After last week’s episode jam-packed with spectacle, murder, sacrifice, and would-be Nazis, this week’s American Gods kept things simpler and quieter. It was more about backstory than advancing the plot, a brief pause in forward momentum leading up to next week’s season finale. It’s a storytelling technique I complain about when The Walking Dead does it, so how did it work for American Gods? Let’s take a look…
The episode opens with Jacquel preparing a body at the funeral home. Ibis pontificates about beer, and Jacquel basically tells him to go away because he has a story he needs to write. These two have been together for thousands of years at this point; Jacquel knows how to handle Ibis delicately.
Ibis’s story is about Essie MacGowan, the main character in one of the book’s longer “Coming to America” vignettes. The episode is entirely built around this story, so to call it a vignette here is a bit of a misnomer. It was intercut with present-day scenes of Laura and Mad Sweeney, but I’m gonna first recap one, then jump to the other.
Essie is a little girl in Ireland in 1721. Her grandmother raises her with stories of the faerie folk and leprechauns, and as Essie grows up she continues to believe. She always leaves a little snack out for the leprechauns, and when she’s a maid in a fine house she tells the children the old stories as well.
Eventually Essie asks for help making the heir to the household fall in love with her. He does, and gives her a necklace with the promise that when he returns from school he’ll ask her to marry him. Unfortunately a maid rats her out and the boy’s mother accuses Essie of stealing the necklace. The boy, when questioned, says he didn’t freely give it to her, and Essie is sent up for stealing.
The judge sentences her to 7 years’ transportation. In other words, she has to go to the Americas and be sold as an indentured servant. After 7 years’ time she’ll be free to do what she wants.
Essie isn’t having any of it. She seduces the ship’s captain and he immediately brings her back to London as his wife. Shortly after they arrive, he has to head back across the sea. Essie takes the opportunity to steal all the valuables in his house and head out on her own.
She becomes an accomplished thief, shoplifting pretty much anything she wants from markets in London. She always remembers to leave her offerings to the leprechauns…until she doesn’t anymore. Once she gets distracted and lazy about paying tribute, her luck turns sour and she’s caught stealing.
In addition to that crime is, of course, the fact that she returned from transport early. Now the only sentence is to hang, so she’s sent to Newgate Prison to await execution.
The prisoner in the next cell is complaining about a bar fight he got into, and hey look it’s Mad Sweeney! Makes sense, since the name of the episode is “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney.” Anyway, they talk, and she encourages him to go to America. She also leaves a tiny crust of her small piece of bread on the windowsill as an offering. To be clear, she has no idea she’s talking to a leprechaun, and though Sweeney talks about guarding his horde of gold, she pretty much just thinks he’s crazy.
Next day her neighbor is gone, and the warden comes in to deliver her food personally. He explains that it’s 12 weeks until her trial, and in that time there might be something they can do about her impending hanging. That something involves sex, of course, and by the time her trial rolls around Essie is pregnant.
The judge sentences her to transport again, this time for life. She ends up in Norfolk, VA, where a tobacco farmer buys her indenture so she can act as a wet nurse to his newborn daughter. She has her baby, too, and she raises them on stories of the Old World like her grandmother told her. She’s always careful to leave her offering to the leprechauns, and she encourages the children to do the same.
Eventually Essie and the farmer wed and have a child together. He dies after 10 years of marriage, and she continues to run the farm as the Widow Johnson. She always leaves an offering at harvest time, and cream on the windowsill, and as an old woman she tells her grandchildren the stories too. Except her grandchildren are frightened, and Essie realizes that the New World is no place for her old stories. She keeps them to herself and makes her sacrifices, and one night she passes away quietly, in her sleep.
Mad Sweeney comes for her. She recognizes him, and he tells her that it’s thanks to her and a few others telling the old stories that he was able to come to America. She tells him he’s done a lot of good for her, but he cautions that leprechauns are fickle. It’s been both good and bad. Then he asks for her hand and leads her away.
As I said, during the course of Essie’s story we jumped to present-day events unfolding with Laura, Salim, and Mad Sweeney. They stop for Salim to pray, and Laura tricks Mad Sweeney into revealing their ultimate destination: the House on the Rock, in Wisconsin. She tells Salim, freeing him, and encourages him to go get his man. Sweeney is pissed because Salim is their ride, but Salim is quick to take Laura up on her offer.
Laura steals an ice cream truck, sort of, because she does give the guy some money for it. Sweeney punches him to make it look good, and off they go. Laura opens all the freezers and cranks up the AC. Sweeney is bitching and moaning about the cold, and when Laura tells him to get over it he says “we aren’t all hangar steak.”
He tells her he was once a king, then he became a bird, and then the Church showed up and everyone got turned into saints and trolls. He tells her about a battle in which he foresaw his own death, and rather than die he dropped his sword and left. Mad Sweeney is Buile Shuibhne, a legendary Irish king who left a battle and turned to a life of wandering. While the character was always meant to be a callback to the Irish legend, it’s nice to see his backstory fully spelled out for us.
Sweeney throws some gold coins out the window and a few minutes later a bunny comes hopping across the road. Laura swerves to avoid it and tips the ice cream truck. There’s a violent, slow-motion wreck with glass and popsicles and people flying everywhere, and ultimately Laura lands hard enough to split open her autopsy scar and send the gold coin flying down the road.
Uh oh. Now she dead. Stinky smelly for real dead.
We learned earlier in the episode that Sweeney acts as Wednesday’s errand boy, and when he sees Laura dead on the road and retrieves his coin, he flashes back to the night she died the first time. He stands over her dying form and a crow caws at him from a nearby tree. “Tell him it’s done,” he says.
