A Prayer For Mad Sweeney

This episode is Mad Sweeney’s elegy. He is also one of the more unlikable characters in the show., but it turns out he’s not actually a bad man, and has heart of gold. In the real world, someone like Sweeney would get their ass kicked on a regular basis, (actually he does in the show, too) but he is a great character.

Normally, I like fictionalized assholes as much as I like real world ones, which is to say not at all, but from time to time I get captured by a great depiction, and Sweeney is one of those. Pablo Schreiber plays the hell outta this guy, and I have to give him some props, especially when I had no idea who he was before this show.

One small dislike for me  is that this is another filler episode, that distracts from the greater narrative revolving around Shadow and Wednesday. I didn’t dislike this episode, it’s just that I’m less interested in what Laura and Sweeney are up to. But tonight’s episode was devastating in its implications about the relationship between Laura and Sweeney, deepening it, and explaining a lot of the dynamic between the two of them.

The episode begins at the Anubis funeral home, where Mr Ibis and Mr. Jaquel not only lay out corpses for burial, but can even predict when corpses will arrive. I thought it was interesting getting a glimpse into their relationship. Are they a couple? Are they brothers? Just friends? They’re always considerate and polite to each other, and know each other too well.  Mr. Ibis tells Sweeney’s story through the eyes of an Irish girl named Essie, who looks suspiciously like Emily Browning. Laura is not the reincarnation of Essie, though. Its  that Laura reminds Sweeney of Essie, and I think he’s starting to like her.

The episode is split between Laura’s and Sweeney’s  modern day road trip, and Sweeney’s past, when he knew Essie. This  follows the book pretty closely. Essie has a very colorful life, as a thief, an indentured servant, then a  wife and mother, and finally grandmother, where she often traded on her looks to get ahead, aided by her gifts to, and stories, about “The Good Folk”. Notice that whenever Essie stops giving to the good folk, they stop giving to her.

There’s  a scene where Essie is in Newgate prison, after having not made an offering for a time, and Mad Sweeney is in the next cell, and she tells him stories. She tells him about her wish for a good life, quiet and settled, a tree, some children. She makes an offering to the Good People using the only food she has available, a piece of rotten bread. Eventually she gets out of Newgate and gets sent back to America where her wish comes true, because she made an offering of her last bite of food.

Eventually she has to stop telling her stories about the Fair Folk, realizing that there’s no place in her current world for belief in such things. But she never stops believing, and upon her death, it is Sweeney who comes to collect her soul.

The term Good Folk is a reference to the Fay, or any Fairy creatures of Celtic folklore. The general idea in most people’s minds are the tiny, butterfly beings that frequent rings in meadows, or Tinkerbell, but the term encompasses a greater variety of creatures than just those, (some of which are pretty horrific, deadly, and not at all tiny. See any book by the painter/illustrator, Brian Froud.)  Irish folklore is pretty complicated  though,  and you could spend your entire life studying the subject.

 

*For background on Faery lore, and myth:

http://www.medbherenn.com/faerie-lore.html

http://www.medbherenn.com/faerie-lore.html

 

*And for background on the real mythology behind Mad Sweeney:

http://www.askaboutireland.ie/reading-room/history-heritage/folklore-of-ireland/carlow-folklore/the-story-of-mad-sweeney/

Sweeney, Salim, and Laura stop at the site of the White Buffalo statue.The legend of the White Buffalo is somewhere around 2,000 years old, and was originally a tradition of the Lakota Sioux, a Plains Tribe. This particular scene, like all the modern day scenes, which involve Laura and Sweeney, don’t happen in the book.

http://lightningmedicinecloud.com/legend.html

For those of you concerned that there haven’t been any Native gods depicted, I think Shadow’s dreams count. In the book, they don’t play a pivotal role until much much later, and are responsible for interfering in the war, coming in on Shadow’s behalf. I expect we may not see them until well into second season. Although I do agree they should be introduced in some greater form beyond the forgotten Nunyunnini.

 

While at their rest, Sweeney is visited by one of Odin’s birds, who he harshly chastises. He mistakenly lets Laura know that all the gods are meeting at a tourist attraction/resort called House on the Rock in Wisconsin. Now that she knows where Shadow is going, Laura decides to release Salim from his bargain to take her to a resurrectionist friend of Sweeny. She tells Salim to go get his Jinn. He happily leaves, but not without (hilariously) informing Sweeney of what a vile creature he is. (Yes, he is, but Sweeney also has a lot of secrets.)

