American Gods: A Prayer for Mad Sweeney

"You have a story to tell."
"Do I?"
"I can see it in your fingers."

American Gods pauses in the penultimate episode of its first season to tell us a story. It's a really good story.

It seems like an odd choice, given that they only had eight episodes in the season to work with, that American Gods should devote almost the entirety of its penultimate episode to telling us an extended Coming to America sequence. It seems like even a stranger choice that they should have almost none of the regular characters appear or even be mentioned.

It should be an odd choice, but it isn't. For three important reasons:

- Neil Gaiman loves telling stories about stories themselves. That was roughly 85% of the Sandman comic's groove. It's not just about the story, it's about how stories themselves can affect a life.

- Essie MacGowan's life is a great story, and is very well told. It's actually surprisingly rare for a television show to excel in both of those things.

- When you actually break it down, this episode isn't just telling us Essie's story. It's also telling us Sweeney's story. And giving us a concrete example of how the old Gods ended up in America. It's demonstrating how the old beliefs die. It's showing us how belief can shape the course of a life, and how it can bring comfort as that life passes. It's telling us what Sweeney thinks about Laura, and why. It's showing us how his and Laura's relationship is evolving through the expediency of telling us the story of his relationship with Essie.  On a fundamental level, this episode completes Sweeney's emotional character arc. The Sweeney that puts his coin back in Laura's chest is not the Sweeney that broke into her hotel room only a few short episodes ago.



I just want to touch on Essie's story before we get into the Sweeney and Laura stuff, because there's one factor that makes it work really, really well. Essie was a servant girl who got her heart broken early, and then did what she had to for herself to survive. She stole without regret. She seduced the ship's captain in order to get back to England and then robbed him blind the second he left again, and she had what is implied to be a lot of sex with the gaoler in order to get pregnant and therefore not be hanged. They were all completely pragmatic choices that she made for herself. She enjoyed many of them and she didn't feel bad about any of them. And the show doesn't demonize her for any of it. Not even for a moment. All of the things she does which society would condemn are presented in exactly the same tone as her telling stories to her children, leaving cream out for the little folk, or being kind to a husband that she essentially conned into marrying her in order to get out of servitude, but whom she seemed to like well enough and whom she apparently made very happy.

None of these actions are presented as good or bad. They're presented, as a whole, as having been her life. Nothing more or less.

That said, the decision to have Emily Browning play both her usual role of Laura and that of Essie MacGowen was a brilliant move. Brian Fuller mentioned in the little after-show interview that they used to do that she has a gift for accents, and he is not wrong. Essie's Irish accent was every bit as believable as Laura's American accent. It was with some surprise that I discovered that she's actually from Australia, which means both are equally false. That's a real gift, as anyone who watched David Boreanez struggle with the task back in the day will attest.

Having Emily Browning play both characters explicitly tells us as viewers that we should be contrasting Sweeney's relationship with the two of them, and that choice really pays off. With Essie, Sweeney is roguish, charming, and open. He clearly treats her as, if not an equal, than at least a compatriot if not a friend. With Laura, Sweeney is bitter and cynical, clearly not thinking of her as being worth his time but being stuck with her in order to get her coin back. Just seeing the difference in him while he sits next to essentially the same woman tells us everything we really need to know about what the years have done to Mad Sweeney.

The mirror imagery serves the entire episode well, really. The usage of Fionnula Flanagan as both Essie's grandmother in the beginning and Essie herself at the end. The usage of Emily Browning as both the woman Sweeney liked and the woman he currently dislikes, and of course, the mirror car accident that finally brings Sweeney to his emotional catharsis. We all kind of assumed that Wednesday had caused the car accident that killed Laura, and that Sweeney was probably involved, right? Even so, as much of a not-surprise as that information was, it was right for them to hold it back until this point. Sweeney has witnessed Laura's kindness in letting Salim go. They've had the heart to heart in the ice cream van about having done bad things, and at that emotionally vulnerable point Sweeney is confronted with essentially the same visuals and experience as the car accident that he himself caused, which had murdered the woman whose animated corpse was currently sitting next to him. At this moment, and no other, he's presented with the thing he wants most. His coin has been knocked out of that same woman, the woman he murdered and who is herself an echo of a woman he liked very much. All he has to do is pick it up and walk away. And he can no longer do that.

