We gave it an A-
The first season of American Gods will soon be coming to a close, so it’s an odd choice to deliver a penultimate episode that doesn’t feature Shadow or Mr. Wednesday once. Instead, “Prayer for Mad Sweeney” takes an in-depth look at the complicated, often contentious relationship between Mad Sweeney and Laura, and the result is one of the show’s most gorgeous and lyrical episodes yet — with a plot twist that spells very bad news for Shadow.
The episode begins in Ibis and Jacquel’s funeral parlor, where Jacquel is preparing a corpse for burial and Ibis once again takes up his pen to record yet another Coming to America story. This time, he turns to 1721 and introduces the British concept of “transportation.” Many of the previous Coming to America segments have depicted slaves or hopeful immigrants, but if you were convicted in the British courts system, you could avoid prison or even death by choosing to be transported, taking a ship to the Americas, where you could work off your social debt as an indentured servant.
One such indentured servant was Essie McGowan, a young Irish girl who grew up believing all the tales of fairies and pixies and, of course, leprechauns. (In Neil Gaiman’s novel, she’s Essie Tregowan, and she’s Cornish, not Irish.) As Ibis and Jacquel’s ‘60s pop songs play in the background, Ibis recounts the fascinating and strange tale of Essie — who is played, like Laura Moon, by Emily Browning.
The show never makes the connection between Essie and Laura explicitly clear. Perhaps Laura is a direct descendant of Essie. Perhaps it’s just a way for the show to draw parallels between the two women’s stories; after all, Laura and Essie are both ambitious, frequently manipulative young women who aren’t afraid to take advantage of the people around them to get what they want. As Ibis put its: “Malice draped in pretty can get away with murder.”
As a young servant in Ireland, Essie set about seducing the young master of the house, earning his favor and a promise of marriage. But when his mother found out that her son had given a piece of family jewelry to Essie, she branded Essie as a thief — and her son did nothing to deny it. As a result, Essie was sentenced to transportation to the Carolinas. On the journey across the Atlantic, however, Essie persuaded the ship’s captain to return her to London. There, the captain swore to marry her, but as soon as he left for his next journey, she disappeared into the city, pursuing a new life of freedom and shoplifting. As she continued to leave offerings for the fairies and leprechauns, her blessings multiplied — but as she grew forgetful, her luck eventually ran out, and she was once again caught and sentenced to hang. This time, transportation wasn’t an option.
While she’s waiting in jail, she has an encounter with a mysterious redheaded stranger — one we immediately recognize as Mad Sweeney. Apparently, London hasn’t been treating Sweeney too well either, and although there are a few Irish transplants, like Essie, who still leave offerings out for him, it’s not enough to sustain him. But he listens as Essie talks about the possibilities of America, and although he’s gone when she wakes up the next morning, the prison warden comes to her with a proposal. When it comes time for her to hang, she reveals that she’s pregnant, and she’s once again shipped off to America.
Her life in America is difficult at times but prosperous. She works for a kind old widower as a wet nurse and a maid, and before long, she’s telling the local children all about the fairies and leprechauns of Ireland, passing on her traditions. There, she manipulates her employer into marrying her and ending her indentured servitude. But with time, her relationship with him turns to love, and she lives out the rest of her days happily.
Although Essie keeps her own traditions, still offering milk and bread every night, she finds that her children and the people of Virginia have no time for her stories, so she begins keeping them to herself. Until one night, as she’s sitting on her front porch, Sweeney himself walks up. He thanks her for her years of faith, even though it was she who brought him “into this land with no time for magic, no place for fairies and such folk.” They’re birds of a feather, in a way: two Irish people, a long way from home, scrounging and scheming to bring themselves up in the world and slightly unsure of how to navigate this new America.
(Recap continues on page 2)