Laura and Mad Sweeney—two of the most messed-up characters on American Gods—spend some quality time together in the show’s seventh episode, and we see how the big ol’ wee person has done both admirable and terrible things over the last 300 years.
“Prayer for Mad Sweeney” opens at the funeral parlor owned by Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel. Jacquel is making a dead man’s body presentable for its final goodbye, setting a broken jaw back in place and spackling putty into gouged skin. Ibis fusses over how late his partner is working and Jacquel tells him that more deaths are coming, foretelling the overdoses of two women. Jacquel then refuses Ibis’ offer to help, saying that he can tell Ibis has a story to tell. “I can see it in your fingers.”
The tale Ibis scritches into his book with fountain pen happens in 1721. We glimpse Mad Sweeney right at the start of Ibis’ telling but the tale is centered on Essie McGowan. Ibis uses the story to undercut the “fine fiction” of America being founded by bravehearted pilgrims in search of religious freedom. Essie was no such pilgrim. She was an undesirable, a Irish thief and troublemaker shunted into indentured servitude across the Atlantic. A flashback to childhood shows Essie learning stories of leprechauns as a child and keeping up the same practice of leaving out food and drink for the wee folk later as an adult. Grown-up Essie is played by Emily Browning, the same actress playing Laura Moon. One of her scenes shows her tying a lock of hair around a slice of soda bread being left for a leprechaun and placing a gold coin on top of the offering.
In doing so, Essie is asking the fae folk for a favor. It’s clear that the figure who walks up to the spot she just left is Mad Sweeney. As for the favor, Essie wants to win the heart of Bartholomew, the man she works for. The two of them get naked and have sex but Essie moans about getting forgotten for a society girl. Bartholomew gives her a family heirloom necklace and promises to marry her. When Bartholomew’s mother finds out that Essie has that necklace, she asks him—in front of Essie and other assembled house staff—if he gave it freely. The little shit shakes his head and Essie gets sentenced to hanging for thievery. Her sentence gets converted to seven years transportation in the Carolinas and, despite a horrific journey that takes the lives of men, she keeps on leaving food out for leprechauns. Essie successfully tempts the ship’s captain with her wiles and gets him to ferry her back to London as his wife. When he heads out on another journey, Essie rifles through his belongings and steals what she can. In the worlds of Mr. Ibis, “her world branded Essie McGowan a thief, so a thief she became.”
The scene shifts back to Salim’s cab in the present day, where we see him, Sweeney, and Laura moving down the road. Laura still sees Shadow’s glow ahead on the horizon. The three of them park at a farm where a supposedly sacred white buffalo was born. When Laura read the memorial plaque that says the buffalo and farmer were both killed by lightning, Sweeney snarks, “That’s what you get for putting a god in a petting zoo.” The leprechaun’s annoyed that Salim’s stopped so he can pray and, after he walks away to take a piss, Laura asks Salim if he loves God or is in love with God. Salim says it’s the former.
One of Wednesday’s ravens starts squawking at Sweeney while he’s watering some bushes and the leprechaun says he’s heading to Wisconsin as per ”the arrangement.” He grumbles about something unspecified that Wednesday doesn’t like and tells the bird to tell Wednesday to fuck off. Given Wednesday’s reactions to Laura last episode, it’s a safe bet that he doesn’t like the fact that she’s Sweeney’s traveling partner.
After Sweeney’s piss, Laura releases Salim from the deal that required him to drive them around. She also tells Salim that the djinn, along with other celestial beings is heading to The House on the Rock in Wisconsin, a bit of disclosure that pisses Sweeney off. Laura then walks over to a ice cream truck, yanks the back-door handle off and tells the meek young driver that she’s stealing it. She offers the contents of Sweeney’s pockets as recompense, saying that he can tell his boss he was robbed. Ice Cream Boy says that won’t go over if he doesn’t have a mark on him, hinting that either Sweeney or Laura needs to punch. He wants it from her but Sweeney tells him he really doesn’t and punches Ice Cream Boy in the nose. Then Sweeney and Laura head off down the road.
Back in the 18th century, we see Essie McGowan continuing to take things that don’t belong to her, creating a life where she doesn’t need a man to provide for her. Her success as a thief and temptress makes her forget to leave out bread and milk for leprechauns; her luck sours and she gets caught stealing and living in London when she was supposed to be in America. She’s sentenced to hang again with no apparent way out. When a bowl of food and a piece of bread get left outside her cell, Sweeney’s voice warns her not to eat what in the bowl. Turns out he’s a prisoner in the cell next to her and the two of them chat about their lots in life and the unfairness of the world. Essie says, “In the Americas, anyone can be anything they insist upon. New name, new life.”
