Living for affirmation from others is never easy, and though the gods in American Gods get stronger when they are sacrificed to, they do plenty of sacrificing of their own to try to hold onto their power.
Last week’s episode saw Wednesday (Ian McShane) sacrifice his own son. In “Treasure of the Sun,” Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) sacrifices his sanity, and then his life.
Mad Sweeney has never been in particularly great shape—when he’s introduced in the series, he’s getting drunk and getting into bar fights on orders from Wednesday, and he’s since lost his luck to Laura (Emily Browning). But now he’s falling apart. Not physically, the way Laura falls apart, with limbs that fall off and can be sewn back together. Rather, Mad Sweeney is falling apart mentally. With every half-remembered memory and misconstrued story about his past, Mad Sweeney spends the night descending further into the madness that makes up his name.
It even feels like falling, the way Mad Sweeney reaches into his past only to find gaps in his memory to fall right through. The way voices and sounds blend into stories of the past from Mad Sweeney’s present and vice versa adds to the feeling of blurred edges around time, and not knowing what’s real. The viewer experiences Mad Sweeney’s madness with him, and it’s viscerally effective.
Mad Sweeney tells Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) that a woman he met gave him a fortune that a dead woman’s bauble would bring his death. He tells Salim (Omid Abtahi) that he had a wife, a family, and a kingdom, but that he abandoned it all to madness when he walked away from a battle after a curse was put on him, which told him he would die by the spear.
Flashbacks show every one of these scenarios, and Schreiber does a great job portraying Mad Sweeney in each of the lifetimes he lives. His sweet, sad disposition as he eats dinner with his wife and daughter quickly turns to anger when they remind him of how he lost a war. In another scenario, he argues with the same wife, before he went mad, and the love between them is as intense as their argument. As he replays these scenarios over in his mind, Bilquis’ disembodied voice asks him, “Which is it?”—which life did he actually live?
But as Ibis (Demore Barnes) says later, the story he tells himself may matter more than the actual truth. This is something that American Gods returns to over and over: the power of stories in creating and living life. Ibis, who judges people in death, knows this better than the others. He begins to write down one of Mad Sweeney’s earliest stories, when Mad Sweeney was a god king fighting for survival in Ireland. In this version of Mad Sweeney’s story, he’s a champion warrior who throws a spear through the eye of his foe. Who his foe is, is less clear. Mad Sweeney remembers the man he kills as a kind grandfather he didn’t want to harm. Ibis tells Mad Sweeney that the man he kills was Sweeney’s grandfather, and that he was ruthless, rounding up his grandchildren to murder them after he hears a prophesy that a grandchild will bring him harm. Then Mad Sweeney remembers a third scenario: The man he killed was Wednesday.
Each version of this story plays out on screen in colorful, clear detail. But as the story changes, the details change, like a puzzle where you have to spot the difference. It illustrates how easily one piece of a memory could be replaced with another, and how tenuous our grasp on memory is.
But this last memory in particular is real—or at least it’s real to Mad Sweeney. He remembers that his battle has always been with Wednesday, and so he goes to face him.
He finds Wednesday holding a last supper of sorts, on the eve of the gods’ big battle, waiting for one of his disciples to betray him. It’s a beautiful scene, with Wednesday in Jesus’ place at the table as the gods dine under a glass roof. Mad Sweeney says his deal with Wednesday is over, and the room clears as Mad Sweeney tries to take Wednesday’s spear from Shadow (Ricky Whittle). He fights with Shadow as Wednesday looks on—just like when they met in the pilot episode. It’s a vicious fight, and what eventually turns the tide is an emotional weapon: Mad Sweeney tells Shadow that he slept with Laura in New Orleans. Shadow leaves the spear on he ground, giving Mad Sweeney the opportunity to pick it up. He charges at Wednesday, just like he does in the battle in his memory. But this time, Shadow is there, and he grabs the spear and turns it from Wednesday toward Mad Sweeney, who is impaled on the spear.
When Wednesday repaired his spear, he said that every death by it was a sacrifice to him. Mad Sweeney’s madness and subsequent death seem as if they came from deep inside Mad Sweeney, as he lived out his past in the present. But Wednesday has a way of making things work out for him. He lost a player in his war, but he gained power from the sacrifice. As Mad Sweeney tells Shadow, there’s always a cost with Wednesday, and Mad Sweeney finally paid it.
Rae Nudson is a Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.