That's a proper character journey, that is.

Two things that really seal this final moments into something special. First, thank you to the show for not translating for us whatever Sweeney screams at great length in Irish at this point. It can't possibly be as moving as what we're left to imagine for ourselves. And second, even more thanks for the choice to not have Sweeney tell Laura what he'd just sacrificed for her. As far as she knows she just got back up off the road and they're off again. That was the dramatically right choice.

Such a good story.

Quotes:

Mad Sweeney: "That’s what you get for putting a god in a petting zoo."

Laura: "So, do you love god, or are you in love with god?"

Mad Sweeney: "Can’t a man get a moment alone with his prick?"

Ibis: "Malice draped in pretty can get away with murder."

Essie: "I had my opportunity."
Mad Sweeney: "Doesn’t seem right, just giving you the one."

Mad Sweeney: "We’re like the wind. We blows both ways."




Bits and Pieces:

-- The use of 50s music in the Essie scenes is there for a deliberate reason, despite being anachronistic. In visual storytelling, at this point in time, pop hits from the 50s indicate innocence. And more specifically, nostalgia for innocence. Not that the 50s were actually that innocent, but what can you do. The study of the use of symbols in a performed text is called 'semiotics,' if you were wondering. Tellingly, the music cues for Essie only become the 'appropriate' Irish period style when Sweeney comes to collect her at her death.

-- The three ships we first see deliberately visually invoke the whole Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria fairytale version of American history that we like to tell ourselves here in the US. Then it cuts to the interior and they're essentially slavers. A visual metaphor for American attitudes toward its own history. Discuss.

-- Were we supposed to infer that the coin that Essie gave Sweeney early on is his lucky coin that is currently in Laura's xiphoid process, or is it merely another visual echo? The sides we see of each don't match, but I don't think we see the other side of either.

-- Is Tatonka Ska supposed to be the buffalo that Shadow keeps seeing? Is he (she? They?) the 'proper' god of America?

-- I wonder if Pablo Schreiber was told when he got this part how much of it was going to involve public urination. That said, his losing an argument to a raven while he relieved himself was comedy gold. No pun intended.

-- It was sweet that Laura took the first opportunity to tell Salim where the Jinn was so that he could just go directly there and skip the rest of the road trip, but it's also hard not to read that just a little as 'We're not gonna need you for a bit, so why don't you take the rest of the season off and we'll meet you in the season two premiere, k?'

-- The implication seems to be that Essie kept forgetting to leave gifts for the leprechauns because she was too busy having sex. That's a tiny bit slut-shamey, but the episode doesn't dwell on it in any detail, so it's probably not intended as such.

-- The moment when Laura hands the ice cream truck driver everything from Sweeney's pocket and he politely takes the wallet back but leaves the money was a nicely staged bit of physical comedy.

-- This car accident was caused by a rogue bunny running in the road. We learn next week that the road bunnies are in league with Easter, who's all about renewal land rebirth. Did Easter just give Sweeney a push to facilitate some kind of spiritual renewal?

-- The title of the episode appears to be a reference to the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, but unfortunately I've never read it so I can't speak much to it.  I'm not a huge Irving fan, to be honest.

A great story. A great episode. Sweeney and Essie's last conversation makes me cry every time.

I'm not crying.  You're crying.

Four out of four cups of the best cream

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

2 comments:

Mikey Heinrich said...

If you feel the need to know, according to the internet, here's what Mad Sweeney screams to the sky

It's an older form of Irish, so there's some debate, but it's something along the lines of -

"Haven't I believed enough in your bullshit? Haven't I suffered enough? Isn't that enough itself? I'm not evil! I'm not!"

magritte said...

I don't know if there's any connection between the episode and A Prayer for Owen Meany beyond a rhymying last name. While I was a fan of the book (which is Irving's best), it was a while since I've read it, so I'd be curious if somebody sees parallels that I'm missing.

It was a very effective episode that really was an expansion on one of the "coming to America" stories from the book. But I'm a little concerned for the series in that arguably it's best episodes (Git Gone and A Prayer for Mad Sweeney) and its most memorable scenes are not part of the main Shadow/Wednesday plot arc. It was a season full of astonishing scenes but I can't say that I finished it desperate to find out what happens next.