Sunday, June 11, 2017

American Gods 1x07 Review: "A Prayer for Mad Sweeney" (Tall Tales and Fallen Kings) [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]

"A Prayer for Mad Sweeney"
Original Airdate: June 11, 2017

[Warning: The following review contains spoilers.]

“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” works as an elegant way to further flesh out the American Gods universe. It reinforces how gods or the godlike get to America via the stories and belief of the human beings who travel to America, and the importance of the Old Gods in the lives of their believers. Through some plain wonderful storytelling and great acting work by Emily Browning (who plays the double role of Essie MacGowan and Laura Moon) and Pablo Schreiber (as Mad Sweeney) American Gods somehow manages to enhance its world and characters with an episode that, with any other show, would have probably been dismissed as filler.


We get a brief look at the daily lives of Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel as they work in their funeral home. Mr. Jacquel foretells who their future customers will be as Mr. Ibis (kinda adorably, to be honest) talks about the historical pedigree of his home-brewed beer and lectures his partner on working too late. In turn, Mr. Ibis gets some prompting from Mr. Jacquel to write one of his Coming to America stories, which he sits down at his desk to do — after a second’s hesitation, since he had no idea that the story was in him to write until Mr. Jacquel told him it was there.

Mr. Ibis’s story starts in 1721 and stars Essie MacGowan, an Irish girl who drinks up tales of faerie folk and leprechauns and believes them whole-heartedly. When Essie grows older, she gets a job working in the kitchen of a rich family and seems to spend just as much time spreading tales of the fae as she does doing actual work. The end to Essie’s employment and the beginning of her troubles comes when she has a dalliance with the family’s son. He gives her an heirloom necklace then turns her in as a thief when she’s caught with it. Essie gets sentenced to “seven years transportation,” which is just a fancy way of saying that she’s sent on a ship to America to work as an indentured servant for seven years and then, maybe, carve out a new life for herself in the New World.

Essie convinces the captain of the ship she’s on to release her from her servitude and take her to London with him as his wife instead. As soon as Essie’s left alone after the captain goes on another voyage, she fills a bag with as much of his silver as she can manage and begins a new life alone as a shoplifter in London. Essie had been branded a thief when she hadn’t been one, so it seems she’s just living up to the label.

Throughout Essie MacGowan’s complicated life — including getting charged with stealing again, sentenced to hang, and getting pregnant by the prison guard so that the sentence would be demoted to transportation — she almost consistently keeps her faerie folk in mind. She takes the stories with her when she’s sent back to America as a maid and a wet nurse and tells them to the children in her charge, and the child she eventually has as the wife of the man to whom she was indentured. Essie’s belief in the stories of her youth pulls those figures into America, where they must stay — even when people stop believing the charms against faerie wrath or how a bowl of milk on the windowsill or a loaf of bread at harvest might turn one’s luck from ill to good.

When Essie is an old woman in Virginia, after her children have grown and her grandchildren are more frightened by her stories than enthralled by them, a leprechaun steps out of the darkness to thank her for her devotion. We know him as Mad Sweeney, but Essie only knows him as one of the figures of her beloved tales, a reminder of her happy days as a little girl waiting for her father’s ship to return to shore. When Essie’s long, complicated, good-and-bad life comes to an end, it’s Mad Sweeney — the leprechaun she’d dragged from Ireland through heartfelt belief, probably to his detriment, though he would never resent her for it — who takes her hand and leads her into the afterlife.

This story of Essie is what Mr. Wednesday was talking about during “Lemon Scented You” when he told the New Gods that the Old Gods offered more than a way to occupy people’s time. The Old Gods aren’t simply there to use humans as belief batteries, to take and take and take and give nothing in return. They offer meaning, a connection to the past, and comfort born of tradition and deep faith.


