Stories, memory, Mad Sweeney, and my rather extensive thoughts on AMERICAN GODS S2E07 — “Treasure of the Sun”

Ever since I first watched S2E07 of American Gods, AKA “Treasure of the Sun”, I’ve been obsessed with it. I can’t remember the last time a single episode of any show has so completely taken over my thought processes.

Oh, and

!!!!MEGA GIGANTIC SPOILER WARNING!!!!

because I will spoil every bit of this episode and then some.

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So soft. But, you know, in a rough way.

(NOTE: I have not read Neil Gaiman’s novel, so I don’t know exactly how this part of the story plays out there, though I have seen enough comments online (and read enough novel-spoilers) to realize that it’s quite different than what we see here.)

(ANOTHER NOTE: This post is long and rambling, but even so, it does not contain all my thoughts on this episode. (For example, since it’s focused on Sweeney’s story I don’t even mention the kick-ass scene with Laura and Mama-Ji!) Rather, I’ve tried to squish my love for it into some kind of reasonable shape by focusing on story structure, rather than just screeching, “OMFG THIS IS THE, BEST.” over and over again.)

Before I start mouthing off about the episode and over-analyzing it in detail, I want to give kudos to:

American-Gods-Mad-Sweeney

Why do I love this episode so much? First of all, it’s an episode about my favourite character in American Gods, Mad Sweeney. It’s also an episode that gives actor Pablo Schreiber room to show off his considerable acting skills (it’s not all about those biceps and that ginger beard and mohawk… really.)

Other reasons I find this episode so freaking amazing include its rather intricate story structure, and the way it deals with the unreliable nature of memory and storytelling. But perhaps the main reason why I love “Treasure of the Sun” is because it achieves so much in such a short span of time.

In an hour, “Treasure of the Sun” re-frames everything we thought we knew about Sweeney: his past, his identity, and his purpose. Even better, the same is true for Sweeney himself: he goes on a memory-trip through the truths and half-truths he (and others) have told about him through the ages as he tries to uncover his real life story. In the process, Sweeney ultimately decides on a radically different course of action than we’ve come to expect from him: instead of obsessing over that lucky coin, following Laura around, or doing Wednesday’s dirty work, he attempts to kill Wednesday with Gungnir The Very Big Spear.

He’s certainly come a long way from that first bar dance with Shadow in Jack’s Crocodile Bar. 

Beyond all the reasons to love this episode that have to do with Sweeney, Schreiber, and American Gods, “Treasure of the Sun” also features three storytelling devices that are my jam, no matter whether they are used in novels, short stories, movies, or TV-shows:

  1. non-linear storytelling
  2. with flashbacks
  3. and an unreliable narrator

To me, this episode is a great example of how choosing the right story structure can make the content of a story even better. You could tell Sweeney’s story straight up with no flashbacks, no unreliable narrator, and 100% in chronological order, but that would not be as compelling as “Treasure of the Sun”.


Non-linear storytelling

I have a weak spot for stories that are told out of sequence, and this storytelling device is used to great effect in “Treasure of the Sun”. As Pablo Schreiber points out in several interviews when talking about this episode, Sweeney’s flashbacks appear in reverse order (most recent to oldest) as he delves deeper into his own past.

Introducing Sweeney’s flashbacks in reverse order is the perfect way to tell this particular story. First of all, it means that we have to wait until the very end for the most important reveal about Sweeney’s past. We, like Sweeney himself, are following the trail of memories ever deeper into his backstory. Then, when we think we know it all, there’s that final flashback scene when Sweeney talks to Mr. Ibis, and it packs a staggering punch — both visually and emotionally.

The reverse order of the flashbacks is also pleasing on another level: just like Sweeney’s story in the present goes from his down-and-out-madness under the train bridge, to clear-eyed heroics when he grabs the spear to kill Wednesday, the flashbacks follow that same trajectory from Mad Sweeney to Hero Sweeney.


The power of flashbacks

What makes the flashback structure work so well in this episode (and what makes it a great example of how flashbacks can be used effectively), is that the flashbacks don’t just reveal Sweeney’s past to us (and him). They play an active part in the story and are inextricably linked to what Sweeney does in the present: the flashbacks affect the present, but the present also affects Sweeney’s flashbacks / memories as he comes to terms with who he was, who he is, and what he can do

From the very beginning of American Gods, Sweeney has been a blessed contradictory mix of comedy and tragedy: the rowdy, brawny, improbably large leprechaun who does Wednesday’s bidding and hates every second of it; who is obsessed with getting his lucky coin back from Laura while also developing feelings for her; the quippy asshole who is angry at the world and himself but still can’t help doing the occasional good deed. We saw a tantalizing glimpse of a different Sweeney in season one’s “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney”, but that was just a teaser compared to the full serving we get here.

