I’m on record as not loving last season’s A Prayer for Mad Sweeney. It’s not that it was a bad episode or anything, but it was the penultimate episode of the season and, instead of focusing on setting up the finale in any meaningful way, it spent all of its time on a flashback sequence that was only tangentially connected to one of the characters. It was the story about how Mad Sweeney came to America – but the character didn’t actually appear in the flashbacks until the very end of the episode. Instead, it was basically thirty minutes of the story of Essie McGowan – an interesting story but the definition of padding out an episode. Had this not been the penultimate episode of the season, I might not have been as disappointed by it, but since it was, I really didn’t dig it. So, hearing that the penultimate episode of season two was going to be another one that primarily focused on Mad Sweeney’s backstory, I was a bit skeptical about it. I went in expecting it to be another episode full of padding that didn’t really set up the finale at all. Boy, I was wrong. This episode perfectly balances the flashbacks and the present-day scenes, making sure the flashbacks actually seem related to what’s happening in the present day scenes – and then using those present-day scenes to raise the stakes for the finale in surprising and exciting ways. (MAJOR spoilers follow)
Episode 2×07: Treasure of the Sun (Written by Heather Bellson, directed by Paco Cabezas)
In Cairo, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) entrusts Shadow (Ricky Whittle) with the Gungnir spear. Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), plagued by the cries of Banshees, recalls his journey through the ages as he awaits his promised battle. Once again, he warns Shadow about Wednesday. Meanwhile, Laura (Emily Browning) receives sage advice from Mama-Ji (Sakina Jaffrey), and Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) finds an audience.
Like A Prayer for Mad Sweeney, much of this episode is devoted to a series of flashback sequences exploring the history of Sweeney. Unlike that episode, these flashbacks are all tied into the central plot of this episode. Here, Sweeney has made his way back to Cairo after the events in New Orleans. He’s looking for Laura, who disappeared after the events of The Ways of the Dead, and is hoping she’s found her way back to Shadow in Cairo. Alas, she has not (as we discover later on in the episode). Sweeney’s feeling more unlucky than ever and he swears he’s hearing the cries of the banshees everywhere he turns – cries that signify a death; his death, he fears. This leads him to begin thinking back on his past. How did he get into this situation? It turns out that he doesn’t really remember. There are three main flashback sequences in this episode and each one is triggered by a conversation Sweeney has with one of the other characters. First, Bilquis – now moonlighting as a funeral priest as the previous one left in episode five – triggers a memory sequence as he tries to figure out who he is. Later, a conversation with Salim (Omid Abtahi) triggers another flashback. And, lastly, a conversation with Ibis (Demore Barnes) – who is trying to write down Sweeney’s story – leads him to a revelation: Wednesday is behind all of his life’s ills.
The way that (writer) Heather Bellson frames these flashbacks as Sweeney’s attempts at remembering his past makes them feel important to the plot of the episode. The flashbacks are disjointed and contradictory but so is Sweeney’s memory. So much of Sweeney’s character in this episode is tied up in his uncertainty about his past. He doesn’t know which story about his history is the truth, so he doesn’t know how to feel about any of it. It’s really interesting stuff and it absolutely makes the episode. The whole point of the flashbacks are for the audience to join Sweeney on his journey of remembering his past. This method of tying the flashbacks into the main storyline of the episode makes them feel less like filler and makes me like this episode a whole lot more than I liked the comparable episode in season one. In the end, the audience (and Sweeney) are left unsure of what Sweeney’s exact past it. Sweeney thinks that everything is Wednesday’s fault – and he has good reason to feel that way. Wednesday keeps taking advantage of Sweeney, promising him a glorious war as a kind of carrot on a stick in order to get Sweeney to do whatever he wants. It’s clear that what Laura said to him at the end of episode five has impacted him. Sweeney is tired of taking orders from Wednesday and the entirety of this episode leads up to a conflict between the pair of them at the end of the episode. But more on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, at a Motel American in Tennessee, Laura encounters Mama-Ji, who is not remotely happy to see her. Laura tries to talk back to Mama-Ji, so Mama-Ji shows Laura her true form as a way of making Laura respect her. It’s a really fun move. The two share a conversation related to the potion Laura received from Baron Samedi. It’s another one of those vague American Gods conversations everyone either loves or hates. Mama-Ji tells Laura that the problem isn’t with the potion, but with her. She has the power to destroy within her heart (thanks to Sweeney’s coin) and the conversation ends with Laura leaving the motel and hitchhiking her way back to Cairo. It’s nice to see what Laura is up to, but I would have liked this conversation to be a bit more substantial. I love Sakina Jaffrey as Mama-Ji, so I’ll always want her to have more to do in any given episode. Nevertheless, it’s a fun scene, but I do wish it had been just a bit less vague.
