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Review: American Gods 1×07 “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”

Proving once again that you can never predict where this show is going to take you, the penultimate episode of the first season was devoted entirely to Mad Sweeney’s backstory, largely breaking from the season arc, and beautifully interweaving his Coming to America story with the somewhat tragic, present day predicament he finds himself locked in with Laura Moon.

A filmic little gem, the story of Essie MacGowan and how she brought Irish folklore to the shores of the New World could have stood alone as a sumptuous diversion, but casting Emily Browning as Essie provided a visual anchor to Laura, and ensured our emotional investment in her tale from the very start. Flitting between Essie’s world and the present day served to explore the changing relationship between Sweeney and Laura, and revealed a terrible connection that exists between them, and probably existed before Laura was even conceived.

Essie’s story was a familiar one – a young woman wronged by a man she loved, and thought loved her in return. A simple lie from her young lover saw Essie branded a thief and sentenced to seven years transportation. Forced to become the thing she was accused of, and to use her looks and cunning to manipulate men, Essie forgot her roots and neglected to leave offerings to the fairy folk, as she had since childhood.

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A spell in Newgate Prison found Essie in a neighbouring cell to Mad Sweeney, and their conversation revealed a shared sense of displacement. Essie’s loss of innocence, her sense of disappointment in the hand she’d been dealt after all her childhood optimism and belief in magic, echoed Sweeney’s fall from grace – a former king reduced to a cartoonish creature of mythology. And both stories were reminiscent of Laura Moon’s disillusionment with her sleep-walking half life.

Fortune favoured Essie’s later life once she found her way back to the US and taught her children to leave gifts for the supernatural creatures of her folklore once again. Fionnula Flanagan in a dual role as Essie’s grandmother and as Essie herself in her last years, underscored the melancholic, cyclical nature of human life, and mirrored the events taking place in the modern day. The revelation that Mad Sweeney was behind the ‘accident’ that killed Laura was immediately overshadowed by his actions when Laura crashed the ice cream van she was driving, and Sweeney’s coin was flung from her body. Rather than take back what was rightfully his, the leprechaun chose to make amends for the past by bringing her back to life (or at least undeath) once more. The closing flashback to Essie’s death, and to Sweeney escorting her to the afterlife, assuring her that they both had done good things and bad things, was by far the most emotional scene of the series so far, and cemented the foul mouthed leprechaun and his dead women as the unexpectedly tender core of the show.

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Laura herself continued her journey toward redemption, sending Salim off to find his Jinn by tricking the location of the god gathering out of Mad Sweeney. Emily Browning did a wonderful job in conveying Laura’s shifting attitude towards her erstwhile antagonist in just a few glances and expressions, suggesting she might be coming to view Mad Sweeney as a kindred spirit of sorts.

The use of Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis’s funeral parlour as a framing device for the tale, reminded us of the fate that awaits Laura if she can’t find her resurrectionist, and gave the tale an additional warmth. While their surroundings may be morbid, there’s something oddly comforting about these two ancient beings, just as there was when Sweeney held his hand out to Essie on her last night of life.

With only one episode left this season, it’s safe to say Fuller and Green‘s adaptation has meandered off the path laid out by Gaiman‘s novel, straying into re-imagining territory at times. But hopefully this means we will get to see other characters in the pantheon fleshed out as thoroughly as Laura and Sweeney have been and, over the course of time, this show will develop a huge, bloodied, beating heart.

Final Grade: A

+ The soundtrack this episode was even bolder and more playful than usual, with on the nose lyrics and jarring rock and roll tunes linking the old world aesthetic with modern day sensibilities.

+ “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” has to be one of the most gorgeous looking episodes in a series of gorgeous looking episodes. It’s worth watching on repeat for the costumes alone.

+ I’ve mentioned before how hard it is to write characters that are simultaneously unlikable and sympathetic, and this week’s offering had me balling my eyes out. If that’s not real magic, I don’t know what is.

– The chemistry between Laura and Sweeney did somewhat highlight the lack of connection between Laura and Shadow, although I’m not sure that’s accidental.

– I’m slightly disturbed at how attractive ye old Mad Sweeney looked to me!

Extra Thoughts: It seems a different fate may await this TV version of Mad Sweeney than we might have expected from the source material. Wednesday is bound to be pretty pissed when he finds out his hired killer has just brought back Laura Moon for the second time…

What did you think? Was this episode excellent craic, or as pointless as looking for gold at the end of a rainbow? Let us know in the comments, or over on Twitter!

 

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Katie Young

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