This American Gods review contains spoilers.
American Gods Episode 7
One might have thought that an episode called “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney” would see Mad Sweeney as its protagonist. However, as we learned in the Nunyunnini “Coming to America” vignette from a few episodes ago, “the gods are greater, but people are greater… for it is in their hearts that gods are born and to their hearts that they return.” The “Coming to America” vignettes are not stories of gods. They are stories of belief — the kind of old-fashioned belief that is missing from the modern world of the present-day action.
It is Essie McGowan (Essie Tregowan, in the books) who believes in leprechauns enough to bring Mad to America. I’m not sure if this story needed its own episode, but American Gods sure does tell it with panache (the kind of panache Mad Sweeney himself might appreciate). We start with Essie’s childhood in Ireland, where she was told tales of the leprechauns by her grandmother while waiting for her father’s ship to return from sea.
Essie took the tales to heart, not only passing them on, but continuing to offer worship to the fairy folk in the form of offerings. Even when Essie had nothing — especially when Essie had nothing — she would give her last scrap of bread to the leprechauns.
Essie’s character is played by Emily Browning, the actress who also portrays Laura Moon, in a Cloud Atlas scenario that creates a parallel between these two characters that wasn’t necessarily there in the book. According to Variety, the role wasn’t written to be played by Browning, but when series creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green went to cast it, they thought of Browning. Fuller recounted:
And then we went to talk to Emily, and it was like, ‘So, the Essie episode’ — she was like, ‘Have you cast that actor yet? Because I think I should play her.’ And we were like, ‘Well, that just worked out well.’
Browning really shows off her acting chops (not to mention her talent for accents — the Australian actress has pulled off both an Irish and American accent with applomb), playing a character in Essie who has the same irrereverent determination as Laura, but with a talent for belief. The most interesting parallels between the two characters work in Laura’s direction. We see Laura studying Salim’s praying. She asks him if he is in love with his god or if he loves him. Salim’s belief sways Laura. She decides to let him go.
The parallels also work for the dual relationships between Mad and Essie and Mad and Laura. Essie first encounters Mad (or at least a version of the leprechaun) when they are both in English prison, waiting to be tried for their crimes. Later, he comes to find her when she dies. Her belief is rewarded.
As for Mad and Laura, for the first time, we see the two thaw on each other. Laura expresses empathy for Mad, acknowledging that he has been walking this Earth for a very long time… perhaps too long. She wonders if he doesn’t have to do everything Wednesday tells him to do.
When Laura loses the coin and re-dies, Mad is home free. He has gotten everything he said he wanted. But, for some reason, this time, it isn’t enough. Perhaps Laura reminds him of Essie, perhaps it is his own mind’s connection between the two that inspired the casting in Ibis’ story. Perhaps Mad is tired of following Wednesday’s orders, of fighting and having nothing to show for it. Whatever the reason, Mad puts the coin back in Laura’s chest, who comes back alive having n idea that Mad chose to save her.
Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Because Mad was the one to kill her, too. In a flashback, we see that it was Mad who ran Laura and Robbie off the road, per Wednesday’s orders. As the season progresses, it becomes more and more clear that Wednesday is far from harmless, powerless, or bumbling. He may be charming, but, as he told Shadow in that very first episode, he tends to get what he wants eventually. Wednesday may be lacking worshippers, but he knows how to make his own luck.
Why did Mad save Laura? Laura might not be particularly worthy of saving, but she isn’t unworthy, either — not in the context of the conversation Mad had with Essie when they were both waiting for their maybe-deaths in the English prison. “Doesn’t seem right. Just giving you the one [opportunity.]” “Well, the world don’t operate on right.” I’m not sure if I believe Mad would help Laura again, given the chance, but that’s how leprechauns work, isn’t it? Sometimes, they help you. Sometimes, they hurt you.
The telling of Mad’s story gives us a bit more Ibis, the god who has been telling/writing all of the “Coming to America” vignettes we have gotten so far. As we see in the episode’s opening minutes, Ibis isn’t just telling a story. He is interacting with it. The story talks back. Flashbacks are so ineffectively or at least lazily used used in so much of TV. I like to believe that, in this use of flashback, American Gods is making some comments about Ibis’ power. Did Ibis’s story remind Mad of Essie, subtly influencing him to save Laura’s undead life? Maybe not, but it’s a nice though — and a powerful example of the power of a story.
I’m both impressed and glad that American Gods took this long to tell a “Coming to America” vignette that focused on the white European immigration experience, in doing so, it set about debunking some of the more aspirational myths about American immigration. “In truth, the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape. A… forgetting place,” Ibis tells us.
Transport gave European criminals a chance to choose America and indentured servitude over the gallows. America wasn’t a land of opportunity so much as a slightly-less-terrible sentence. Immigration is often more about desperation than it is anything else. People don’t choose to leave their homes unless they have to. Something to think about in relation to the current sociopolitical status quo.
Overall, “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney” has felt like the least necessary of American Gods‘ episodes. We saw nothing of Wednesday and Shadow’s plot, instead focusing on characters of Laura, Mad, and — to a lesser extent — Salim, Ibis, and Mr. Jacquel. For viewers desperate to get to the major plot points of the book, this might be frustrating, especially in the season’s penultimate episode.
Personally, I am enjoying American Gods‘ meanderings more than I am the central plot. (Though I like that, too.) If people are truly greater than gods, then these peaks into the lives of the people who make gods great are more necessary than the deitic machinations that tend to get priorty in the book. Keep the “Coming to America” vignettes coming, American Gods.
Another ep, another dick. (This time on a corpse in Mr. Jaquel’s morgue.)
Is it weird that Ibis & Jaquel’s seems like a really cozy place to hang out? More like a library than a morgue.
“You have a story to tell … I can see it in your fingers.”
Anubis knows about the deaths before they get called in. Does this give him a jump on the mortuary competition?
Both Essie’s grandmother and Older Essie were played by the same actress, Fionnula Flanagan (The Others, Song of the Sea). This was a nice touch.
“Her world branded Essie McCowan a thief. So thief she became.”
“That’s what you get for putting a god in a petting zoo.”
“I will eat you.” (Mad to the raven.)
When Laura tells Mad she thinks they should let Salim go, it was honestly the first time I had realized he was a hostage. He seemed to be enjoying himself.
“Fuck off. Go find your man, your god, your jinn.” Laura is an old softie.
“You are an unpleasant creature.” Salim’s parting words to Mad.
“In the Americas, anyone can be anything they insist upon. New name, new life. That’s a place a body could be happy.” Essie’s dream of the new world actually ends up being true for her, in some way…
“I think I knew [what happiness is] when I was a little girl, sitting on the shingle waiting for my father’s boat to come in from sea. Now, I think I’d be content to be content. A home. A tree. Someone kind enough to be by me.”
I kept getting distracted by the wig-ness of Emily Browning’s Essie hair. Not sure if American Gods pulled that one off, but I appreciate their ambition.
Who was that bunny?
“I was a king once, then they made me a bird. Then, Mother Church came along and turned us all into saints, trolls, and fairies. General Mills did the rest.” (Mad’s self-description.)
“She told them all these things and they believed because she believed.”