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American Gods 1.07 Review – ‘Prayer For Mad Sweeney’

June 11, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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American Gods 1.07 Review – ‘Prayer For Mad Sweeney’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Sunday’s episode of American Gods.]

The first season of American Gods is nearly over, and it certainly hasn’t followed what one might consider a traditional seasonal arc thus far. In the first six episodes, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have introduced the characters but kept the main plot momentum fairly light. There’s been progression to be sure between the likes of Shadow and Wednesday’s meeting, the beginning of the road trip, their meeting with the New Gods and the like, but with excursions like the episode focusing on Laura’s backstory and the “Coming to America” vignettes, the showrunners have been more interested in setting the foundation than rushing through the main arc.

To be clear, that’s good thing. American Gods is a story in which the details contain much of the brilliance, and pushing ahead too fast would have lost a lot of the nuance that gives the story impact and resonance. Some of the best moments in the first season have been the minor ones that weren’t strictly necessary to the plot: Media’s conversation with Technical Boy, Salim’s first encounter with the Jinn, Audrey’s encounter with Laura and so on. A less confident set of showrunners would have been worried about wasting running time and losing viewers in the slower pace and would have deemed these non-essential, as you can understand Wednesday and Shadow’s journey without them. But the story would also be much less impactful without all of that and so, while the Old God and his new employee haven’t made it too far yet, it’s fair to say that the series’ success and narrative power has been because of those details, not in spite of them.

For those who might bemoan this show’s leisurely attitude, “Prayer For Mad Sweeney” might just be the most frustrating episode of the show yet. There is literally zero progress made on the main road trip, and instead of pushing that forward we get what is essentially a Laura & Mad Sweeney side episode. But even then, the episode has a similar impact to the one that “Git Gone” had. By expanding a “Coming to America” segment into an arc that fills much of the episode, we get to learn a lot more about one of our less-developed main players…and uncover a few secrets that may just be incredibly relevant going forward.

“Prayer For Mad Sweeney” may tell the tale of our favorite tall, bitter glass of Irish water, but it does so through the eyes of the woman who brought him to America in Essie Macgowan. America, as Mr. Ibis points in his writing, wasn’t just a place where people sought religious freedom; after the Transportation Act in 1718, Britain sent 60,000 convicts to the colonies in order to be sold as indentured servants. Essie’s story is moderately faithful in its adaptation from the novel, framing her as a character who brings her belief (and thus Mad Sweeney) from her homeland to the New World. It’s through Essie that Mad Sweeney ends up on American shores so that he can ultimately factor into the storyline.

By presenting Essie’s story, Fuller and Green (and Gaiman, in the novel) add another wrinkle to America’s complicated story of immigration. It’s absolutely true that in most textbooks (at least, the ones you learn from in elementary school), transportation sentencing isn’t taught. It’s easier and more inspiring to teach kids that America was the land of pilgrims who just wanted to practice Christianity in the way they were taught and carve out a better existence for themselves. But there’s a better story in the truth, and that’s the story that American Gods is interested in telling. Positioning a tale like this in the story alongside Anansi’s fiery monologue to the slaves in the second episode takes some of the shiny veneer off grade school history, but something much more interesting — and truthful — under the surface.

Essie’s story, in a lot of ways, reflects many of our core characters. She’s a criminal who finds freedom in the New World after her attempts to escape her fate, echoing many elements of Shadow’s path. Both of them are sympathetic to some degree; Shadow did what he did for love while Essie did it first because she was betrayed, and then in order to fight for survival. They’ve both displayed self-destructive streaks as well. Essie also has a correlation the Old Gods. Wednesday, Vulcan, Bilquis and Sweeney are disadvantaged immigrants of a sort, fighting for what scraps are left and willing to bend morality (or break it entirely) to get what they feel they deserve. When the chips are down, you do what you have to in order to live and once you’ve gotten into that habit, it’s hard to break it if you’re getting ahead.

Of course, the most obvious correlation that Essie has to current events in the series is Laura. It’s an interesting decision to have Essie be played by Emily Browning, to be sure. It’s certainly one that pays off, as Browning is as good playing Essie as she is playing Laura. There’s no definitive evidence in the book that I can recall linking Essie to Laura from a bloodline standpoint, though the argument has been made before and it’s definitely possible. Instead, the link seems to be less about who they are and more about who they are in a thematic way as well as what they represent (here, at least) to Mad Sweeney.

