American Gods: Treasure of the Sun

"That’s what the world does. It changes."

I wasn't ready for that.

Should have been. But wasn't.

Let's not dance around the issue in any way and get the sort-of-spoiler out in the open right up front. Last chance to turn away.

So, Mad Sweeney appears to die at the end of this week's episode.

This shouldn't really count as a spoiler, as the episode itself did everything it could possibly do to make us all aware that it was going to happen. They laid the funeral atmosphere on this one with a trowel. The presence of banshees that only Sweeney could hear was just the cherry on top of the great big farewell sundae.

Last season they devoted the entire penultimate episode to telling us the story of Essie MacGowan, which tangentially also told us the story of Mad Sweeney. As a mystical being, Sweeney's background was left very much vague there, and he was really only seen through the frame of reference that Essie saw him through. And it was one of the best episodes of anything, ever, so if you haven't watched it lately you should totally go do that as soon as you finish reading this review. This approach worked very well for Sweeney, since being unsure about his backstory and all the contradictory possible pasts that he possesses are kind of the point of the character.

He's a very quantum god, only being able to be seen through a vague mist of probabilities and attitude.

This week promised in advance to finally fill in the backstory of Mad Sweeney, and I confess that I was a little disappointed that they were going there, since any concrete backstory that we get will never be as good as the possible stories we have in our heads. Imagine, then, my surprise when they doubled down on the whole 'contradictory pasts' thing and made that the whole point of the character.

We've had unreliable narrators before. Here we get what might be described as an unreliable protagonist. Any of the stories we're told about him may or may not be true. Even he, we're told many times over the course of the episode, doesn't really remember.

So we're told about a Sweeney that had sex with a girl who predicted that Laura Moon would one day be his downfall. And of a Sweeney who was a king, and abandoned his allies on the battlefield after being cursed by a bishop and was destined to die from a spear. And a Sweeney from even earlier who was a god king, destined to kill his grandfather in one of those 'you brought about the future you were trying to prevent from happening' kind of stories. Except the grandfather might have been Wednesday. Possibly.

Sweeney is full to the brim of contradictory pasts, and they're all presented to us as true. The little narrative games of inserting the wrong character's voice in the flashback voiceover, or having the wrong voice come from the wrong mouth as the story is being told just underscore this fluidity. What we do seem to know for sure is that he's in Mr. Wednesday's debt for some reason, possibly connected with having fled that battlefield. Odin is a war god. Did fleeing the battlefield cause the debt directly, or was there more to it than that? Somehow tied up with this, Wednesday owes Sweeney a battle, which would make sense if the initial sin was skipping out on the other battle. How that squares with the earlier god king or the later prophesy and boobies story I couldn't begin to say.

It's a rare trick, appearing to devote an entire episode to a character's backstory, only to leave the viewer feeling like they know less afterwards than they did before.

The season's recurring theme of how gods change and evolve to survive over time continues this week. Bilquis is now apparently an evangelical preacher, focusing primarily on the erotic poetry portions of the Bible, of which there are a surprising number, actually. I still can't figure out what she needs from Ruby Goodchild, but I don't think they intend us to understand that part yet. I think it's deliberate that the episode shows all of the changes that Sweeney goes through being done to him by outside forces, such as Mother Church rebranding him as small.

The cleverest move of the week, however, goes to the choice to begin the episode with Sweeney's body under the bridge. That, if you haven't read it, is how Sweeney dies in the book, and it's much less dramatic than what we get here. Changing the narrative so that Shadow is an active participant in Sweeney's death is a much richer story. In the book he basically dies from a tragic case of the plot not requiring him anymore. By starting the episode with the fakeout of him not being dead under the bridge, they're preparing the viewer for his eventual death at the end. Hell, they might as well have put a 'Sweeney Death Countdown Clock' in the bottom corner of the screen.

Farewell, Mad Sweeney. You were arguably the character that benefited most from the book-to-screen translation. I don't expect that we've really seen the last of you. For one thing, it would be just perverse if there was never some sort of resolution with your relationship with Laura after the way things ended last week. For another, even in the book you stopped back by to attend your own wake. I didn't entirely understand what was going on in that section of the book, to be honest.

Wednesday made a point of telling us that every death brought about by the spear was a tribute to him, which means Shadow just made a tribute to Odin of Sweeney's death. That has to be important, right?


Quotes:

Sweeney: "Oh, I can smell the whiskey on your breathe already, Ben Franklin."

Laura: "You know that I can literally rip peoples' limbs off, right?"

Kali: "Goddamn Voudon. Always so dramatic."

Wednesday: "Oh, I know that smell. That smells like a hot bottle of whiskey and sex in an alleyway. With a top note of failure. Eau du F**kup."

Eorann: "Remember, the boundaries of your father’s mind have grown thin since he left us."

Sweeney: "You’ve got 80 years on your dial, You’re going to give 'em up for somebody who’s gonna live forever?"
Salim: "That’s how love works."

Wednesday: "F**k the fairies."
Sweeney: (To Salim) "You gonna let him talk about us like that?"


Been meaning to mention - I really love Wednesday's vest.
Bits and Pieces:

-- Do people really bring food to funeral parlors? I know that they do to the grieving, but I've never heard of them bringing it directly to the funeral home. Maybe it's a southern thing.

-- Ibis mentions that Jaquel will come when Wednesday calls him to war. Does that mean that Chris Obi has just been busy with Star Trek: Discovery and we'll have him back later when he has the time? I hope so.

-- The discussion of Sweeney being a troll or a leprechaun nicely set up the theme of incompatible but equally valid pasts.

-- How has it not come up at all for Shadow that Sweeney caused the car accident that killed Laura? Laura found out about that in last season's finale.

-- Sweeney's final act, other than flipping the bird, was to send Wednesday's spear to 'the hoard,' the realm where all the treasure is that he and Laura took a shortcut through a few episodes back. That was clever. Can't wait to see how Wednesday responds to that one.

-- I feel like it's still OK to 'ship Sweeney and Laura, since she's also dead. Just let me have this one.

-- Pablo Schreiber had a lot of scenes to film in the woods while wearing very little clothing. That just had to be unbearably uncomfortable. I mean, just the bug bites alone...

-- Speaking of Pablo, it was announced shortly before this episode that he'd been cast as the Master Chief in the Halo series. That wasn't a good omen for Sweeney, no Neil Gaiman pun intended.

-- The Jinn mentioned other Ifrits in Chicago, answering my longstanding question about whether Ifrit was his name or his species. I guess we're back to calling him the Jinn. They should really give him a name.

-- Sweeney, despite his best efforts to resist the urge, was really going out of his way to be kind to Salim.

-- I've never considered the erotic subtext of the eucharist before, but what with Bilquis deep diving into the whole 'take my flesh deep into your mouth' aspect of it I'll probably never be able to look at the pope without blushing again.

-- The treasure of the sun was both the coins in the hoard and the love Sweeney and his wife shared, as highlighted by her yellow wedding dress. She'd lost that dress by the time Sweeney had gone mad.

It's hard to make Ricky Whittle look small...

This episode had a lot to really dig into, but it felt a little incomplete to me in a way that "Prayer for Mad Sweeney" didn't. On the tiniest level it feels like an exercise in setting pieces up for the finale rather than a story in its own.

Three out of four tubs of potato salad.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

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