Back in the present, Mad Sweeney and Laura are travelling in a stolen ice cream truck after Laura sets Salim free to go find his jinn at the House on the Rock in Wisconsin, where all the gods and demi-gods will be meeting for Mr. Wednesday’s plans. Mad Sweeney and Laura still need to get to Kentucky, where Laura can be resurrected and Mad Sweeney can get his coin back and be free of her. The ice cream truck seems like a great fit for Laura, since she can use the freezer and air conditioner combo to keep the meat on her bones long enough to get to where they need to go.

We get scenes of these two on their travels cut between scenes of Essie’s life story, and they’re not just connected because of Mad Sweeney. Beyond the simple fact that they’re played by the same actress, both Essie and Laura share certain specific traits. Both are ambitious women who don’t shy away from the idea of doing immoral things so long as it gets them what they want in life, and both slowly learn to make peace with the hands they’ve been dealt.

Laura is still working on the latter aspect, but the fact that she performed a selfless act in letting Salim leave, and that she clearly began to appreciate his outlook on life and learned to respect his faith, means she’s making progress. She’s still driven, still acerbic, and still difficult to like as a person — but she’s evolving and changing for the better. The way that American Gods frames the characters of Essie and Laura as kindred souls through time not only gives us a way to relate the past to the present, but also hints at what’s to come for Laura’s personal journey.

And then there’s the personal journey of Mad Sweeney. We get a vague timeframe for how long Mad Sweeney’s been around and how the ever-changing beliefs of mankind have shaped him, echoing the trajectory Irish mythology’s Tuatha Dé Danann broadly and the story of Buile Shuibhne more specifically. He was a king who left a battle when he saw that he would die, and now he owes a battle to Wednesday for his act of self-preservation. More than that, it seems Sweeney’s debt indentures him to do Wednesday’s bidding — a long fall from his early life not only as a king, but as a being that people like Essie both feared and respected, a creature of fair but mercurial power.

After Sweeney tells Laura his story — I’m not sure if she totally believes her verbal (and sometimes physical) sparring opponent was ever actually a king — they seem to have a flicker of connection. She tells him that dying isn’t so bad and it worked out fine for her, so after hundreds of years, Mad Sweeney might be due to die. Then a rabbit darts out in front of the ice cream truck and Laura swerves to avoid it, flipping the truck and launching herself out the window. Upon impact, the morgue stitches that were holding Laura together rip apart and the golden coin flies out of her body, taking the life it granted with it.

Sweeney wakes up from the crash, sees Laura’s body, and we’re taken to a flashback to the crash where Laura and Robbie died. Mad Sweeney is there, too, ordering a raven to “tell him it’s done,” the implication being that Sweeney killed Laura Moon on Wednesday’s orders. In the present, he’s looking at Laura’s dead body for a second time and he has a choice to make: either pick up his lucky coin, which is finally free from her, and keep walking, or put it back in her and fulfill the promise he made to get her resurrected.

It’s not clear why Sweeney returns the coin to Laura. It could be out of guilt over being the one who originally killed her, or it could be an act of stubborn autonomy — something he could do as Sweeney, a leprechaun who was once a king, and not an act forced upon him by Wednesday’s orders. Maybe Laura really does remind him of the woman hundreds of years ago who had pulled him and his kind from Ireland via well-loved myths. Heck, maybe he’s just secretly nice. Whatever the reasoning, he does return the coin. It magically sinks into her sternum and Laura is undead once more, utterly ignorant of the gift Sweeney had just granted her.

  • I loved how the off-genre music played throughout the Coming to America scenes, along with voiceover and shots of Mr. Ibis’s writing, reminded us that we were seeing the past through Mr. Ibis’s mind. It was easy to think that music was filtering in from Mr. Ibis’s record player as he wrote.
  • All the terrible stuff Sweeney’s said to Salim, and the harshest words Salim can muster for him are “You are an unpleasant creature.” Oh, Salim.
  • When they’re both in prison, Mad Sweeney sarcastically asks Essie what he’d do in the Americas and Essie answers, “Deliver gold to their king.” Hey, remember how Mad Sweeney said his lucky gold coin was meant for the “King of America”?


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