There’s a lot that ties Laura and Essie together, and not just their associations with the leprechaun. Both Essie and Laura are survivors who refuse to let twists of fate hold them back from getting what they want. In some cases, those twists seem insurmountable. Essie’s getting sent to America the first time is something she has no control over and would seem to be the end of the line in a lot of ways, the same way that death itself should have put the final stamp on Laura’s part to play in the world. They both have to resort to deals and compromising themselves body and soul in order to avoid what the world seems to have planned for them. `

But they’re also products of their own self-destructive natures. Laura potentially sabotages her relationship with Shadow by getting him to pull the casino heist and then by having an affair with Robbie, which seems to be a continuation of previous self-destructive tendencies like the bug spray huffing. Essie, on the other hand, has to resort to theft to survive but then keeps doing it and forgets to honor her fairy folk protectors, which leaves her awaiting the hangman’s noose and needing to get pregnant in order to escape death.

It’s also important because while Laura and Essie are the main players in this episode, they’re telling Sweeney’s story. By putting Browning in both roles, we’re directed to draw a direct connection between the two characters Sweeney undoubtedly and how they look through Sweeney’s eyes. Essie was the woman who brought him, the man formerly known as Buile Shuibhne, to the new world. Like the Norsemen brought Odin and the slaves brought Anansi, this believer gave him a new home. They didn’t meet directly face to face until the end of her road, but it was a journey they took together even as Essie sometimes took him for granted. There are a lot of parallels there with Laura and Sweeney, a much more contentious but no less significant relationship. His coin brought her back to life, much like Essie’s faith in him kept him going, and perhaps there’s some karma being paid out in returning the favor.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Sweeney appears to be dealing with some guilt issues involving Laura. That’s because, as we learn this week, Sweeney was the man who cause Laura and Robbie’s death on that road. Sweeney’s dialogue strongly suggests that it was done for Wednesday, which also suggests that his coin bringing her back to life was a development Wednesday isn’t happy with. It shines a new light on his desire to get Shadow away from Laura last week and raises a fair amount of suspicion regarding exactly what Wednesday is up to — and just how long Shadow has been in his sights. These are the kinds of plot developments that can keep a viewer hooked in even if the story isn’t moving along as quickly as some might like, and it’s a little extra icing on the cake of an episode that will pay off spades as Laura and Sweeney’s stories further develop.

That twist in the story provides for the final touch on Sweeney’s backstory and builds sympathy for him, particularly after Laura causes their stolen ice cream truck to swerve in order to avoid hitting a bunny and ends up a corpse again on the road. Sweeney could have just taken his coin and left Laura dead, but that guilt — and perhaps an inkling of familiarity thanks to her similar tale to Essie’s — brings him back. Sure, he gets a punch to the face for his trouble, but it’s a moment that humanizes a character that, to this point, had largely been entertaining because he was surly and cool. Pablo Schrieber is a stand-out in this episode, bringing a bit of empathy to the rough and tumble character and making him a more interesting one by the end of the hour than he was going in.

Adam Kane directed this episode, his second this season after last week’s “A Murder of Gods,” working off a script by Maria Melnik. Kane has always talented behind the camera on genre shows — he’s directed episodes of Daredevil, 24: Live Another Day and Being Human, among many other shows — but this is a particularly inspired piece of work for him. The music is perhaps the best touch; during the 1721 pieces, Kane uses doo-wop songs from the 1960s such as “Runaway Sue” and “Daddy’s Home.” It’s idyllic music from a nostalgic time, set against that most American of stories: a hard-luck tale with a relatively happy conclusion. In the end, Essie lives to an old age and gets to meet her leprechaun in her final moments. Time will tell of Laura gets her happy ending, but for the moment her expanded story (and how Sweeney factors into it) is proving to be one of the series’ highlights.

Some Final Thoughts:

• We say goodbye to Salim for now, as Laura earns a bit of good girl cred by telling him that the Jinn is in Wisconsin. We’ll see him again, but for now I’m sorry to see him go. His pairing with Sweeney and Laura was fun and resulted in some poignant dialogue.

• Case in point about that dialogue: “Do you love God or are you in love with God?” “I never thought of it that way.”

• Extra credit goes to this episode for casting the wonderful Fionnula Flanagan as Essie’s grandmother and as an elderly Essie herself, suggesting that maybe Laura’s looks do run in the family.

• They are less directly relevant to the story right now, but I love Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel’s interactions when we get them. Partially because I’m an Egyptology buff, and partially because the actors play off each other so well.

• Just one more episode this season! Here’s hoping for more than eight episodes in season two.

9
The final score: review Amazing
The 411
American Gods takes another detour in its penultimate episode of the season, but like the last it is one that nicely fleshes out the backstory of some key characters and delivers some important developments for what's going on in the present. Emily Browning and Pablo Schrieber's scenes have become pure joy to watch and while it will be nice for the final episode to get us back on a plot ground, "Prayer For Mad Sweeney" is another example of how this is one of the best shows on television right now.
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