TV Recap: American Gods: Season 2, Episode 7 "Treasure of the Sun"
With just one episode left of American Gods’ sophomore season, I think I’m finally coming to grips with my feelings for this show. I tried early on to believe that this could be just as much of a uniquely moody, moving visual experience as Bryan Fuller’s and Michael Green’s first season before quickly lowering the bar to avoid disappointment. Even with the goal posts adjusted, I still found myself baffled by some of the plot-heavy mundanities on display — all the essential performers and quirky detours were still in place, but serving what felt like a Sparknotes version of the show they once soared in. My elation at standout episodes (The Greatest Story Ever Told, Donar the Great) and even standout moments (Sam Black Crow’s appearance in Muninn) all too often got wedged between crushing disappointment. But this is a show championing coexistence even at its worst — so I’ve come to the conclusion that both these feelings can be true.
And both certainly were true in Treasure of the Sun, whose finer points and faults can be summed up by simply observing which characters were present. Bilquis giving Christian sermons laced with provocative innuendo, combining her old sensibilities as a love goddess with her present predicament? Brilliantly inspired, and confidently acted as always by Yetide Badaki. Salim opening up about his devotion to Jinn, and admitting the irrationality of risking his decades left of life for someone who’ll live forever? Frustratingly flat and all too hard to believe, with good intentions squandered by the couple’s completely botched chemistry and wasteful use in the overarching plot this season. But I’m more or less numb to American Gods’ highs and lows clashing so heavily and frequently — every time we get a refreshingly playful character beat, despite the blatant lack of an overall vision, feels like a blessing.
Perhaps it’s not a complete lack of vision, though. This season has found a surprising groove when it zeroes in on Mr. Wednesday as an emotionally abusive father figure to Shadow, like Donar before him — more an opportunistic cult leader than a god truly worthy of worship. And this week it becomes clear you can add a third name to that list of shortchanged “sons” — Mad Sweeney.
Pablo Schreiber’s Sweeney has always been a character narrowly riding the line between schtick and surprising humanity. This week, we learn he’s also one caught between popular perceptions of his past and legacy— ones that overshadow the sorrow he felt as a fallen ruler and soldier. While giving a “confession” to Bilquis, he recalls how “fair folks” were simplified into “little green men” once the so-called Grey Monks took control of the narrative, even though there was much more to him than meets the modern eye. We’re later shown how Sweeney fell out with his wife Eorann and daughter Moira after losing their land and being cursed by Bishop Ronan, thanks to the priest Sweeney speared and the allies he abandoned on the battlefield. But by Sweeney’s accord, those Grey Monks were never really his allies to begin with — despite Eorann’s insistence that he make alliances instead of enemies, the Monks represent change in the family’s world, which Sweeney fails to see the need for. As his denial of the past reveals the closed-mindedness he once held toward the future, a character whose ego is too often played for comedy comes across as tragic.
For awhile, Sweeney allegedly held his own presiding over his part of Ireland, fighting wave after wave of gods originating anywhere from Gaul to Spain. But soon enough, “Mother Church” turned his people into fairies, saints and dead kings — not quite the warlord’s sense of “glory” he anticipated. It’s admittedly rather interesting to see such varied experiences with Christianity among the central cast this episode — Bilquis turning her vocal skepticism into a sexy new spin on the faith, while Sweeney only recalls the religion as an oppressive entity. Like many a scenes in this season, it seems like a set-up Fuller and Green could spend time truly meditating on, but it comes across as an unfortunately rushed cog in the wheel here as we move on through Sweeney’s conversation with Ibis.
Per Ibis’ account, we learn Sweeney was known for his skill with a spear, and as the god of sun, luck, craft, art, and “everything valuable to civilization.” He was a “God king,” one who saved his people from the madmen Fomorians, led by Sweeney’s grandfather Balor. Ibis thinks Balor wanted to kill Sweeney, but the disgraced God king recalls his grandfather as a caring figure. That is, until he remembers him as someone different altogether — Grimnir, or Wednesday. Try as he might to drunkenly stumble toward that Eureka moment, time is not with Sweeney in this struggle — as Ibis says, “stories are truer than the truth.” It’s all about who controls the narrative.
It seems clearer than ever that Wednesday has that control of his right-hand men. In the present, the Old Gods’ leader proves as ruthlessly honest in his manipulation of Sweeney as he was to Shadow a few episodes ago. Old Grimnir remembers Sweeney as a “horny musclehead... with nothing of value” before taking the big Leprechaun under his wing. In the episode’s best scene, Shadow and Sweeney compare notes as Wednesday’s past and present pets — the former as stoic as ever, the latter bitterly recalling what it felt like to have the all-father’s favor, “like you did something to deserve it.” Before the episode reaches its climax, Sweeney anticipates that someone will die at the funeral home soon, and says Shadow had best not get in the way of the inevitable.
Said climax turns out to be a shocking, gut-wrenching one — or at least, it could’ve been. Sweeney crashes a Last Supper of sorts between the Old Gods, with the newly grown Yggdrasil in plain sight, making it clear to Wednesday that he doesn’t owe his master any more. It’s an act of defiance Shadow isn’t willing to take yet, and before long, Wednesday’s two disillusioned disciples are fighting over his re-forged spear. Betrayal turns to stomach-churning realization as we learn Sweeney orchestrated Laura’s fatal car crash, as part of Wednesday’s plan to rope Shadow into his cause. That Sweeney recently slept with Laura is just icing on the cake, and soon enough, Shadow stabs the former God king to protect their own manipulative god. Though the dying Sweeney is unable to make true on his vision of killing Wednesday, he at least finds the time to take the reforged spear with him — the weapon dissolves into coins, becoming the “sun’s treasure,” and we say goodbye to one of American Gods’ very first MVPs.
Here is a character death (mind you, that’s a very loose term for this show) that simultaneously recalls Gods’ former heart-wrenching glory and the ghost of itself that it’s become. There’s a real sadness to one of Wednesday’s reformed followers being put to an end by one who’s still trapped, and Sweeney’s final moments are grippingly acted by Schreiber. Still, you can’t help but yearn for what could’ve been under Fuller’s and Green’s supervision — the former handled a manipulative mentor-mentee relationship achingly well with Will Graham and the titular cannibal in Hannibal, after all. An effective moment is an effective moment, of course, but it’s clear as day that this season of Gods can only hint at the psychological depths that Hannibal made its entire MO.
Now that resistance has been proven futile, the war between the Old and New Gods seems as inevitable as ever, loss of Gungnir notwithstanding. So does the war between American Gods at its emotionally ambitious best and its overstuffed, muddled worst — one that seems unlikely to end even once new talent takes the reins for Season 3.
And with just one episode to go, I’m still not sure which side will win.