One of the major challenges of doing this issue-by-issue analysis, which in itself is nowhere near comprehensive, is keeping my commentary focused just on what has been established in the story up to whatever point I’m at. For my personal reading, I consume the whole thing with a quickness; case in point, my copy of The Wicked + The Divine‘s seventh volume arrived this past week, and I read the whole thing in an evening. Folks who are current on the series understand that the ending of each successive arc, especially in the back half of the series, recontextualizes the whole thing as long running mysteries are resolved. We’ll see a major taste of that in a few issues when we wrap up Imperial Phase Part 2, but until we get to that point, I’m trying to maintain the fiction that I’m only working with what’s been revealed by this point in the story. It’s difficult, especially after finishing the series’s penultimate arc, because I’m now looking at even these relatively recent issues in light of what I know. It’s sort of like trying to watch Lost after you’ve seen the entire series; on one level you can enjoy the tension of the moment, but you can never get the original sense of mystery back (at least in The Wicked + The Divine‘s case, I trust that Gillen and McKelvie have a satisfying plan in place).
Anyway, let’s get on with the story.
As it goes, we’re hitting the crescendo of the entire “Imperial Phase” arc. This issue sees the sky gods confronting Sakhmet about her murder orgy and the research gods (that is a terrible classification, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the weird alliance between Cassandra, Woden, and Dionysus) put on the massive show they’ve been planning at Valhalla in a bid to figure out what the murder machine does. There are, of course, betrayals of various sorts, and we even get our first god death since Persephone ripped Ananke apart; it’s a big issue in what will be a series of big issues.
This issue’s cover features Woden in a relatively restrained green neon trimmed suit with coat tails. It’s his third appearance on a standard cover, and it’s only slightly less threatening than that one where the shot’s centered on him cracking his knuckles like he’s about to get into a fist fight with someone. The whole pose evokes the image of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, with the dome of his helmet simulating a bald head and his fingers steepled like he’s totally pleased with some devious plan that he’s secretly executing. You can just image him hissing “Excellent!” to himself. The inset panel, which has been gradually losing its coherence, is totally overrun with circuitry the recalls the same visual style of Woden’s various creations. We know that things have been spirally, but it’s obvious there’s no going back at this point.
I didn’t really discuss the ongoing subplot of Laura and Sakhmet in the last issue because there wasn’t a whole lot of development of that thread besides the revelation that Laura has kept quiet after she finds Sakhmet in her apartment. The timeline of this arc is extremely compressed, almost as much as in Rising Action, so it makes sense that there wouldn’t be a lot of movement on the Sakhmet front. In this issue the weekend has passed (Amaterasu’s party happened on a Friday night, and Sakhmet showed up at Laura’s on Saturday), and Sakhmet is getting bored with lying low. She decides to leave to go on one of her night walks (like the one that ended with her eating her father many issues ago), and Laura takes the solitude as an opportunity to tell Baal what she knows. We only get to see Laura’s side of the conversation, but it’s clear from her expressions that Baal is less than pleased that she’s been hiding the Pantheon’s resident mass murderer. Laura justifies her delay in telling Baal with the excuse that she thought she might be able to talk some sense into Sakhmet or at least was afraid her girlfriend might kill her (both are reasonable excuses on their face, but Laura immediately admits she’s unsure about her real motivations); either way, she’s dropping a hot tip now.
With the research plot line we get our regular reminder about Dionysus’s primary flaw: he doesn’t take care of himself when he has any reason to believe he could be helping someone else. This characteristic manifests in his insistence that the show go on despite Cassandra’s observation that Dionysus is way too exhausted to perform and Woden’s uncharacteristic suggestion that they delay the show until their living dance floor is more stable. Dionysus insists that he’s fine to do the show, and then we get a couple of extended scenes where Cassandra finds herself discussing the last thing she would want to discuss with either of her research partners: relationships. Woden, pulling his signature annoying move of being right about something, points out to Cassandra that Dionysus is pushing himself so hard because he’s in love with her. Then, to further debase this comedy of manners, Woden lets slip that he’s also attracted to Cassandra, although he’s quick to declare that it’s purely a physical thing, and she doesn’t need to worry about managing his shriveled misanthropic feelings too. This pseudo-love triangle among the researchers is a weird take on the trope as Cassandra is already in a closed relationship with the other Norns, and her two would-be suitors are perfect foils to one another.
I think I’ve discussed in the past the ways that Woden and Dionysus are inverse mirrors of each other, from their attitude towards relationships to their feelings about the nature of their powers to the ways that they interact specifically with Cassandra. Woden can’t resist bringing the uncomfortable relationship dynamics to the surface just to amuse himself while Dionysus, in a scene that’s heartwarming on a lot of levels, explains to Cassandra that good friendship requires acting in a way that respects the wants and needs of others regardless of one’s feelings about them. It’s a scene where we get to see Dionysus at his best, even though he looks terrible and we know that bad things must be impending for him. When the show begins and Woden co-opts Dionysus’s hive mind to literally take control of the crowd, our worst fears get confirmed; never trust the Nordic jerkface because he’s always looking to get the best advantage for himself.
We catch up with Sakhmet at the British museum, the same place where she had her first encounter with an icon of her namesake as a child. We learn that this is a special place for Sakhmet, a spot that she retreats to when she wants to be alone (that Sakhmet has a contemplative side shouldn’t be surprising, but I don’t think it’s ever been seen before now; she’s usually very much invested in hedonism and self-medication for coping with her personal traumas).
The sky gods, thanks to Laura’s information, have caught up with her, and they’ve decided that Amaterasu will make first contact in an attempt to bring Sakhmet in peacefully. Given Amaterasu’s long history of completely failing to come through during crises, this seems like a really bad plan. Add to that her penchant for insensitive, oblivious blather during even low stakes conversations, and we can pretty reliably predict how this all goes down. The only asset Amaterasu brings to the table is the fact that she’s the best performer in the group, and one of her specific talents is inciting pleasant emotions in her audience. It’s almost enough to work except that as soon as she believes that Sakhmet’s no longer a threat (Sakhmet is always a threat) she stops doing her mojo and starts in with the colonialist junk along with fond memories of her father, which are perfectly Amaterasu and the precisely wrong things to say to someone with Sakhmet’s history. Really, it seems like the sky gods pick up the idiot ball for a moment with this plan, but then you remember that Minerva has a vendetta against Amaterasu for abandoning her when Ananke was rampaging and Baal just isn’t a terribly cunning person, and it begins to look like Amaterasu was meant to go in and get killed by Sakhmet.
Perhaps the only thing that’s even more Amaterasu than her carelessness being what finally, finally gives her a comeuppance is the fact that as she lashes out in her death throes she utterly destroys priceless Egyptian artifacts. If that’s not a commentary on the utter vindictive nonsense that white people engage in to try to hold on to their cultural hegemony, I don’t know what is.