That morning, Laura talked with Salim, asking him if he loved God, or was “in love’ with God. He answered in the affirmative. I think Laura is seeking an answer to her own questions of how she feels about Shadow. She may not have loved Shadow when she was alive, but I think she is certainly loves him now, (or is obsessed or something) and part of that may be the supernatural connection that exists between them, because I dont tihnk she is “in love” with him.

Laura hasn’t looked at peace since she was resurrected, so I just want to point out, during this episode, we often see her quietly smiling to herself when contemplating Shadow. I think she is finally at peace in a way she never  was in life. She has a goal and a purpose now, that was missing, when she was alive. Shadow is her purpose. He’s her god, now. He is literally her reason for living and not only has she realized that, she’s okay with it. She even seems happy about it. Yeah, she is stalking Shadow, but if you’ve ever read John Campbell’s Hero’s Journey books, then there’s a purpose to it.

While driving, Sweeney gives Laura some more background. He tells her about his hoard of gold, that he used to be a king in Ireland, that he was once a bird, and then a saint according to the prevailing beliefs of whatever time period in which he lived. He ran away from so long ago war in which he knew he would die. He gave up his sword and vowed not to get involved again, but he owes Wednesday a war, which explains his objections to Wednesday’s warmongering between the old and new gods, but also  his refusal to leave.

Keep in mind, Sweeney is a leprechaun, which  is a kind of  Celtic deity. Although Laura is more powerful than him, he is not without power of his own, as illustrated by him easily stomping a park bench, without breaking a sweat. His speech to Laura is a reference for how diminished the gods have become as people’s belief in them changed, and leprechauns have been demoted to cute cartoon characters on cereal boxes, something which bears almost no relation to what he actually is, or even looks like.

One of the rules of being a Fey is one can only take what’s freely given, so when we see Sweeney throw the coins out if the vehicle, its becasue he took the ice cream out of the freezer, and the owner wasn’t there. When he and Laura stole the truck, Laura gave the owner of the truck all of his money, so he doesn’t object to that. He didn’t have to leave anything behind in return for stealing Salim’s taxi because he was interrupted before he could finish.

One of the questions that is confusing to a lot of people about American Gods is if these gods can die. If all it takes is a belief in them, then can they really be killed. Vulcan is is killed in the last episode. But he is definitely a god, people actually believed in a version of him. Does that mean some other version of him will take his place? Does Wednesday’s curse prevent this from happening? Just as there are different versions of Jesus, there are different versions of ods like Wednesday and Sweeney, wherever they are believed.

 

For example, in one of the last scenes from the book, Shadow meets a more authentic version of Wednesday in his home country. He is a more original form in his country of origin, and acknowledges Wednesday as an offshoot of him. I don’t think the gods can travel to anyplace where they are not believed in. Wednesday can’t leave America, and hasn’t done so, as he says to Shadow in one of their earlier discussions. When the new gods offer to make a missile in his name, over North Korea, Wednesday refers to it as a form of exile, and it would only be that way if belief in him were transferred, from America, to the missile system over North Korea.

Another treat we get in this episode is the white rabbit. The white rabbit is a sign of the goddess Easter,  or Ostara, a pagan fertility goddess. She is also the goddess of Spring and renewal. Her imagery often involves hares and rabbits. We will meet Ostara in the season finale. When a White rabbit hops into the middle of the road, Laura swerves to avoid it, crashing their vehicle. She flies out the windshield, and loses the coin, after which there is another revelation, as Sweeney contemplates her dead body.

 

Sweeney was the one who caused Laura’s first death in a car crash, and he feels some kind of way about that. Incidentally the words he’s screaming, after the truck crash, are in Old Irish, not Gaelic. Something along the lines of, “Why is this shit happening to me? Haven’t I suffered enough? And I’m not an evil man!” Which is ironic after being told by Salim that he is an unpleasant creature.
Wednesday has been trying really hard to keep Laura and Shadow apart, and was the orchestrator of her death. He was responsible for hiring Sweeney to kill her the first time, and I’m certain he’s responsible for hiring Ostara to crash their vehicle this time, since the rabbit which caused it, is her symbol. Laura is meant to die again and she does, when the coin, that Sweeney has  made clear that’s all he’s interested in, pops out of her open chest cavity.  Sweeney retrieves his coin and he could walk away, but flashing back to the night he first killed her, he changes his mind and places the coin back in her chest. He immediately regrets it, of course, when Laura punches him out, for touching her. The two of them continue their journey.