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Early in “Treasure of the Sun”, Bilquis tells Sweeney that she’ll “have his confession”, and she gets it (in a manner of speaking) over the course of the episode in flashback form. What’s more, it appears that Sweeney, having given what turns out to be his last confession, feels… not absolved or forgiven, exactly, but he is at least able to see himself and the world more clearly than he has in a while.

At the end of the episode, Sweeney is in charge of himself, his fate, and his actions in a way we haven’t seen before. He is no longer waiting to recover his lucky coin from Laura through whatever convoluted means, whether it’s a resurrection by Easter or a voodoo potion. He is no longer looking to pick useless fights with Shadow in order to punish himself for causing Laura’s death. He is no longer waiting for Wednesday to “give” him a battle. It’s a radical shift for the character, and yet — thanks to Pablo Schreiber’s acting, the writing, and the directing —  it is completely believable and utterly compelling at every step.

(Sidebar: Obviously, Sweeney’s feelings for Laura play a big part in why he decides to kill Wednesday. But another key to his transformation in “Treasure of the Sun” is that he finally stops jonesing for that lucky coin. The Mad Sweeney we first met in Jack’s Crocodile Bar had relied on the luck of that coin for goodness knows how long. He knew it would save him from all the reckless, stupid shit he was doing, meaning he never even had to consider changing his ways. He could just stay mad and drunk, going through life as a big ginger ball of anger and swagger. In “Treasure of the Sun”, he finally faces up to what it means for him to live without that coin, of being Sweeney without that magical luck.) 

And here’s an additional reason to love this episode: there’s enough stuff packed into “Treasure of the Sun” to make a full length Sweeney-movie, but the story is told so skillfully that it doesn’t feel rushed, either.


Flashbacks and Sweeney’s “reverse descent into madness”

In the interview above where Schreiber talks about “Treasure of the Sun”, he mentions how he worked with writer Heather Bellson to tweak the script so that Sweeney’s story would be a “reverse descent into madness”.  Schreiber also talks about this in a terrific interview with Deadline

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The beginning. I love how this scene from the beginning of the episode mirrors Shadow’s and Sweeney’s scene at the end.

This “ascent into sanity” (right?) begins under the train bridge when Shadow finds Sweeney. Here, Sweeney is literally down and out. He’s in the worst shape we’ve seen him in through the show (and considering how much he’s been kicked around, that’s pretty bad). He’s in such terrible shape that Shadow thinks he’s dead.

[Sidebar: Like any human being with a heart, I love the brotherly vibe between Shadow and Sweeney in this episode. Whatever guilt and anger and loathing was there at the start of their relationship (and some of that still remains) they have clearly come to (grudgingly) respect and even appreciate each other. It kind of sucks that we don’t get to see them team up against Wednesday.]

Once Sweeney wakes up, he’s an unhinged mess, nearly delirious, raving about Laura and the coin, and, to set the tone for what’s to come, he tells Shadow: “Sometimes I remember things one way, sometimes I remember them another.” 

This is Sweeney at his lowest. He knows his luck is gone with the coin and Laura, he knows that even when he had the chance to take his coin back (when Laura died again), he couldn’t do it. All his schemes to get the coin from her, and to get her life back, have failed, and at this point, he simply doesn’t know what to do with himself, except drink and try to piss off everyone he meets.

He also delivers this wonderful ominous speech about gallows-ground to Shadow:

SWEENEY: “I’m gonna tell you something. This is gallows ground you’re walking. And there’s a rope around your neck and a raven-bird on each shoulder waiting for your eyes. The gallows tree has deep roots. It stretches from heaven all the way down to hell. And this world is the only branch from which the rope is swingin’.”

(Sidebar: If you know your Norse mythology, this sounds a lot like what Odin/Wednesday did when he sacrificed himself and hung from the World Tree “for nine days and nine nights”. I’m guessing Wednesday has some similar sacrifice planned for Shadow. And the fact that we cut from that speech by Sweeney to Yggdrasil and Wednesday confirms to me that this is foreshadowing. Over and over in this episode, Sweeney tries to warn an obstinately clueless and boneheaded Shadow (I love you, but MAN, you can be dense!) that Wednesday is Bad News. and that staying with him will cost him dearly.)