The man in the cell is gone the next morning and Essie receives a visit from the prison warden that turns into a sexual encounter. The ensuing pregnancy gets her another commutation of transportation and Essie winds up being indentured to a Virginia tobacco farmer. She nurses his infant child along with hers and tells them the same wee-folk tales her gran told her. Meanwhile in the present, Sweeney’s freezing his lucky charms off because Laura’s cranked up the ice cream truck’s refrigeration to stave off further decomposition. As they drive, he talks about a past moment in his centuries-long life where he had a premonition of an seemingly inevitable death on the field of battle. He says he owes a battle and that’s why he’s doing what Wednesday wants. Then Laura suddenly swerves to avoid hitting a rabbit and the truck topples over and crashes, splitting her stitches open and sending the lucky gold coin flying out of her body.
Another scene shift goes back to Essie and we see her work her hustle on the tobacco farmer. He ends her indenture, proposes to her, and they get married. As time passes, they have another child and the leprechaun tradition continues but her husband dies. She becomes a grandmother and keeps telling tales but stops when they scare her grandchildren. The old ways stay alive in her heart and when it’s her time, the familiar voice of Mad Sweeney wakes her up from sleeping on the porch.
In the present, Sweeney crawls out from the wreck and walks over to Laura’s lifeless body. He stands over the still corpse, caught up in a reverie that flashes back to the accident that caused Laura’s first death. Sweeney’s standing over a dead Laura here, too, and talks to Wednesday’s raven, saying the bird needs to tell his master “it’s done.” Back in the present, Sweeney struggles with a mix of guilt, rage, and shame. Screaming angrily in his ancient tongue and folding a flap of skin back, he places the coin back onto Laura’s flesh and it melts it way back inside. She punches him as soon as she wakes up, flips the truck back to rights, and they drive away.
The episode’s last scene shows Sweeney talking to an aged Essie, explaining how he isn’t what he was back home and that she’s one of the few who still believes in his kind. This exchange happens...
Essie: You have done me many a good turn.
Sweeney: Good and ill, we’re like the wind. We blow both ways.
...and Sweeney takes her hand to lead her into the hereafter, marking the end of the episode.
Shadow and Wednesday’s absence were deeply felt in this episode, but “Prayer for Mad Sweeney” might be the sweetest episode of the show. It called on a familiar romanticism that Americans tend to wrap around the older ideas of Ireland and Britain and undercut them with harsh glimpses at the ugliness that was there as well. My biggest grip with this chapter of American Gods is with linking Essie McGowan to Laura Moon; it’s a cute bit of casting but is a conceit that feels too mismatched and heavy-handed. Essie did ethically compromised things to survive and live the life she wanted, while Laura had better options she never availed herself of.
Sweeney’s quick mention of how Mother Church turned the pagan folktales into stories of saints was one of my favorite parts of this episode, because it ties into the cycle that Wednesday is fighting against. The fact that Sweeney’s seen this song and dance before goes a long way to explaining why he doesn’t want to be down with Wednesday’s war but why he feels he has balance the scales. The strapping leprechaun calls himself honest and “Prayer for Mad Sweeney” shows how he defines that: For every time that he’s given a kindness, he pays one back. Even when he grabs a popsicle from the ice cream truck’s freezer, he tosses a few gold coins on the side of the road. He may be a jerk at all possible times but he operates on principles of parity. He can’t take what’s not given freely and it’s the reason he wouldn’t force the coin from Laura two episodes back.
This episode makes another mention of the King of America concept that’s been cropping up throughout this first season. Multiple characters have talked about how America either doesn’t have one or how a person could wind up in that station. It’s likely that this imaginary monarch title is the reason Shadow is so important to Wednesday and what the new gods are fighting against.
• I love the domestic partner vibe between Mr. Ibis and Jacquel in the early parts of this episode. They felt like a well-established tandem working familiar rhythms around each other, like an old married couple or vaudeville performers who’ve toured for ages.
• The juxtaposition of 1950s doo-wop with the 18th sequences was great but I definitely winced when “Daddy’s Home” started playing when Essie and Farmer Henderson were consummating their marriage.