If any character in season 1 of American Gods has been the breakout star of the series, it is Pablo Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney. Schreiber has been excellent as the gruff and incredibly tall leprechaun of American Gods. It is not much of a surprise then that this episode, titled a “Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” devotes almost all of its runtime to the foul-mouthed creature of legend. It’s equally unsurprising that it might just be the best episode of the series thus far.
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The Story of Essie and Sweeney
There isn’t really a coming to america cold open for “Prayer for Mad Sweeney.” Instead, almost the entire episode takes place in the past, recounting the story of how Mad Sweeney ended up in America. Though Mad Sweeney does play a small but important part in the story, the story is really focused on a young Irish woman named Essie. In a weird (but genius) move, Essie, otherwise known as Laura Moon, is played by Emily Browning. Though it is never stated, it is implied, by this casting, that Essie is Laura’s ancestor — and that idea works perfectly for the character.
Essie, like Laura, is a con artist and trickster. Essie wasn’t always a selfish person. She grew up as a servant in a rich Irish home. Essie loved and believed in the stories of Irish folktale, including leprechauns like Mad Sweeney. Essie’s simple life came crashing down when she was (falsely) accused of stealing by the family. After being charged for being a criminal, Essie turned to a life of crime. She became a thief and used everyone around her to gain an edge. Browning injects all the wiliness and strong-will of Laura into Essie, and it gives the whole story a resonance to present day that exists far outside the Mad Sweeney connection.
The story of Essie is beautifully told as well. Since it is narrated by Mr. Ibis, Essie’s story does have a very comforting storybook quality to it, even as things get incredibly dark. Essie confronts death, rape and the cruelness of mankind, but she remains an odd beacon of hope. Like Laura, Essie is not exactly likable since she uses and abuses nearly everyone around her, but she remains fascinating. Essie has nothing but her wits and belief in magic to rely on and survive. Essie captures the ethereal but still gritty tone that American Gods has done so well in its first season.
After being caught for stealing, Essie ends up pregnant after being raped by the prison warden. Essie, because of her pregnancy, is shipped to America to be an indentured servant and avoids being executed for her crimes. In America, Essie becomes the wet nurse of a man whose wife has recently died in childbirth. Essie manipulates herself into the position of being the man’s wife and then, after his death, becomes the mistress of the house. All the while, Essie believes and teaches the stories of her childhood. It is Essie’s belief in magic that brings Mad Sweeney to America. It is Mad Sweeney who greets an elderly Essie as she dies, and he takes her to the afterlife. This scene is particularly heartwarming and shows off a whole new and much sweeter side to Mad Sweeney than we’ve seen before now.
On the Road Again
The kindness that Mad Sweeney shows Essie does become important in present day. Though the present day stuff is really a footnote to the episode, it is an important one. Salim, Sweeney and Laura reach a statue of a Tatanka Ska, a white buffalo. It is here that Laura decides that Sweeney and herself can head off to her resurrection alone. When Sweeney lets slip that all the gods are meeting at the House on the Rock, Laura tells Salim, who rushes off to meet his jinn and leaving the two behind. This ends one of the best road trip trios in TV history, but it is hard to begrudge Salim his “happy ending.”
Laura and Sweeney get back on the road, after stealing an ice cream truck for travel. It is only on American Gods where a stolen ice cream truck is both the most perfect and bizarre transportation. Inside the truck, Sweeney begins to open a bit to Laura. Sweeney tells her that he has committed his fair share of sins and that it is not just Wednesday who is a gigantic ass. It is not until Laura swerves off the road and crashes (to avoid hitting a very suspicious white rabbit) that we learn what exactly Sweeney’s sins are.
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Sweeney Pays for His Sins
The accident causes the ice cream truck to completely flip over, and Laura goes flying out of it. Laura’s autopsy incisions break open in the crash, and Sweeney’s coin flies out of her body. Laura is dead … again. When Sweeney wakes up, he finds the dead Laura lying on the road. This causes him to recall a similar incident not so long ago. It is revealed that on Wednesday’s orders, Sweeney caused the accident that killed Laura and Robbie. Sweeney is the reason that Laura is dead.
This is not much of a twist, to be honest. It was safe to assume that Wednesday had a part in Laura’s death. Her death was too perfect a coincidence for Wednesday when he wanted to hire Shadow. It takes away some of the magical serendipity of the show, but it does make perfect sense that Wednesday wanted Laura out of the picture. The fact that Sweeney did the deed, though, does add some layers to his character.
The most important layer is yet to be added. Seeing Laura dead on the pavement, Sweeney can’t “kill” her again. Sweeney doesn’t take his coin for himself and go on his way. He puts the coin back inside Laura. She wakes up and has no idea what Sweeney has just done for her. Laura continues to berate him and tells him to get back into the truck. Sweeney does, with a smile, and the odd couple keeps cruising down the road.
“Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is such an odd episode in what is the penultimate installment of the season. There’s absolutely no Shadow or Wednesday in it, but it is hard to argue that this time spent with Sweeney, Laura and Essie wasn’t well spent. In season 2, it might even be preferable to have some of these slower, character-centric episodes rather than ones focused on the New Gods versus Old Gods war.
What do you think? Was this one of American Gods‘ best episodes? Would you like to see more like it in the future? Did you miss Shadow and Wednesday? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
American Gods season 1 airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on Starz. Want more news? Like BuddyTV’s Facebook page.
(Image courtesy of Starz)