Having Sweeney regain his sanity rather than lose it through the episode makes for a much more satisfying character arc, and a much more poignant ending for Sweeney. You could tell the story by having Sweeney drink his way through the episode, rant and rave at everyone and everything as he remembers his lost glory, and eventually try to kill Wednesday in a fit of amplified “madness”. But instead, Sweeney chooses that final confrontation with Wednesday quite deliberately. It might even be the most sane and deliberate thing he has done for a very long time.

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The end. Sweeney trying to warn Shadow AGAIN that Wednesday is up to no good.

Sure, Sweeney keeps drinking throughout “Treasure of the Sun”, but after his first confrontation with Wednesday when the Old God insults him, orders him (again) to kill Laura, and taunts him for falling in love with her rather than getting rid of her, Sweeney progressively becomes more lucid. (Wish I knew that trick. And just how many beers does he drink in this episode, on and off screen? These are the kinds of details we need to know.)

With every flashback, with every conversation — with Bilquis, Wednesday, Salim, Shadow, and finally (and crucially) Mr. Ibis — Sweeney takes control of himself and his own story. When he finally grabs that spear and aims it at Wednesday, he’s not Mad Sweeney anymore.

It’s an amazing character arc, and masterfully ties together what we’ve seen of Sweeney over the course of the show, and everything we see in this episode.


Unreliable narrators (and unreliable narration)

In addition to non-linear storytelling and flashbacks, “Treasure of the Sun” also uses the concept of an unreliable narrator as it digs into the juicy bits of Sweeney’s backstory (“I was a king”). The main unreliable narrator here is Sweeney himself who isn’t quite sure what part of his backstory really happened, and what are the stories he’s told people about himself, or the stories others told about him. (“Sometimes I remember it one way, and sometimes I remember it another.”)

But “Treasure of the Sun” goes beyond the idea of an unreliable narrator, and explores the innately unreliable nature of memories and storytelling. (This is an idea I love to freaking bits, and another reason why I love this episode to freaking bits.) Our memories are not immutable. What we remember and how we remember things can change with time, and it can change depending on the stories we tell and the stories we hear about what happened.

Mr. Ibis touches on this fact in his conversation with Sweeney towards the end of the episode:

Mr. Ibis: You have a lot of stories in there. Hard to keep ’em all straight, isn’t it? A storyteller does not concern themselves with the truth. Stories are truer than the truth. These are not literal constructs so much as imaginative recreations.

1st flashback: the girl with the boobies

In the episode, the unreliable nature of Sweeney’s flashbacks is shown by having various listeners and narrators intrude on Sweeney’s backstory as we watch it unfold. The first time this happens is when Sweeney is talking to Bilquis and tells her of the girl who had the sight and “let me play with her boobies under the stars”. As the memory plays out, Bilquis interrupts the story mid-scene as she tells Sweeney “I heard a different story. You had a wife.”

(Is this a real memory? Maybe. What the girl tells Sweeney about his future does seem to come true at least: that he would “be undone and abandoned west of the sunrise” and that a dead woman’s bauble would seal his fate. Interestingly, though the rest of the flashbacks are told from newest to oldest, this one looks to me like it might be Lugh/Sweeney from the oldest backstory, though it’s hard to tell with all the canoodling in the dark.)


sweeneywife

2nd set of flashbacks: King Suibhne and the making of Mad Sweeney

Just as Bilquis suggests, Sweeney has a wife in his next set of flashbacks where we see him as king Suibhne of Ireland, a king who tried to fight off the Christian Church and who paid for it with his sanity.

To quote the American Gods Wiki: “He evolved into the Irish king Suibhne who was cursed by St. Ronan to madness and wandering. On the eve of the Battle of Moira in AD 637, he is transformed into a bird and flees in derangement.”

And from Wikipedia: “Buile Shuibhne or Buile Suibhne[a] (Irish pronunciation: [ˈbˠɪlʲə ˈhɪvʲnʲə], The Madness of Sweeney or Sweeney’s Frenzy) is an old Irish tale about the Suibhne mac Colmain, king of the Dál nAraidi, driven insane by the curse of Saint Ronan Finn. The insanity makes Suibhne leave the Battle of Mag Rath, enter a life of wandering (which earns him the nickname Suibne Geilt or “Mad Sweeney”), until he dies under the refuge of St. Moling.

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Because the flashbacks are told in reverse order, we first see Suibhne as the madman in the woods who can’t even recognize his wife and child. Later, we see him as the confident ruler he was before the curse, arguing with his wife about whether to fight the Church or adapt to the Christian intrusion.

