American Gods episode 7 puts Emily Browning to work as she brings us the tale of Essie MacGowan and Mad Sweeney’s Coming to America.
The penultimate episode of American Gods continues to reshape the mold of the series. In its freshman season, this show has been anything but conventional. It would be unfair to say they are “breaking the mold” of prestige television. The work that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are doing is far from anything leftover of the shelves of Hollywood. It defies comparison.
“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” delivers another episode without Shadow and without Wednesday, reminding viewers that this is a show without leads. American Gods is a true ensemble piece. Each character adds beautiful color to the tapestry Fuller and Green are creating from Gaiman’s world.
Here, it’s Pablo Schreiber’s time to shine as we spend some time in the hills of Ireland, learn to feed and fear the fairies, and learn a bit more about what makes Mad Sweeney tick through his relationship with two uniquely connected women, both portrayed by Emily Browning.
Natalie: So this episode, focusing on the past and present of Mad Sweeney, his Coming to America, and the woman who made that possible – Essie MacGowan, also played by Emily Browning — was maybe the most unusual one yet, due to it not featuring Shadow at all.
Brittany: And yet, I didn’t think about him once while watching it.
Natalie: Neither. Is it rude to say I didn’t miss him at all? This captured me completely — these characters held their own.
Brittany: No, it’s a compliment to the others on screen.
Natalie: Yes — it’s certainly the sign of a strong cast when any player can carry a solo episode.
Brittany: We did lose one character: Salim is on his way to the House on the Rock.
Natalie: Yay for him, boo for us.
Brittany: He took off FAST!
Natalie: I mean, he has a man with very good taste in jumpers waiting for him.
Brittany: I would run too.
Natalie: Before going into the Sweeney/Laura/Essie situation too much – we had some focus on Salim’s Muslim faith, his Salat, his invitation to let Laura share his prayers. Then there’s her curiousity and her question – about whether he loves God, or if he is in love with God. That’s obviously double-edged because he is in love with a god – but did you think she meant the wider faith to his actual religion?
Brittany: Words are fun. I’m not entirely sure what she meant. She kind of proposes two questions there. On the one hand, she is asking if he loves the god he prays to daily. But on the other, she is asking if he is in love with his god. Is “his god” the Jinn? Or is his god the one he prays to? Initially while watching the episode, I thought she meant the wider faith. Now, I’m not sure she was being that broad.
Natalie: I partially think she was fucking with him, but she’s also kind of trying to make heads or tails of it herself.
Brittany: That seems to be the pattern with her. She doesn’t know how else to get answers.
Natalie: She was, at least, kind to him, and she let him go, despite Sweeney’s protests.
Brittany: Yeah, he was not thrilled with that one.
Natalie: So, to quote The Lion King, their trio’s down to two – and we now get to focus on this life-and-death bond between Laura and Mad Sweeney, as well as Sweeney’s history in general. We get to see a little more of the storyteller here, the god Hoth, or Mr Ibis, the funeral home owner, and his relationship with Mr Jacquel, Anubis. I just love them.
Brittany: Such an odd couple. “I have work to do, go write your stories.”
Natalie: It was adorable. I love the time the book spends with them, so I’m keen to get more of that later in the show. But for whatever reason, Ibis, and the show, chose to spend a long time telling Sweeney’s story — much longer than we’ve gotten for the other gods.
Brittany: Yeah, I was not anticipating it spanning the entire episode. But it really drives home how unconventional his story is.
Natalie: I knew this episode was going to be quite a big deal – in interviews, they’d been calling it “the Essie Tregowan episode” rather than just mentioning a scene, but I didn’t think it would actually be this focused and eliminate Shadow and Wednesday.
Brittany: There are so many layers to this story, but I think the biggest one is Emily Browning playing Essie.
Natalie: (Just a technical comment, for those who missed it — in the book, she’s Essie Tregowan, and Fuller and Green referred to her as such in initial interviews, but they later changed it to MacGowan — this is due to making her origins Irish, rather than Cornish, as Ireland has the association with leprechauns, though Cornwall shares some similar Celtic lore. Tregowan is a Cornish name, and it was Neil’s choice to change it. Just for those playing along at home, checking off those little details.)
Brittany: Everyone can sleep soundly tonight as they dream of fairy lore.
Natalie: But this is really a fantastical situation – in the press, the showrunners mentioned prepping this episode and wondering who should play her, then wanting Emily to do it. She then also said to them that she wanted to do it, before being asked – it was a meeting of minds. And now that we’ve seen Sweeney and Laura’s relationship, it makes such perfect sense. It’s so cyclical.
Brittany: Essie and Laura are certainly two peas in a pod. You have the one, Essie, who needs the reassurance that she is paying her debt to her beliefs and then you contrast her with Laura, who doesn’t owe anyone anything — yet they are both bound to this leprechaun by this coin. They both get these second and third chances because of it. The cyclical nature of this narrative was so well done. Plus, then you add in the layer of Mad Sweeney as the fallen king who owes a battle. It builds out his story so well without the focus being entirely on him.
