Next week we’re going to have a conversation, you and I, friends, and we’re going to figure out what, if anything, the arc of this season of American Gods was, and whether or not its shape and size matters. There is a version of this show – or more particularly, this season of this show – that is picaresque, a sort of anthology series of self-contained episodes with Shadow and Wednesday capering through as the emcees of a divine cabaret, that I think could be really effective and successful. That hasn’t been this season, though.
I let my hopes get unreasonably high after last week’s gleeful victory lap; it felt like the first season, but also like progressive world building and deepening. This week, we are back to business as usual, with a slight up-tick in quality from most of the rest of the season. Credit that, perhaps, to the delicate work of Pablo Schreiber and Omid Abtahi, who provide gentle, human undercurrents to a story about gods. Maybe it shouldn’t be so unexpected that Salim and Mad Sweeney provide a certain sweetness to the current plot; neither of them are gods, and both have a capacity for deep feeling we haven’t seen particularly demonstrated by any other character. So when Sweeney comes drunkenly stumbling to Ibis’s funeral home (I assume it’s a funeral home still? At one point, Bilquis, now inexplicably an erotic Christianity minister, seemed to be giving a vaguely pornographic, free-standing sermon there… what the fuck is going on with this show…) it is in keeping with the world and characters that were established in season one, that gentle, empathetic Salim would show him kindness, and that the two of them might connect simply based on their sort of outsider status in this whole kerfuffle.
But – and I don’t mean to belabor a point here, so if you’re getting tired of my big picture thinking, please feel free to disregard the following paragraph, because it’s goddamn panoramic – what is the kerfuffle at this point? We have spent an entire fucking season talking about an impending war, and we are experiencing the narrative equivalent of running on a treadmill. After every episode I feel vaguely winded, as if it is a real effort simply to watch them, but realize afterwards that we have not moved any closer to this alleged war then we had previously been. It is true that season one, oh mythic, beloved, favorite child of my heart, didn’t necessarily have a lot of forward plot momentum, but where it spun its wheels was in favor of world building. If last week’s episode didn’t necessarily move the narrative much further forward, it did deepen the world, and established a richer sense of a pivotal character. Could you argue that this episode attempts to do the same with Sweeney? Absolutely.
We learn in this episode that Sweeney used to be a king with a kingdom and a wife and a child, and was driven to depths of despair. And to be fair, it’s a pretty good story. Sweeney, before the Mad part was thrown in there, wanted to protect his lands from colonialist Christian settlers, and after a fight with a bishop, is cursed to go insane. The most compelling aspect of all of this, in many ways, is the telling, as Sweeney’s memory refines and shifts and he loses threads and re-finds narrative relics. At one point, he begins telling the story to Salim and ends with the voice of Bilquis (a character who is gorgeously acted and deserves more, better material) pulling him out.
Ibis tells Sweeney even more of his own story, and there are some interesting thematic elements at play about the mutability of truth, about how stories survive and adapt; Sweeney’s own life is a story he’s being told, about strange underground monsters, and how Sweeney Zack Snyder style killed his grandfather after the not so paternal old man gathered up all his grandchildren and attempted to drown them in a lake. Sweeney doesn’t remember it so; he remembers it as Wednesday. It seems undeniable that Ibis has a purpose and agenda of his own in lighting that fire in Sweeney’s ass, but it is difficult to know precisely what it is.
Meanwhile, Wednesday announces that due to his spear being renewed and his tree blossomed, it is a sign that “the proverbial shit is about to hit the fan”, a statement I could listen to Ian McShane say all day. He has thrown a dinner with some of his god squad, and Sweeney crashes it, prepared to settle some scores with Wednesday. Shadow and Sweeney beat the ever living shit out of each other, and Sweeney reveals to Shadow that he caused Laura’s death, on Wednesday’s order, and Shadow accidentally runs Sweeney through with Wednesday’s spear, which a dying Sweeney sends to the horde (presumably). All that fucking work, for a spear that vanishes in one episode. And then, one of the show’s most compelling characters is gone.
So where does that leave us? After what was not a great episode but also a better one, we’ve lost both the spear – so presumably that war is once again “happening soon” – and one of the best characters the show had. Even when I doubted everything else, I trusted in Pablo Schreiber and Mad Sweeney. There is the potential that him revealing that Wednesday put out the hit on Laura will have some narrative impact, but this is hardly the first time someone’s told Shadow that Wednesday is fuck all in the trust department and it’s had virtually no effect.
We have one more episode to go this season, and we’ll see how they wrap it up, and if it warrants a third season – a third season that god willing and the creek don’t rise, you can bet your sweet ass I want to review, because now I’m in this, be it a victory or a total fucking disaster. I’m… intrigued. Not optimistic. Not pessimistic. But I will miss the hell out of that beautiful leprechaun.
Completely random observation: Pablo Schreiber is tall as shit.