This is a pivotal piece of Sweeney’s backstory, both because it is the original cause of his “madness”, and  because it seems to be the (abandoned) battle at Mag Rath that ties Sweeney to Wednesday. As he tells Laura in a previous episode, “I went to war once or was meant to. I owe a battle…. I don’t do Wednesday’s errands because I like him! I do ’em because I fucking owe him!”

The unreliable nature of Sweeney’s memories is shown on screen in the flashback just before the battle of Mag Rath: Sweeney sees both his wife, Eorann, and Laura by his side, imploring him to help them.

(Edited to add: In this scene, the presence of the banshees / mourning women Sweeney noticed when he arrived, serve as a vivid cue to his memories, linking the battle at Mag Rath to the present. Someone is going to die, and even at this point, before Sweeney has decided on a course of action, you get the feeling he knows which way the wind is blowing.)

One thing I particularly like about this set of flashbacks is how Sweeney is interrupted by the voice of Bilquis as he tells this tragic and moving story to Salim:

SWEENEY: So, I walked away. The war, my family, my mind. I lost it all because I left it all.

BILQUIS: Well, it’s not the version you told me. Where the girl with the big tits told you you’d die by a dead girl’s bauble. So, which is it?

SWEENEY: What the fuck, Bilquis?

(😂 Every time I watch that bit I laugh. Also, the entire scene with Sweeney talking to Salim is a beautiful bit of acting from both Schreiber and Omid Abtahi. When Sweeney asks if Salim thinks the Jinn would kill him if Wednesday ordered it — clearly he’s thinking of his own situation with Laura — there’s such a lovely vulnerability and subtle softness to their conversation.)


lead-bell-tolls-2
Cracking open some cold Fomorians with the boys.

3rd flashback: Sweeney (and possibly Schreiber) is a god, not a leprechaun

The third set of flashbacks are an absolute freaking BLAST, visually and storytelling-wise. And yes, whatever we’ve been told before, this episode proves that Sweeney is not a leprechaun. As we see in his oldest memory/flashback, he was originally the Irish god-king Lugh. And while king Suibhne failed to drive off the Christian enemy, Lugh successfully defeats his enemy, the terrible Fomorians led by the tyrant Balor.

From the American Gods wiki: “Mad Sweeney was originally King Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann who fought against the Fomorians, who were led by his grandfather, Balor. He threw a spear through Balor’s eye and beheaded him. He was the High King of Ireland from 1870–1830 BC.”

Heading over to Wikipedia for some more details on Lugh: “Lugh, Lug, or Luat (Irish: [luɣ]; Modern Irish: Lú [luː]) is one of the most prominent gods in Irish mythology. A member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Lugh is portrayed as a warrior, a king, a master craftsman and a hero. He is associated with skill and mastery in multiple disciplines, including the arts. He is also associated with oaths, truth and the law,[2] and therefore with rightful kingship.”

(Sidebar: After seeing Lugh wield his spear, is it any wonder that Wednesday looks at least a bit worried at the end of the episode when Sweeney grabs hold of Gungnir? Sweeney might have forgotten the details of his origin for a time, but I would bet a whole bunch of leprechaun gold that Wednesday never did.)

While Sweeney has obviously retained the memory of having been a king once upon a time, it’s not until he hears part of Lugh’s story from Mr. Ibis that the full weight and importance of that past hits him.

SWEENEY: What are you writin’ now?

MR. IBIS: Your earliest story.

SWEENEY: The one about me fightin’ off all the gods coming into Ireland? Wave after wave of ’em, coming in from Gaul or from Spain, from every other fuckin’ place until Mother Church arrived, turned us all into fairies and saints and dead kings without so much as a by-your-fucking-leave.

MR. IBIS: They made you small.

SWEENEY: I ain’t small.

The unreliable nature of stories and memories is shown, and used, particularly well here. As Mr. Ibis tells the story of Lugh, we see the ancient battle play out on screen with Sweeney/Lugh in blue face paint and wielding a spear. (I want to give a pile of awards to this entire battle scene. It’s so freaking visceral and fierce and over the top beautiful.)

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While we watch Sweeney/Lugh lay waste to his enemies in spectacular fashion (and good lord, Pablo Schreiber is a vision here), Mr. Ibis says that Lugh was a hero who defended his people and defeated Balor, the Big Bad, who also happened to be Lugh’s grandfather. But here (and I love this bit so much), Sweeney interrupts the story: “No. It wasn’t Balor. This is wrong. Stop writing. It was Grimnir. It was Grimnir.”