Natalie: I felt his vulnerability a lot in these two stories. We’ve never seen him really hold power. He can do stuff, yes – he can bless people with luck, he can live a long time, but even as a king, we never see him as a very commanding figure. In legend, he did indeed leave a battle due to a curse from a saint, which doomed him to die wandering in refuge. Did you take away from this that he’s thrown his lot in with Wednesday in order for him to get the chance to fulfill his real destiny of dying in battle? Does he have a death wish?
Brittany: I wouldn’t call it a wish. But it’s a debt owed in some respect. This is the battle of all battles. Likely his last chance.
Natalie: I also very strongly felt that he was very vulnerable to these two women who have had some measure of control over his power and existence. Essie was a piece of work, I’ll tell you. “Malice draped in pretty can get away with murder” — that’s what she has in common with Laura, and what Sweeney seems to go in for. How did you feel about her story, her code of conduct and her various manipulations?
Brittany: Her first misadventure was tough, but I genuinely felt she was about to settle with the Captain and yet we were still not in America with her beliefs. Honestly though, I was kind of delighted to see her get by on her own. Sure, it wasn’t great or kind, but she got shit done. And when she became too self-absorbed and forget her heritage, she paid for it.
Natalie: I liked Ibis’s description, mentioning that sure, “intellegence has never been uncommon among women,” but that her “rare token of ambition” was her defining factor. And yes — that lesson, “the more abundant the blessings, the more we forget to pray” really hit home for me with this story, more than just for this particular god, but as an overarching statement of what happened with people and gods in America.
Brittany: But still Sweeney came back, giving her that one last stroke of luck. He didn’t turn on her even though she technically turned on him and the fairy lore through neglect. That gold coin gave her some leverage there. We really got a lot of Ibis’ narrative voice here. I felt it more than in the other ones, I think because we were taken back to him many times while he was writing. I almost forgot he told the other tales. But here I was hyper aware who was speaking.
Natalie: Do you think he purposely stopped helping her because she stopped giving offerings, or do you think he wasn’t able to – as in, was it a pettiness thing, a tit for tat thing, or did it literally mean he had no “juice” for her? The offerings as sort of a battery recharge?
Brittany: I think it was both. Purposeful in the sense that he could turn at any moment, and choose not to provide any luck at whim. But also tied to the fact that he didn’t feel appreciated or honored. Do you think it was a choice for him to be with her in the jail? Or her luck?
Natalie: I don’t know. I couldn’t work out if it was his doing or not, if he was also unlucky because he was powered down. However, I loved their conversation where she plants the fantasy about carrying gold to the non-existent King of America, which is what he says to Laura when he’s first trying to get the coin back – that his special lucky coin is a coin “you’d give to the King of America himself.” I feel like Sweeney actually believes in the King of America, now, a bit.
Brittany: He does give that impression.
Natalie: Essie’s use of sex and men was a little upsetting in terms of – did she ever really love anyone? Did she ever have any sexual desire of her own? Didn’t this bother her? By the prison warden, you could see it kind of did. But she still managed to trick Richardson into marrying her too, and was happy enough to stay. What was it she said? She doesn’t remember what real happiness is, but now she’d “be content to be content.”
Brittany: Definitely. It was eerie how well that prison guard moment mirrored Laura and Shadow’s marriage. Yeah, that she’d be fine no longer wishing for more. Settling if you will. Again, the opposite of Laura here, who realizes that she’s tired of being content. She wants more.
Natalie: Essie did her bit. She passed on her belief — though it hurt my heart a little when the grandchildren were scared of the stories and she was told not to tell them – she had a peaceful life, a peaceful death, and was met by her deity. It was an example of someone who wasn’t a by-the-books “good person” basically doing what the gods wanted them to do and being rewarded thusly. I guess it depends which god you worship, in terms of how they judge you. Anubis might have judged her very differently. Anubis judged Laura and found no value.
Brittany: How do you think Sweeney judged Essie’s life?
Natalie: I think he loved her a lot. That coin wouldn’t be so powerful if he didn’t.
Brittany: I agree.
Natalie: I think he came to her to thank her and offer her the best he was capable of, and again, there was not this air of power or any sort of benefactory vibe. And I wonder how it makes him think of Laura — even down to, did they really look the same, in the reality of American Gods — does he look at Laura and see Essie? Or is it just for our benefit, that the actress was the same? Even if there isn’t the physical connection, it makes the stuff with the coin a lot more personal.
Brittany: Nope. Even at the end — “we’re like the wind, we blows both ways” — he reminds her that leprechauns can turn at any moment. She is truly unsure of how it will go right until she takes his hand. I think it’s definitely he sees Essie when he looks at Laura, but the actress was for our benefit. To drive home why Sweeney has a larger connection to Laura beyond the coin.