I also want to mention the music in this episode is so  spot on, it’s hilarious. During the scene where Essie absconds with her latest husband’s money to become a market thief, the theme is Runaround Sue by Dion. Daddy’s Home by Shep and the Limelights, is the song that plays the first time she offers bread to the Good Folk in America, an unknowingly summoning Sweeney.

Next week is the season finale, titled Come to Jesus, so I guess there will be some Jesus involved.  The show has already been picked up for a second season, and if we’re lucky it will continue for many more beyond the story of the book.

 

 

American Gods Season One: Head Full of Snow

 

 

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Anubis

The title of this one is a reference to a scene from the book, when Wednesday tells Shadow to think of snow, but we begin this episode with an introduction to the Egyptian god, Anubis. In the books his name is Mr. Jaquel, and he runs a funeral home with Mr. Ibis (Thoth). Everything I know about this character, I know from a book on Egyptian mythology, and a mediocre episode of Supernatural. Here he is doing his job as a psychopomp, which is a spirit which guides souls to the afterlife, guiding Ms. Fadil to her final fate.

Anubis job is to weigh the evil of the soul, by weighing their heart against a pure white feather. If the soul was heavier than the feather, than the soul was devoured by a demon and destroyed. If the soul is lighter than the feather, than the soul is allowed to move on to the next phase of its existence, in the land of the dead. Ms. Fadil is accompanied by her hairless sphinx, a representative of the goddess Bastet. Bastet was, for a short time, considered the wife of Anubis, and was a Warrior, and Protector of the pharaoh.

 

Anubis usually wears white but Mr. Jaquel shows up at the door wearing black, but still doesn’t look remotely disreputable. I think it’s interesting how they bluntly recognize Ms. Fadil’s anti-blackness. So the showrunners are gonna go the whole route, not just  contrasting how immigrants were treated vs. Black Americans, but  they are  not shying away from the acknowledgement that a lot of immigrants adopted racism towards Black people, as a way to achieve  the privileges of Whiteness.This is a level of honesty I wasn’t expecting as almost  no one in America acknowledges intra-racial discrimination. (That is discrimination and prejudice among PoC towards each other.)

Shadow and Wednesday 

Shadow wakes up after losing his game with Czernobog, and goes to the roof, where he finds the third Zorya sister, also called The Midnight Star. In mythology, there are really only two Zorya sisters, one who opens the gate to let her father rise into the sky in the morning, (The Morning Star) and one who closes the gates when he sets in the evening (The Evening Star). Neil Gaiman and the showrunners simply added the Midnight Star to the other two, and made it her job to watch the heavens at night to make sure that the “great bear” ( Ursa Major) is still chained in place. If he should ever get free, (if the heavens should fall, or the stars go out)  it would be the end of the world.

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This sister gives Shadow a coin, she says,  to replace the one he lost. She plucks the moon right out of the sky and hands it to him, in the form of a silver dollar. (Shadow is being given the sun, the moon, and the stars, right?) This is  something that happens in the book, but you can still get some idea of the showrunner’s sense of whimsy. (This episode was directed by David Slade, who also worked on Hannibal, and he has a rather cheeky visual sense.) Zorya #3 tells Shadow it’s for luck. Shadow wakes the next morning believing he dreamt her, as there’s no way to reach the roof from the apartment, but  feeling lucky, he challenges Czernobog to another checkers game, and wins this time. Czernobog is now obligated to support Wednesday before he can kill Shadow. It’s a testament to the director’s skills that he can make a game of checkers so exciting.

It was pointed out to me, by an astute fan on Tumblr, that this is the second or third time Shadow has been sexually assaulted by a White woman, on the show. Robbie’s wife, Audrey, attacks Shadow in the cemetery, as revenge against her late husband. She tries to get him to have sex with her, grabbing him, pulling at his clothing, and pushing him, while Shadow refuses her overtures. The Zorya sister kisses him without his consent, although she does give him a kind of warning, telling him she wants to be kissed. Her other sister, after Shadow gives her the romance novels Wednesday insisted he buy, blushes nervously in his presence, and Media offers to show him Lucy’s titties.