This is the first time we see Sweeney change a tale being told about him in this fashion. He is taking charge of the story, he is re-telling it, he is changing it (whether making it more truthful, or not, well… that’s up for debate, but the crucial thing is that he is imposing his own version of events on the tale.)

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As Sweeney changes the story, we see it change on screen: instead of Balor’s head, Lugh is now hoisting Griminr/Wednesday’s head in victory after the battle. Mr. Ibis tries to correct him, but Sweeney won’t have it, and Mr. Ibis acquiesces, repeating that “Stories are truer than the truth.”

I could pick apart the potential implications and symbolism here a whole lot (was Balor really Odin in some form? or did Sweeney originally fight his Fomorian grandfather? If Balor was some form of Wednesday/Grimnir and Sweeney’s grandfather, does that make Sweeney Shadow’s…nephew?). But the importance to Sweeney of the story being told this way is clear: once upon a time, Sweeney/Lugh fought and defeated Wednesday. He’d forgotten it, but once he has told the story the way it was (or the way he thinks it should have been), Sweeney decides his true battle is, and always has been, with Wednesday.


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Put it in the MoMA.

Final battle & other bits I love

How can you love an ending that kills off your favourite character? It seems impossible, and yet in “Treasure of the Sun”, Sweeney goes out in such spectacular fashion that it’s hard to imagine a better way for him to exit.

Sure, he fails to convince Shadow to stay out of the fray, but at least he finally tells Shadow the truth: that Wednesday has been manipulating Shadow from the start by ordering Sweeney to kill Laura.

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Boromir never got to do this.

And sure, Sweeney fails to kill Wednesday and cut his head off, but as he is dying, as he has that Big Damn Spear stuck right through him, he summons up his magic and whisks the weapon away — away from Wednesday and into the Hoard, into the Treasure of the Sun.  It’s a final, glorious fuck you to Grimnir. (Followed by a final, glorious two-fisted fuck you.)

As far as death scenes in movies and TV go, I’d put this one right up at the top of the heap with the best of them. (Boromir’s death scene in Fellowship of the Ring is still the pinnacle, obviously.) Sweeney’s final battle is fierce, it’s painful, it’s poignant, and it’s even satisfying in a kind of devastating way for me as a fan of the character.

Of course, Shadow is the one holding the spear as it goes through Sweeney. He holds that spear, even though he does not mean to kill Sweeney. He even says it out loud: “No one’s dyin’ tonight, Sweeney.” It’s terrible and devastating, for Shadow and us. 

Whether Shadow and Sweeney are actually related by blood doesn’t matter to the poignancy of this scene: in this moment, when Sweeney has done his best to save Shadow (and Laura and everyone else) from Wednesday’s machinations — when Shadow has done his boneheaded best not to heed the warnings — they are brothers, and just like Sweeney has predicted, Shadow will soon know the true nature of the bargain he’s made with Wednesday.

[Sidebar: I have thoughts on how the tragedy of this, of Shadow being the one to hold the spear as Sweeney basically impales himself on it, echoes bits of the Norse tale of when Baldr is killed by his blind brother Höðr, but I won’t cram that bit in here.] 

In conclusion: What a ride this episode is.


In this Ted Talk I will…

Will there be more Sweeney in American Gods? I don’t know. Obviously we see Laura carry his body down the road at the end of the finale. (Will Laura use Sweeney’s blood — the blood she found on the floor, the blood she touches with the toe of her boot — to activate that voodoo-potion? Because that is definitely blood infused with love. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.)

Anyway. That’s the end of my love letter to this remarkable episode of TV.

The moral of the story is: use flashbacks, use unreliable narrators, use non-linear storytelling, and then put Pablo Schreiber in it with a freaking spear and you’re golden.


(You can watch American Gods on Starz in the US, and on Prime Video in the rest of the world.)


Gifs from Giphy. Script quotes from Springfield! Springfield!

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2 thoughts on “Stories, memory, Mad Sweeney, and my rather extensive thoughts on AMERICAN GODS S2E07 — “Treasure of the Sun””

  1. I just had to say something about your write up of Treasures of the Sun! You touched on so many things that i saw and felt about that particular episode. You really captured the essence of who the character was. I kept expecting you to talk about banshees, but you covered so many details I had to read every word you wrote!! Very masterfully done!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! It’s just such a rich and deep episode, and it’s sort of unusual for a TV-show to go for this kind of complex story structure. I should add in a note about the banshees now, because I thought they were used so well throughout the ep to tie in with Sweeney’s memories (and then ultimately play a part in how he cuts ties with Wednesday). Thanks again for reading and commenting!

      Like

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