American Gods Episode Seven: “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”
Welcome to our recap of the STARZ television series American Gods, starring Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle. I’m going to try to do this every week, so we’ll see how that goes. I plan on doing a general recap first, and then commentary and whatever I happen to notice in the episode that piques my interest. Needless to say, there will be spoilers for both the novel and the TV show. So, without further ado, let’s dive in!
Much of the episode focuses on Essie McGowan, an Irish girl raised on tales of fairies and leprechauns by her grandmother. As an adult working in a manor house, she continues telling her tales and catches the eye of the mistress’s son. When he gives Essie a piece of family heirloom jewelry, the mistress accuses Essie of stealing it, and her son doesn’t speak up and deny that, so Essie is sent to prison. Rather than facing execution, she’s sentenced to transportation–indentured servitude in America–for seven years. Even on the boat, she keeps leaving offerings of bread to the “fair folk”, and her luck changes for the better when she seduces the captain. He returns her to London, where nobody knows her, and promises to marry her. She, however, runs off with all of his silver when his back is turned.
Essie becomes a skilled shoplifter, taking what she likes when she wants it, whether it’s food or lace or a man. But her prosperity causes her to forget to leave out the offerings of bread and cream, and her luck turns for the worse. She’s caught shoplifting and sentenced to hang. In her cell, she talks to a fellow Irishman–whom the audience will recognize as Mad Sweeney–and tells him that she thinks she could be content in America if she had a second chance to go. In the morning, the mystery man is gone, the bread that Essie left on the windowsill is gone too, and the prison warden offers to help commute Essie’s sentence if she’ll have sex with him. A few weeks later, upon discovering that she’s pregnant, the judge sentences Essie to transportation for life to Virginia.
Her indenture is bought by a small tobacco farmer, Mr. Richardson, whose wife just passed, leaving their infant daughter in need of a wet nurse. Essie raises both his daughter and her son, telling them tales of the fairies and leprechauns until she catches the fancy of Mr. Richardson and the two wed. Essie eventually has another son with him, and the pair share a decade of married life before he passes from a fever. Essie runs the plantation from that point onward, but when her stories frighten her grandchildren, she stops telling them. She never forgets to leave her offerings for the fair folk, though. And when her time comes to die, Mad Sweeney comes to her, as she’s one of the people who brought him to America. She takes his hand and passes peacefully.
Back in the present, Laura, Sweeney, and Salim are continuing their road trip. On a stop at the site of the birth of a white buffalo, Sweeney’s pee break is interrupted by a raven, and Sweeney tells it that he’s still heading to Wisconsin “per the agreement” and says to pass on the message “Fuck you”. Laura is watching Salim pray while Sweeney is off in the bushes, and his devotion convinces Laura to release him. She gets Sweeney to tell her the location of the gods’ gathering, and passes that information to Salim, who speeds away. Laura and Sweeney then steal an ice-cream truck and resume their journey. As they drive, Sweeney tells Laura a little of his history: he fled an important battle long ago, and now he owes a battle. His work for Wednesday is part of his quest to redeem himself.
A ways down the road, a white rabbit darts in front of the truck and causes them to crash. Laura flies through the windshield, her chest stitches burst open, and Sweeney’s coin falls out. When he regains consciousness, he sees the coin in the road and gratefully retrieves it, but then he stops. He remembers the night Laura died, and the fact that he took part in causing her demise. Guiltily, he puts the coin back in her chest, and the pair get back on the road.
So, let’s tackle that big reveal: Sweeney had a hand in Laura’s death! While I didn’t see that coming (and neither did anyone else, if the OMG posts on the internet are any indication), it actually makes perfect sense. We know that Sweeney has been doing things at Wednesday’s behest, such as showing up at the Crocodile Bar to pick a fight with Shadow and test his mettle. We know that Wednesday wanted Shadow in on his little god war–even in the book, Wednesday’s first words to Shadow are “You’re late” when he gets on the plane that he was only on because of Laura’s death. It’s not too big of a stretch to believe that Wednesday orchestrated the whole thing. There were even other tip-offs in the earlier episodes, such as Hugin and Munnin flying over the car right before Robbie and Laura crash.