The OP wondered if this hypersexualization of Shadow was because he was a Black man, although she was also worried that the show was making white women look racist, as so far, Shadow has had no interaction with any WoC (although, I think Laura is Latina.) I’m not certain it’s the second, but I’m fairly sure that these women’s reactions to Shadow has something to do with his secret identity, and his relationship to Mr. Wednesday. I was too busy geeking out over the shows imagery to pay close attention to much of anything else. (I’m just glad Fuller has another show on TV.) If we see WoC act like this way towards Shadow, then my theory may be correct, and if they don’t, then the writers are making some other point.

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While Shadow is visiting with the youngest Zorya, Wednesday is putting the moves on the eldest sister. It’s obvious the two of them are long familiar with each other, and she is both annoyed and charmed by him. She likes him but she worries. Everytime she sees Wednesday, she knows there’s going to be trouble, and she predicted Shadow’s death. The two go out for a walk and it begins to storm. Again! There’s a lot of storm imagery in the show, and over time, the astute watcher will begin to understand why. No, Wednesday is not the one responsible, even if he was ready for it.

Speaking of Wednesday, I understand from Tumblr,  that a lot of people were really confused about the lynching imagery in the last episode, and were puzzled at Wednesday’s offhand attitude, when Shadow confronted him about what happened. Shadow’s reference to Strange Fruit is a shout out to the song made famous by Billie Holliday, about the lynchings of African-Americans in the South. The lynching imagery is a very deliberate statement, directly related to Shadow’s relationship with Mr. Wednesday (which is why Technical Boy chose that particular method of killing.)

I’m trying really hard not to give away Shadow’s secret for those who haven’t read the book. (For reference on Mr. Wednesday, you need to read The Prose Edda, to understand why the symbol of hanging is so important.) No, the writers aren’t simply being insensitive. I know from Fuller’s work on Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, and Hannibal, that he likes to write a lot of foreshadowing and symbolism into his work. Like Joss Whedon, Fuller likes to make his series one long story, with lots of callbacks to previous episodes, (so if you skip a season, you won’t know what the hell is going on.) We will see this imagery again in a later season.

Poor Shadow! Since he’s been employed by Wednesday, he’s been in a barfight, been beat up, sexually assaulted and lynched. (There’s a scene of him having his wounds tended after the lynching. Remember the, now stapled wound, in his side. It’s important.) At any rate, by the end of the episode, he does not appear to be suffering any pains from his wounds, although to be fair, I don’t know how many days its been. It is understandable that he’d have just a tiny bit of resentment towards Wednesday. Personally, I would have quit the job, but I’m more of a scaredy cat than Shadow.

Shadow has lots of discussions with Wednesday about belief. In the last episode, Wednesday was rather nonchalant about Shadow’s belief that he was going insane because Lucy Ricardo propositioned him. Wednesday’s attitude is always, “If you believe it, then it’s real. If you don’t believe it, then it’s not real, and you are going  insane.” He makes this statement to Shadow several times because, as a god himself, belief is everything. For Wednesday belief determines reality. He makes it clear to Shadow that being forgotten is the worst possible thing that could happen, worse than insanity.

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Shadow does not have this particular reaction in the book. That version of him is much more relaxed about meeting gods and goddesses.  I like that this Shadow  questions and challenges Wednesday. I love the chemistry between the two of them, and I like that this  is not an easy relationship, as the two of them continually chafe at each other. Wednesday behaves towards Shadow like an indulgent uncle,  and Shadow knows Wednesday is a liar, so he’s often exasperated with him, but there’s also a part of him that really likes and admires Wednesday.

Shadow isn’t a stupid man. He’s knows something is going on, but he’ll never understand what’s happening, if he refuses to believe in any of it. It doesn’t help that all of the people he’s met don’t just come right out and claim to be gods. As Wednesday tells the elder Zorya, “I’m easing him into it.”

Salim and the Ifrit

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This scene is taken, almost shot for shot, from the book, and it’s an introduction to the Ifrit, giving us his backstory on how he came to drive a taxi. Salim is an  unsuccessful salesman from Oman, trying to make money on behalf of his brother. The two of them recount to each other their misery in America, and after Salim discovers the djinn’s secret, and reaches out to him, to two of them share a sexual interlude. Afterwards, the djinn leaves, taking Salim’s clothes and plane ticket. He leaves Salim his clothes, taxi, and driver’s license instead. Salim sees this for the opportunity it is. He quits his old life and happily drives off into the NY, streets.

