday and Wade may think they’ve blessed their sons by permitting them to exist as part of powerful bloodlines. And they both seem to think their sons owe them as a result.. But they refuse to give them the greatest power a parent can provide: the agency to live their own lives.