Back in the present he walks away from Laura’s corpse, the coin clenched triumphantly in his palm. But then our seemingly incorrigible leprechaun has a crisis of conscience. He’s the reason she’s dead in the first place, and he promised he’d get her resurrected…and now he’s just going to leave her in the middle of the road like so much roadkill?
He goes back and drops the coin in her chest. Laura sits up like nothing happened, but of course she notices her skin flapping open. She orders him to look away and wraps herself in a jacket, then lifts the ice cream truck upright. She climbs in and lays on the horn as he slowly makes his way to the truck. Finally he gets in next to her, and they’re off, Laura completely unaware of her recent re-death and re-re-animation.
This was a quiet little episode that chose to focus on character over plot or spectacle. After my complaints last week, that’s something I can appreciate. I was worried that they were pulling the rug out from under the season’s momentum, but the episode’s ending seemed to correct that problem. It ended with Sweeney and Laura back on the road, headed for Kentucky (I suppose) and ultimately Wisconsin. Overall the episode was a brief pitstop on the main road trip.
Last week was huge, cluttered, loud, and busy, so it was kind of nice to take a break with some backstory. The one worry I have is that this is the season’s next-to-last episode, so was this really the best time to tell us Sweeney’s story? Was it really the best time to reveal that he was responsible for Laura’s death? Originally the season was supposed to be 10 episodes, but the show runners felt that they were stretching the story too long, and the network agreed to cut back to 8. I think that’s where this odd little episode came from.
I’m always glad to see more Laura, and Mad Sweeney has become a fun, if vulgar, addition. I was VERY sorry to see Salim go, but hopefully he’ll be back in s2 when we finally make it to the House on the Rock.
Speaking of s2, we’ve seen several promo pics showing Kristen Chenoweth as Easter. I assume that means next week? Easter next week? It seems like we got a glimpse of her this week (or at least her helpers) in the form of the cute little bunny that caused the wreck, but…Easter is doing Wednesday’s bidding and causing automobile accidents? That doesn’t seem right. I mean, I could be wrong, but it was a sweet, white little bunny like one associates with Easter time, not a brown wild bunny that just happened to be hopping around. And of course Sweeney threw those coins out the window, like an offering.
A Prayer for Mad Sweeney
Essie’s story was always one of my favorite in the books. They changed it a little for the show’s purposes, but I always associated it with Mad Sweeney in my head. I guess because the lore Essie was drawing from was his lore (sort of—book!Essie was Cornish), and the creature that came for her always seemed very Mad Sweeney-like to me. Probably because it had red hair. It was small, while Sweeney is described as 7′ tall, but still. Whether Gaiman meant it that way or not, the adaptational choice to depict the piskie (or pixie) as Mad Sweeney the leprechaun worked for me, and his much more blatant influence on her life seemed appropriate.
Now. Why did they have Emily Browning play Essie? Is Essie meant to be Laura’s ancestor? Or was it to show the parallels between Essie’s life and Laura’s? Essie spent most of her life conning people and stealing. She conned the ship’s captain into taking her back to London and conned the tobacco farmer into releasing her indenture and marrying her, though it does seem she came to care for him over time.
I don’t believe Laura “conned” Shadow into marrying her, though it’s obvious she didn’t love him the way he loved her. She wasn’t a thief until she talked Shadow into robbing the casino. And, unlike Essie, Laura never really believed in anything.
But Laura’s life depends on the fickle whims of a certain obnoxious leprechaun, like much of Essie’s did. On Wednesday’s orders, he somehow caused the crash that killed her the first time. It’s his coin that brought her back to life. He claims he’s taking her to someone who can for-real resurrect her, and she almost didn’t make it when (it seems) he caused ANOTHER crash that robbed her of her second life. Only he chose to give it back.
Which raises an interesting question of its own. Is there more to the hard-drinking leprechaun than we thought? Is he not quite as unpleasant a creature as Salim called him out on being?
I don’t know about all that. I think something about Laura, or journeying with Laura, or maybe Laura mocking him for being Wednesday’s errand boy, reminded him of what he used to be: a creature of power, worthy of sacrifice and worship. Coming to America changed that for him, and he’s hoping that by choosing Wednesday’s side he’ll get it back, but maybe some part of him knows he won’t. Either the cause is hopeless or it’s all bullshit, but either way, things will never go back to how they were in the Old Country.
Maybe it’s just that he made Laura a promise, and for all his faults, Mad Sweeney keeps his word. He’s going to Wisconsin because he owes Wednesday a battle (implying that it’s some form of Odin who helped him escape his own battle, the one that would’ve killed him), but it seems like he would also owe Wednesday Laura’s death. Maybe he didn’t promise that one.
In Other News…
- I don’t know whether the implication is that Ibis and Jacquel are lovers, but they’re awfully cozy and domestic. Possibly just because they’ve been together for so long, but I don’t know. I was getting strong “couple” vibes from them, and it was very sweet.
- I love the constant “King of America” mentions, and I wonder if they’re going to delve into that little story from Neil Gaiman’s other seminal work, Sandman?
- It seems like Sweeney’s always had terrible hair.
- I could watch the close-ups of Ibis writing all day. Also, that’s a very nice flowing pen for one that needs to be dipped.
- Please read this amazing article from The Atlantic: The Refreshing Queer Sensibility of American Gods
I didn’t mind a bit of filler here, because I know it’s the next-to-last episode. It felt less like filler and more like a palate cleanser. A nice dollop of sorbet to get us refreshed and ready for next week’s finale.
Episode Grade: tough one today, dear readers. I’m gonna go B- because I’m grading on a tough curve the show has already set.