The season's penultimate episode explores Mad Sweeney's origin — and his surprising connection to Laura

By Devan Coggan
June 11, 2017 at 09:54 PM EDT
Credit: Starz

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.
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As for Laura, she, Sweeney, and Salim are still making their way to Kentucky in search of Laura’s resurrection, but before long, Sweeney lets slip that soon, the gods will be gathering at the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. Now that Salim knows where to find his Jinn, Laura sets him free, and he says goodbye and sets out for the House on the Rock, while Sweeney and Laura hijack an ice cream truck and head for Kentucky. (The truck driver asks Laura to punch him in the face so his boss believes they threatened him. “Trust me,” Sweeney says. “You don’t want this one hitting you.”) Hey, if you’re a rotting corpse, the frozen interior of an ice cream truck probably seems pretty appealing.

Their trip is interrupted, however, when Laura swerves to avoid a rabbit in the road, flipping the ice cream truck and sending her body flying through the windshield. Jacquel and Ibis’s stitches burst as she hits the pavement, and as soon as Sweeney’s coin leaves her body, she returns to being a cold, dead body. At first, Sweeney is relieved to have his coin back, but as he moves to walk away, he’s reminded of the last time he was standing over Laura’s broken body.

That’s right: Sweeney was there the first time Laura died in a car crash. Even worse, he reveals that he was the one who caused the crash — on Wednesday’s orders (as evidenced by his conversations with one of Wednesday’s ravens).

So that’s a bombshell. It isn’t exactly clear why Wednesday wanted Laura dead — especially because she died while Shadow was still in prison — but whatever the cause may be, it means that Wednesday has some master plan that’s been in the works for a long, long time. The only thing he wasn’t counting on was Laura returning to life — and he certainly wasn’t counting on Sweeney growing a conscience and bringing Laura back to life again.

His guilt gets the better of him, and as he gingerly places the coin back on Laura’s exposed rib cage, she immediately springs to life, slugging him in the face. Maybe she’s unaware of his decision, or maybe she just doesn’t care, and she casually flips the ice cream truck right side up and once again sets out toward Kentucky.

Both Pablo Schreiber and Emily Browning deliver powerhouse performances in this episode, weaving interconnected stories that are all at once hilarious, horrifying, and heartbreaking. When Sweeney talks about the courage and cowardice of his past, you can’t help but feel for this massive, crazy-eyed leprechaun. Sweeney and Laura are both selfish, desperate characters who can occasionally be moved to kindness, and as this first season of American Gods has unspooled, their story has almost started to overshadow that of Shadow and Wednesday (no pun intended). Episodes like “Prayer for Mad Sweeney” are both frustrating and delightful; on one hand, Shadow and Wednesday’s arc seems to be moving at an almost glacial pace, and their journey to Wisconsin is getting bogged down in a lot of exposition. So far, the show has spent a lot of time talking in riddles and pontificating about a war that seems like it’s never going to happen. But at the same time, it’s episodes like this that make American Gods so special, fully fleshing out characters that only played a brief role in Gaiman’s novel. The show is eager to explore every nook and cranny of this strange, mystical American world, and I’m more than happy to tag along for the ride.

Here’s hoping that next week’s season finale (!) can get Wednesday and Shadow on a path that’s just as interesting as Sweeney and Laura’s.

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