This is being touted as one of the most graphic gay sex scenes on television, but it’s much more important than that. Representation matters, and this scene is notable for showing two Men of Color (Middle Eastern) in a non-exploitive, sexual relationship, something almost no one mentions. It’s certainly almost never represented in fiction, or on a mainstream television show. It’s also notable for how it’s filmed. This isn’t sex. This is solace. This is two unhappy men, far from their homeland, seeking comfort from, and giving comfort to, each other. It is interesting that Salim’s  room number is #318. In the Bible,  Job 3:18 is loosely translated as, “There the prisoners rest together and hear not the voice of the oppressor. ” For Salim his oppression is his ties to a family that hates him, and hold his  purse strings; for the djinn, it is a job he hates, with people he despises.

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Salim refers to the djinn as an Ifrit,  which is one of the most powerful types of djinn mentioned in the Koran. They are giant winged creatures made of fire, often depicted as wicked and ruthless. So no. They do not grant wishes, although this djinn is happy to break with tradition and grant Salim’s wish to be free to live the life he wants. (I don’t think the djinn goes back home because this is the guy we saw talking to Wednesday in the diner. We may see him again later.)

 
Mad Sweeney

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As for the lucky coin Shadow lost, Mad Sweeney is having a very bad week. The coin has often served as a protection for him against death, and he inadvertently gave it to Shadow, after their bar fight. He wakes from a drunk, in a filthy bathroom, to the sight of the owner’s rifle. He challenges her, thinking the weapon won’t fire, but it does, and his face gets cut by glass. Later, he hitches a ride with a stranger, but that man gets impaled by some rebar. Sweeeney realizes he has lost his lucky coin and that he must have given it to Shadow.

Shadow and Wednesday 

Wednesday is happy to announce to Shadow that they are about to rob a bank. In the book, Shadow barely protests this, but the series version is a lot more reticent to go back to prison. Wednesday assures him that he will not,  if he thinks of snow, and asks Shadow not just to believe that he won’t go back to jail, but to believe IN him. I love this scene, not because of the robbery, but because of the silliness surrounding it. While preparing for their felonious endeavor, he and Shadow discuss the existence of Jesus in a copy shop, which is appropriate. Apparently there are several copies of Jesus, and Wednesday skirts just a little too close to racism when mentioning Mexican Jesus,  (Yes, there is a Mexican version of Jesus, that we’ll meet in a later episode) for Shadow’s comfort. I was just tickled to find out there’s a bunch of Jesuses: a Black Jesus, a Mexican Jesus, a Catholic Jesus, etc. and why not. Jesus would have different American versions, because it’s all about belief.

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Another favorite moment I thought was hilarious, was Wednesday buying Shadow chocolate, while Shadow embarrassingly admits that he does, indeed, like marshmallows, which I’m glad he does, because Wednesday pretty much just gave him a cup full of marshmallows, with a drop of hot chocolate. Honestly those are the biggest marshmallows that have ever lived, which is then followed by a shot of Shadow intensely concentrating on images of snow, while their car, Betsy, jumps over the mounds of marshmallows in his cup.

It actually does start to snow, and under that cover, Wednesday pretends to be a security guard taking in business pouches, at the broken ATM. (No, this would not work in real life, people.) Shadow gets wrapped up in this scheme when the police, investigating Wednesday, call to verify that he works for him. You can see Shadow  gets a bit enthusiastic about his role. They retire to another diner to count their loot, while Shadow waffles about whether or not he made it snow. Both the show and the book are unclear on this point,  but I like to believe he did, because that makes me happy.

Mad Sweeney

Sweeney finally makes it to Shadow’s side and tries to bully him into giving up the coin he accidentally gave him, but Shadow is  unperturbed and  tells him he threw it on Laura’s grave. Sweeney goes to Laura’s grave but there’s no coin, and no Laura either.

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Back at the hotel Shadow returns to his room, and is surprised to see his dead wife waiting for him. Yes, she is dead. No, she is not a zombie. I think technically she’d be called a revenant or something, I guess. Laura does get to play a pivotal role in Shadow’s story so no, she’s not just a sexy floorlamp.

Next week, we get Laura’s backstory. Why and for how long was she cheating on Shadow with his best friend? What if anything did Wednesday have to do with her death, since he knew about it  ? How did she and Shadow meet? Did she ever love him? How come I’ve never seen that actress before?

TTFN!!!