American Gods: Prayer for Mad Sweeney

Posted on June 12, 2017

The theme for this week’s episode was “It shouldn’t work, but somehow it did.” Oh, wait. No. That’s the theme for this review. The actual themes of this episode had more to do with love and courage, faith and boldness, time and memory. Like all the best episodes of American Gods (if not all stories, period), this one was about a life lived.

But it shouldn’t have worked.

It shouldn’t have worked for the show to take yet another detour from the main plot, offering up yet another episode that does little to advance it. It shouldn’t have worked for the show to spend more time on the unlikeable-on-the-surface Laura when an entire episode was already devoted to her. It shouldn’t have worked that, as we approach the finale of this season, Laura remains the most-defined of all the characters, even though she is, by definition, a side character. It shouldn’t have worked to break up the fun trio of Salim, Laura and Mad Sweeney in order to focus on the latter two – again. It shouldn’t have worked, the idea of turning a leprechaun into a joke and then into a figure so sad and tragic you’d be willing to forgive him almost anything. It shouldn’t have worked, the revelation that Mad Sweeney killed Laura. And it definitely shouldn’t have worked when he willingly and without any witnesses, gave up the one thing he wants most in the world to the one person least likely to be grateful for it. It shouldn’t have worked, the use of ’50s doo-wop music as the soundtrack for the life of Essie McGowan in the 18th Century. It shouldn’t have worked, extending the show’s “Coming to America” prologue to an entire episode centered around one character who isn’t even depicted in it until its very end.

And in the end, when you realize what you really just watched was some sort of strange, multi-generational, myth-based love story featuring a zombie and a leprechaun, loaded with all the tragedy and poignancy such a tale requires, you realize just how unlikely it is that any of it could have worked. And yet it did. Beautifully. A lovely and poignant story – about two total assholes.

First, it helped that the script had some lovely lines, the costume design was like watching a fairy tale unfold (which in a way, it was) and the cinematography was rich, lush and beautifully candle-lit. But a whole lot of the success of this episode came down to the work of Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber. They both gave equally as nuanced performances, but it’s difficult for us to say who had the harder job. Browning had to continue to thread the needle on Laura’s vulnerable neediness and her sometimes hard-to-take disposition while also portraying something like a much earlier version of her in the character of Essie, who is also a disaffected woman who turns to stealing to fill some sort of void in herself. Shreiber “merely” has to turn a violent cartoon character into a tragic and nuanced figure and get us to feel sorry for him even as we find out he’s responsible for Laura’s death. We suppose we’ll have to pick the latter as the tougher acting job to pull off, but to be honest, we were hypnotized by the work of the former. Browning as Essie should not have worked at all and yet by the time Mad Sweeney came to collect her on that porch (in the figure of the wonderful and always reliable Fionulla Flanagan), her life, her choices and above all, her faith, tied her story as tightly to the main one as any of the other tales we’ve witnessed so far.

We keep trying to find more to say here, but any further thoughts feel extraneous. This was a story about love, choices, fear, shame, regret, sex and death. A story about life, in other words. Not just Essie McGowan’s or Mad Sweeney’s or Laura Moon’s. But the arc of life in general, whether it’s long or short, and how everyone’s arc tends to contain the same mixture of elements in differing proportions. Essie McGowan isn’t Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney isn’t a person at all, but in their stories, and especially in the ways those stories overlap, you get the fullness of life, from beginning to end.

How they managed that in one hour of television featuring a zombie and a leprechaun, both of them total assholes, must be something like magic.



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