“Sometimes I remember things one way, sometimes I remember them another.”
“Treasure Of The Sun” opens with a sweeping aerial shot of Shadow Moon, a speck as small as an ant, walking toward a towering bridge outside Cairo. Appropriately, the episode is sweeping, too, its extravagant skirmishes and arresting visuals reaching for some of the grandeur of season one. There’s a grace and a grasp in this episode, both literal and figurative, that’s been largely absent from season two until now. “Treasure Of The Sun” has its flaws, but it’s arguably the best episode of the second season so far, and the most consequential since “House On The Rock.”
There’s a moment during Shadow’s approach that can feel momentous to viewers conversant with Neil Gaiman’s version of this story. (I could say “Gaiman’s novel” or “the source material,” but “Treasure Of The Sun” is explicit about the vagaries of narrative truth, about its notion that every version of a story is just a version of that story.) Without spoiling any of the novel, I can say that in the book, Shadow Moon and Mad Sweeney have a similar conversation in a gutter, and a different story follows.
Plucking a small exchange from the novel and expanding it into a new chapter: This is what American Gods is best at. Mad Sweeney—now revealed as the long-forgotten Lugh, warrior god-king of what would become Ireland—deserves a chronicle of his adventures, his sacrifices, his sorrows. And Pablo Schreiber delivers, shifting from Mad Sweeney’s wisecracks to Lugh’s ferocity, his tenderness, his command and his love and his grief, with fluid ease. And the final payoff of the episode, of Mad Sweeney’s millennia-long story, is a powerful twist in the seasons-long story of American Gods.
But beware of stories. As Mr. Ibis says, more than once, “Stories are truer than the truth.” That means that, also in Ibis’ words, “a storyteller does not concern themselves with the truth.” Throughout “Treasure Of The Sun,” characters show how easy it is to change stories, to add or omit a detail and obscure the facts, to take someone else’s story and tell it as your own, or even to see one side of someone and believe it’s their whole story.
In a Tennessee outpost of Motel America, Mama-Ji shoos off Laura Moon, who’s drinking bottomless coffee and drawing flies at the counter. When Laura threatens her, maybe in jest, Mama-Ji doesn’t even deign to smile. “You see me here as Kali-Ma, the nurturer. But you, dead girl, you would understand me better as Smashana Kali, the destroyer.” In a flash, Mama-Ji transforms from the familiar figure in her workday smock to her skull-faced, flaming form, one of her many arms holding Laura’s severed head aloft, another brandishing a blade. (The effect, like the gleaming orbs that that arise as Wednesday speaks blessings over Gungnir, is unimpressive but adequate.)
In Cairo, Bilquis tells a different story, and a familiar one. Statuesque in a caped gown that emblazons a cross over her whole length and breadth, the Queen of Sheba tells the rapt mourners, “The gift of the flesh is the most sacred gift one can make.” She’s speaking to them of Christian worship, but Bilquis has no trouble making it her own. Her description of communion straddles the line between sensual and sensuous; she trails her hand lightly over her congregants as she walks among them; her words cause a stirring in every eye, in every body. The Song Of Solomon, which she “reads” from the funeral home’s bible without casting her eyes over the page, is as voluptuous as any prayers offered to her in her old guise. Indeed, this translation is tame compared to “Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates with rare spices.”
“Treasure Of The Sun” shows that the broad cultural shifts that impoverish the gods of American Gods are nothing new. They’re as old as Christianity and the “gray monks” who co-opted the imagery and language of other religions to spread its own faith. (Ask Odin about the Jelling stone, which depicts Christ’s crucifixion on a tree as broad and branched as Yggdrasil.) And it primes us to see all of American Gods’ characters as the endlessly changeable opportunists they are, that they must be to survive.
That framing gives extra weight to the last minutes of “Treasure Of The Sun,” when Mad Sweeney’s apparently heedless anger is shown to be calculated, even conscientious. In what seems a fruitless attack, he snatches Gungnir and wields her against her owner, only to be spectacularly bested by Shadow in his role as bodyguard. Like all the action scenes in this episode, the violence (directed by Paco Cabezas, whose credits include an eventful and electrifying pair of Penny Dreadful episodes) is simple, swift, and admirably clear. Unlike Lugh’s remembered melees, it’s almost balletic in its precision, Shadow’s quick flip of the spear as breathless and as practiced as a grand jeté.
Wednesday stages a shabby Last Supper on the eve of his war, but it’s the final view of that room that most resembles a Renaissance painting or a religious tableau. In the dreadful peace that follows his last fight, Mad Sweeney half-hangs where Gungnir props him up, his own blood pooling before him. Wednesday stands tall across the room, looking down at his betrayer. Between them, Shadow Moon balances on one knee, deadly still but poised for action. Sweeney, who earlier demonstrated for Shadow how he can still snatch coins from the horde (or stash them there), speaks his last words: “Your spear is the sun’s treasure now, you one-eyed cunt.”
The teleplay from Heather Bellson (also writer of the lackluster “Muninn”) rings with thematic resonances, large and small. Yggdrasil has sprouted and spread, towering above Odin in Ibis & Jacquel’s greenhouse; Lugh lives and wars in the forests of his kingdom. Wednesday has restored Gungnir, his spear of legend; Lugh too has a spear, and his is said to be unstoppable. Balor, Lugh’s father’s father and his mortal enemy, has one missing eye from which he spreads poison and pestilence; before his dying declaration to Wednesday, Sweeney asks Shadow plaintively, “Can you feel the poison?”
“This is gallows ground you’re walking,” Mad Sweeney warned Shadow earlier, “and there’s a rope around your neck and a raven-bird on each shoulder, waiting for your eyes.” I’ve spoken before about American Gods’ graphic use of lynching imagery, as have other critics, and “Treasure Of The Sun” doesn’t soften or excuse its exploitative approach to those scenes. It does explore, for those unfamiliar with Norse mythology, the inescapable significance of hanging in any story about Odin. American Gods is preoccupied with hanging not just because it’s a potent (though easily misused) signifier of the racist corruption and violence at the heart of American history, but because Odin’s mythology hangs on his own sacrifice by hanging. As Odin’s rune song relates:
I know that I hung on a wind-rocked tree,
nine whole nights,
with a spear wounded, and to Odin offered,
myself to myself
It’s an odd, even recursive idea. When a god sacrifices himself to himself, who is sacrificed and who is exalted? It’s a key question in American Gods, only rivaled by the rhetorical question Wednesday offers to his companions, almost as a toast: “The only question, gentlemen, is do we know who all our friends are?”
But when even truth shifts with every telling, who can know all their friends? Or all their enemies? “Treasure Of The Sun” confirms what we already knew: that the truth is never the truth, or never the whole truth. Whatever the truth, American Gods is raising its spears to go to war, and raising its game, too.
- The Jinn’s flimsy SIDECAR ADVENTURES haven’t given Mousa Kraish much chance to shine this season. But even on the sidelines, he imbues The Jinn with an immovable energy and imposing solidity. His footfalls are solid, his bearing straight, and even with his eyes covered by habitual sunglasses, it’s easy to imagine the ferocious pools of fire hidden there. There’s a touch of The Terminator in his posture: upright, unyielding, but without the mechanical air of menace. And the softness that emerges when he looks at Salim is only enhanced by his otherwise steadfast strength.
- Mr. Ibis knows exactly what he’s provoking when he spurs Mad Sweeney’s memories of his life as Lugh.