For all the talk of war that’s dominated this season, it’s really the intimate character work that defined this portion of American Gods’ epic tale. With the season’s penultimate episode “Treasure of the Sun,” everyone’s favourite foul-mouthed Irishman gets the spotlight treatment.
In the episode, new depths to Mad Sweeney’s inner workings are revealed that offer new context for much of what we know about the kind of person he is. But for all the interesting, surprising turns the episode takes, it’s difficult to say whether they portend similarly fascinating things for the show’s finale and its future.
For the past few episodes, American Gods has become obsessed with shouting — no, screaming — about the major twist baked into the original novel with very heavy-handed messages delivered to Shadow by the show’s other characters. Because Shadow’s meant to be a kind of proxy for the audience, this means that American Gods is also shouting at us.
While the show’s hints began as clever nods to the source material, they’ve grown rather tiresome, because as loud as the warnings are, no one seems particularly keen on heeding them, and the show’s slow pacing makes you aware of the fact that the clues are being repeated over and over again.
When Shadow stumbles across Mad Sweeney somewhere in America, the Leprechaun’s beaten, bruised, damn near dead, and saying what pretty much everyone’s been saying since American Gods’ first episode. Wednesday, jovial as he is, is not to be trusted, and fighting alongside him is almost guaranteed to lead to one’s demise.
In referencing the gallows and the noose around Shadow’s neck, Sweeney’s warning to Shadow is particularly on the nose, but being the dense lug Shadow is, Sweeney’s message is lost on him.
It’s unfortunate because in “Treasure of the Sun” Mad Sweeney has a kind of existential clarity we’ve not seen from him before. He’s gotten to a point in his life where truly nothing else matters and, after taking stock of what he’s got left now that all his luck’s run out, he clings to his truth, one of the few things that can’t be taken away.
Even though American Gods has been littered with deities associated with the concept of death, the episode turns death into a character unto itself not through a discrete anthropomorphic character, but in the things that Sweeney sees and the meanings their presence in his life have.
Sweeney sees death in Wednesday because it’s a major part of what sustains the All-Father and a key element to his plans for the war of the gods. He sees death in Shadow because of Shadow’s blind faith in Wednesday’s guidance.
But Sweeney also sees the ways in which death has wrapped itself around him for millennia and after years of trying to run away from it, the time’s come for him to make his peace with the world.
As Sweeney’s coming to grips with the idea of his impending death — something he’s reminded of every time he sees the trio of banshees wailing at Ibis’ funeral home — Bilquis is breathing new life into the space in her surprising role as a kind of minister to a small group of Cairo citizens.
For all of the interesting potential plot lines that opened up when Bilquis first chose to align herself with Technical Boy and begin harvesting power from a dating app, American Gods hasn’t really done all that much with the Queen of Sheba. But in “Treasure of the Sun,” we get the slightest of glimpses at what might have been an interesting character arc to spend more time on.
In the people of Cairo, Bilquis has found a captive audience of unmoored mortals who desperately need something to believe in. By co-opting the language of the Christian bible, Bilquis is able to forge a unique kind of connection with the humans that, one imagines, might be an ideal, alternate source of belief for the gods to feed off of—one that wouldn’t require a great war.
But war, Sweeney reminds Bilquis as he tells her one of the stories from his life, is a fundamental part of what it means to be godlike beings the way they are. It’s interesting that Bilquis is the first character to speak somewhat clearly with Sweeney about his life and his death because, unlike most of American Gods’ other deities, the two of them were, at one point, mortal monarchs who were elevated to godlike status and immortalised.
Both of them recall what it meant to live as mortals among mortals, but because of their existence as gods, their memories are a blend of their own personal experiences and the mythologies people have attached to them over the years.
Long before Mad Sweeney stood tall as the embodiment of luck and bastardized ideas about Celtic mythology, he lived as Lugh of Tuatha Dé Danann, a master craftsman revered for his skill on the battlefield with a legendary spear of his own.
The flashbacks of Sweeney’s life as Lugh in the episode reveal that he’s survived wars like the one Wednesday’s waging before—wars where old gods are neutered and erased—but not without knowing that one day, he would die in such a conflict.
In choosing to save his own life by deserting his family and his people, Sweeney arguably ensured that the mythology they embodied would, in a significant but altered way, live on. But that life came at the sort of price that would drive an immortal being to a lifetime of binge drinking.
Sweeney was, at one point, the luckiest man in the world who could buy pretty much any and everything he’s ever wanted. But at the same time, he’s gone through the ages watching as the world’s forgotten who and what he was, in favour of believing in myths about little green men with buckles on their hats and petulant fairies who demand bowls of milk be left out for him lest they cause domestic troubles.
What he wants most in the world is to make right by those he’s done wrong. Obviously, the core of the feeling lies with his family, but he also feels it for Laura Moon, and, in a way, Shadow, because he’s just as responsible for both of their being involved in a plot that’s already killed them both in different ways.
As far off-book as American Gods has had to get, “Treasure of the Sun” is one of the few instances in which the show cleaves very closely to Gaiman’s original novel, especially in the scenes between Shadow and Mad Sweeney.
Because of this, Mad Sweeney’s death isn’t exactly the biggest surprise in and of itself, but the circumstances are particularly interesting. In the novel, Sweeney freezes to death under a bridge while going through withdrawal, and then appears soon after as a non-corporeal being. He’s “dead,” sure, but not dead-dead by a country mile.
Here, though, it’s Shadow that kills Sweeney, and with Wednesday’s mythic spear no less, which has the potential to complicate things significantly. American Gods has established that gods can’t come back from suicide, and while they can’t usually be murdered through conventional means, a weapon like Gungnir seems like the type to strike a blow capable of felling deities. Otherwise, why would Wednesday want to repair it so badly?
Once Sweeney’s stabbed through with the spear, he’s well on his way out, finally getting the death he’s longed for, but not before he makes sure to disappear the spear into his horde which seems to be a place that only he could ever access. If Gungnir’s truly missing, then he’s properly fucked Wednesday in the best possible way and sent the loudest message he possibly can to Shadow that he needs to get out if he wants to live.
Considering that American Gods still has a season finale (and a third season), there’s a more than solid chance that the spear’s going to make some sort of return. But will we see Sweeney again? Flip a coin and take your bets, folks.
American Gods is currently airing on Amazon Prime.