Not only does this shed some more light onto Wednesday’s machinations, but it gives a poignant glimpse into Sweeney’s character. Up until now, he’s been nothing but an oversized asshole. But here, we not only get to see his gentler side in his interactions with Essie at the end of her life, but also in his reaction to having to take part in murder. In a recent Reddit thread, someone translated the Gaelic that Sweeney was shouting after the ice cream truck crashed, and it translates roughly to “Haven’t I believed enough in your bullshit?” (Or alternately, “Why does this bullshit keep happening to me?”) “Haven’t I suffered enough? Isn’t that enough itself? I’m not evil! I’m not!” He can’t just walk away with his coin, because the fact that it brought her back to life is the one thing redeeming him from her murder. If he can get her resurrected and then get his coin back, he’ll have his luck and he’ll have her death off of his conscience. And so, he does the right thing and gives her back the coin.
Something I didn’t know until I saw discussions online today is that Mad Sweeney is partially based on the Irish story of Buile Shuibhne, which translates to “Mad Sweeney”. Sweeney’s tale to Laura was true–he was a king once, but he fled from the Battle of Mag Rath and was cursed to wander until he meets his death at the point of a spear. His story has changed over time, especially after he came to America, a land with “no time for magic”, as he tells Essie. Interestingly, Neil Gaiman has stated that he knows the whole 4000 year history of Mad Sweeney, so I hope that the show chooses to explore him in some more depth. And kudos to Pablo Schreiber for his portrayal of Sweeney’s emotions in this episode. The devastated look on his face after he brings Laura back to life is heartbreaking. Not only has he given up his coin, but he was reliving his guilt over helping to kill her, and possibly also reflecting on how much she reminds him of Essie.
It was a great creative choice to have Emily Browning play Essie as well as Laura. As the showrunners said in an interview on Entertainment Weekly, they weren’t specifically creating Essie as Laura’s ancestor, but they did say that they wanted to show that the same spirit ran through both characters. Both find satisfaction in following what they believe is their path in life, even if it’s not what society thinks should be “right” for them. Both steal and get caught. And both encounter Sweeney at a time when they must choose to believe in something–Essie in her leprechaun’s as she sits in Newgate prison, and Laura as she realizes just how much she loves Shadow.
I know that Laura/Essie was in the episode much more than Sweeney, but it’s not just the fact that the episode is named for him that makes me focus on his part in the story. He’s an ancient being, one who can do you “good and ill”, as he tells Essie. But as an old god, he does the same thing that Anubis does in episode three and helps a believer to their afterlife. We don’t see where Essie goes, but the final shot of the lighthouse at Bantry Bay, her former home, seem to suggest that she found peace.
A few odds and ends…
The showrunners said in the same interview mentioned above that Essie’s last name was changed from Tregowan, which is Cornish, to McGowan, which is Irish, to facilitate the connection to Sweeney. It was also done, though, because Browning says that her Cornish accent is terrible!
Supposedly, Sweeney is wearing the same boots that he wore the night before the Battle of Mag Rath, and the showrunners said they were designed to look like they could have been worn hundreds of years ago.
The same actress, Fionnula Flanagan, plays both Essie’s grandmother and the old version of Essie. She’s also the only Irish actor in this episode.
Although I didn’t mention it in the recap, Ibis and Jacquel show up in this episode as well. Their interaction was cute–kind of like an old married couple or a pair of very old friends who have been roommates for a long time. I liked how Jacquel brought Ibis a fresh bottle of ale while Ibis is writing, without even needing to be asked. Now that’s a good friend.
Basically, this episode just made me love Mad Sweeney even more than I already did. He’s cantankerous, quixotic, foul-mouthed, and utterly without social graces, but underneath that exterior is someone who is trying desperately to do the right thing, even if he gets tripped up trying to do it. It was heartbreakingly sweet to see his final interaction with Essie, because you can tell that he loves her for keeping the belief in the old stories alive. It’s comforting to think that someone will come to bear us company when we die, and although an overly-tall leprechaun might not be everyone’s first choice, in this episode it’s perfect.
And that’s it for this time! As a note, all pics were screencapped by me. Comparisons to the novel were made using the tenth anniversary edition of the book.