And then we come to Shadow. At the top of the episode, Shadow finds Sweeney laying unconscious on the side of the street in Cairo. Sweeney warns Shadow, again, that Wednesday can’t be trusted. Shadow makes his way back to the funeral parlor. There, Wednesday fixes the Gungnir spear (with a branch from Ygdrassil) and gives it to Shadow for safekeeping. Later, Sweeney finds Shadow (again) and tells him (again) that Wednesday isn’t to be trusted. Shadow seems oddly trusting of Wednesday, though. I suppose this is understandable as Sweeney and Shadow don’t exactly have the most cordial of relationships, but it does add to the sort of inconsistent characterization that Shadow has received this season when it comes to what his feelings toward Wednesday are. One episode, he’s ready to tear Wednesday apart, the next episode it’s like old times again. Maybe that’s just Wednesday’s charm or maybe Shadow really did decide to trust him again back around episode four or five, or maybe – as Sweeney suggests in a line that I missed on my first viewing – Shadow is feeling special after being given the Gungnir spear, leading him to trust Wednesday again, but the show didn’t do a great job at communicating that to the audience. So, as we see Shadow so fiercely loyal to Wednesday in this episode, it does feel out of place. Perhaps this whole season has been exploring Shadow’s loyalty, and it will all come together in next week’s finale, but it did stick out to me a little bit.
All of this brings us to the climax of the episode. Wednesday hosts a sort of calm-before-the-storm dinner at Ibis’ funeral parlor, inviting all the gods at the house to the dinner – except for Sweeney. Sweeney barges in, demanding a fight with Wednesday, reminding Shadow of a promise they had made earlier in the episode that Shadow would stay out of Sweeney’s way. Shadow, naturally, doesn’t do this and Sweeney and Shadow fight. It’s another brutal fight, much like their fight in the very first episode of the series. During the fight, Sweeney reveals to Shadow that Wednesday ordered Sweeney to kill Laura, and it leads Shadow to confront Wednesday, giving Sweeney the chance to grab the Gungnir spear. Shadow gets it back from Sweeney, but accidentally impale Sweeney with it, killing him. As a final act of vengeance against Wednesday, Sweeney sends the spear to the Horde – the place where Sweeney’s treasure is kept – so Wednesday can’t use it. This is a pretty radical departure from Sweeney’s death in the novel but it absolutely supports his narrative journey in the show. Here, Sweeney is finally standing up to Wednesday and telling him, “No more!” In a way, Sweeney also proves his point to Shadow that Wednesday is using him as Shadow’s loyalty to Wednesday is what ends up killing Sweeney. I’m really interested in seeing how Shadow reacts to all of this in the finale. Shadow’s reaction to learning of Wednesday’s part in Laura’s death and his reaction to causing Sweeney’s death – and his reaction to Wednesday’s probably nonreaction – could clarify what Shadow’s arc has been leading to this season and make sense of his seemingly shifting loyalties. Shadow aside, it’s an emotional death for Mad Sweeney and it’s written and filmed in such a way that the audience really feels those emotions. It’s brutal and it’s tough and it will make you emotional.
All in all, this was another very good episode of American Gods. It does its job as a penultimate episode perfectly as it raises the stakes significantly higher for the final episode. The death of Mad Sweeney is handled really well and the way Bellson tied the flashbacks of his past in with the ongoing story of him trying to remember that past and face his imminent death really worked. It was a nice balance between flashbacks and scenes that moved the storyline forward. While I had a few problems with the episode, they were mostly minor ones or ones that are not really specific to this episode. I have faith that the finale might render those problems null and void as all roads lead to Cairo and we see whatever happens next. Hopefully, the finale makes sense of Shadow’s character arc. I love what the writers have done with him and I love Ricky Whittle’s acting, his shifting allegiances have just felt a bit inconsistent and somewhat unexplained. But there’s plenty of time to rectify that! Overall, I dug this episode a lot. It’s beautifully written, beautifully shot, and beautifully acted. It’s a touching sendoff to our favorite drunken, unlucky leprechaun.
4.5 out of 5 wands