Natalie: I think there’s an understanding between Essie and the lore she believes in that it isn’t a fair and benevolent god, it’s kind of a bunch of assholes who don’t owe you anything, and she was just good at playing by their rules.
Brittany: Too good. And she always gave what she had. When she got to America and got more wealth, there were loaves of bread. She took it seriously and didn’t risk getting on their bad side. Except that one time, but everyone slips up now and again.
Natalie: The layers this adds to his relationship with Laura, though. Because this cuts between Emily as Essie, doing her thing and Sweeney keeping an eye on her, and Emily as Laura, carrying on in a stolen ice cream van to stop her flesh rotting in the heat.
Brittany: DID YOU SEE HIS SMILE WHEN HE WAS WALKING BACK TO THE ICE CREAM TRUCK? My heart grew three sizes.
Natalie: He loves her a bit, too. I think he thinks she’s cool as hell.
Brittany: And respects her power.
Natalie: I loved the stealing of the truck. I loved that the guy was like “okay, I guess, as long as it looks believable.”
Brittany: And from there we got a clue about who is coming next week. But before we get there, let’s talk about the crash and Sweeney choosing to give Laura life.
Natalie: Yeah — the crash is a huge moment for the season. Because they flip the truck avoiding a bunny — and what a shot, with the ice creams flying everywhere – and it “kills” Laura. Her skin splits open from the autopsy stitching — so gross — and she loses the coin.
Brittany: Sweeney could easily be on his way. But instead he picks up some stray organs, curses the sky, and gently places the coin on her chest.
Natalie:The best bit, for me was that he picks up the coin and is about to make off with it, and then he does that Look — that “oh, fuck me, I’m gonna do the right thing, I hate myself” look. Like “ugggggggh.”
Brittany: He has a lot of looks. I personally liked when he watched her flip the truck and was just like, “this chick…” Their partnership was pretty solidified there.
Natalie: I am ride or die about them, because the biggest discovery here is the explicit reveal that Wednesday had Laura killed in order to put Shadow on his path, and that Sweeney was involved in the dirty work.
Natalie: This does get somewhat revealed in the book – not with Sweeney, but that Wednesday set it up. Another character is involved. But tying in Sweeney’s guilt and attachment… I just want to go back and watch all the episodes again and just study all his reactions again.
Brittany: They tell another story. Now we’re on the road again. But bunnies are abound!
Natalie: Yeah, that white rabbit seemed extremely convenient… I’m very interested to see where this wraps up for the season.
Brittany: Well it’s the finale next week!
Natalie: We hear them mention House on the Rock, maybe for the first time.
Brittany: Yup, first time it’s said aloud.
Natalie: The road trip trio stop at the white buffalo roadside attraction, which is also quite a big motif, and Wednesday is sending his ravens to check up on Sweeney. I wonder how the boss is going to feel when he learns that Laura is Sweeney’s new favorite person.
Brittany: No wonder here — not great.
Natalie: I have all the feelings about this relationship. These actors are so fantastic together. I also want to see Shadow react to it.
Brittany: I can’t wait for that shoe to drop.
Natalie: Finally, on a random note – the music. Gosh, I loved this so much. The soundtrack of the 1700s flashbacks was the soundtrack Mr Ibis was playing himself – early 60s doo-wop. And for some reason — probably because Brian Reitzell, the music supervisor, is a genius — it just worked better than anything period-typical or anything like that. I usually feel weird about anachronistic music in period drama, but I loved it.
Brittany: Yeah, I would have never put the two together, and now I want to rescore all the period dramas I’ve watched.
Natalie: Marie Antoinette is the only one that springs to mind that did it in like, an iconic way. Well, A Knight’s Tale. But I think that it was meant to really signify how the emotional reactions Essie experienced don’t have a lot of distance from the feelings people feel at any point in time – that any songs written about emotions and situations can fit any period of the human experience.
Brittany: We have one final episode left. My first thought is “How?!” But my second thought zeros in on the title, “Come to Jesus.” I interviewed Kristin Chenoweth well before the series premiered and, can I just say, I cannot wait to meet her next week! Additionally, this episode will have Bilquis’ “Coming to America” story. I feel like this is a moment I’ve been waiting for eight weeks.
As exciting as this is, I am dreading losing this show weekly. It’s been one of the most rewarding television watching experiences I’ve had in the past few years.
Natalie: It was so anticipated and now it’s gone by so fast, and covered so little time within it – just a few days. I don’t want to wait a year for more! I’m thrilled for Easter — I didn’t know she was only going to be introduced in the finale – and for the return of Mr. Nancy. However, I’m also worried that we might be meeting Evil White American Jesus… if this is the title, and we have Easter, who’s now tied to Jesus as well, and we know that there are a lot of Jesuses cast for the season… I’m kind of expecting some sort of Jesus conglomeration, a meeting of Jesuses. This may be where Sweeney is heading to help Laura… but if Easter is there too, will this mean that everyone will end up back together by the end of the season? Exciting, but stressful.