“Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” the seventh episode of AMERICAN GODS, takes a look back at Mad Sweeney’s journey to America. Rather than telling the story explicitly through the leprechaun’s eyes, though, the writers take a fresher approach. In a twist on what normally happens in the entertainment world, the male character’s tale is told through the eyes of two women. Essie McGowan — or Essie Tregowan if you’re literarily inclined — brought her steadfast belief in leprechauns (and therefore Mad Sweeney himself) and other wee folk to America, all while living a life on her own terms. Meanwhile, Mad Sweeney’s present-day story continues to be dominated by Laura Moon. As the dead wife and the leprechaun continue their travels together, AMERICAN GODS’ latest episode shows viewers a surprising fact of these two characters’ history together.
The Thief: Essie McGowan
As AMERICAN GODS’ seventh episode opens, Anubis is busy at the funeral home, working after hours to prepare a body for burial. Mr. Ibis, however, has other things on his mind. He has a story to tell, that of a little girl who grew up listening to legends of everything from banshees to fairies, from shape-shifters to leprechauns. That girl was Essie McGowan, and she believed those stories enough that she carried them with her throughout her entire adult life. Essie’s grandmother warned her that the leprechauns were “so busy guarding their gold, they’ve no time for anything else at all.” But it was still important to leave gifts for them anyway: “Because we want their blessings. So, we’d better.”
And so Essie did.
Even when Essie’s “blessing” of Bartholomew’s love turned sour, earning her a sentence of “transportation” to America as an indentured servant, she still remembered to leave a little something for the leprechauns. Maybe those gifts were responsible for Essie’s return to London, this time as the wife of the Neptune’s captain; or maybe they weren’t. Either way, rather than serving out her seven-year sentence in North Carolina, Essie was back home. And when her husband replenished his cargo and set sail to America, leaving her behind, she decided to take her life into her own hands.
Essie had been wrongly accused and convicted. “Her world branded Essie McGowan a thief, so a thief she became.” And Essie was extremely successful in her line of work — if you could call petty theft work, that is. In a time when women were normally expected to need men to support them, Essie “lived by her own labors and owed thanks to no man.” It was only when she became too successful and started forgetting to leave gifts for the leprechauns that her luck changed.
Essie was caught, tried as a thief and rightfully convicted this time. Since she had already been offered transportation once and slipped away instead of serving her sentence, Essie was sent to Newgate to rot while she waited to be hanged. It was in this jail that she first “met” Mad Sweeney, who was himself incarcerated after a bar fight. The two inmates shared stories through the walls of their cells, and Essie gave Mad Sweeney an idea: He could have a new life and a new name in the New World. Unwittingly, she even gave him the idea that he could be a king there.
The next day, Essie was given the chance to “earn” another shot at transportation: Essentially, all she had to do is let the warden use her body; and if she happened to get pregnant, no judge would ever let her hang. With a little luck — was it from the leprechaun? Or was it something else? — Essie did, in fact, get to successfully “plead her belly” in court. And off to America she went.
Essie brought her stories and her leprechauns with her and, finally, lived a good, happy life. She managed to marry the farmer who bought her, and she passed her fairytales on to her children and grandchildren. When it was time for her to die, Mad Sweeney appeared in front of her, not aged a day, and both woman and leprechaun agreed that they had no quarrel with one another. Even though Essie had brought Mad Sweeney “into this land with no time for magic, no place for fairies and such folk,” it was obvious that she still meant a lot to him. And even if she’d faced some struggles in her life, like that first unfair conviction or the obviously distasteful need to let the warden use her body to get her out of her death sentence, Essie had had a mostly decent life herself.
The Thief and The Dead Wife
Much like when AMERICAN GODS told Laura Moon’s story, Mr. Ibis’ written history of Essie McGowan’s life was presented without much judgement. Essie only became a thief after society had wrongly labeled her as such; and regardless of how many men she took into her bed or why, her characterization never gave the impression that she was a slut. Depending on the situation, she either simply liked sex or, in the case of the warden — where it was very clear that Essie wasn’t enjoying a single second of it — doing what needed to be done in order to survive.
And very similar to Laura’s situation, Essie didn’t last long as an “honest” woman when her husband was away. Again, though, this was a fact of the character’s life, presented as-is and without commentary.
With the story of Essie’s life seamlessly told alongside that of Mad Sweeney’s adventure with Laura Moon, it was obvious enough that AMERICAN GODS wanted to draw some connection between the two characters. Even if the women didn’t have certain personality traits in common, the choice to have Emily Browning play both of them made an obvious case for Mad Sweeney possibly seeing something of Essie, who was very important to him, in Laura.
Was his lucky coin, which was keeping Laura alive, the same as that last piece of gold Essie had left for him before her ill-fated “blessing” of a proposal from Bartholomew? Were both ladies equally stubborn, equally unwilling to give up, and equally unapologetic about how they lived their lives — even when society expected women to be something else? Or did they just happen to look alike?
The great thing about AMERICAN GODS is that it allows viewers to ask these questions, all without ever really giving much in the way of answers. While the lack of answers can sometimes be frustrating — especially if you’re Shadow Moon, who was (sadly) absent in this latest episode — the open storytelling continues to provide viewers with the valuable opportunity of allowing one’s beliefs to be facts. It’s possible that Laura Moon could even be a descendant of Essie’s. A senior Essie was played by the same actress who played the character’s own grandmother. Why, then, couldn’t a younger adult Essie having been played by the same actress as Laura at a similar age mean they’re relatives?
Alternatively, there could be no connection, outside of having known Mad Sweeney, between the thief and the dead wife at all. You decide.
The Dead Wife & The Leprechaun
As AMERICAN GODS’ latest episode shared Essie McGowan’s story, Laura and Mad Sweeney continued to make their way to…whoever the leprechaun’s “resurrection guy” is. Once Laura found out where the gods were all headed, she released Salim from his duty, having just been told by Mad Sweeney that she shouldn’t do exactly that. But with Salim, the only true person of faith in modern day America — or so it seems — constantly stopping to pray, he was slowing Laura down.
We couldn’t have that.
With Salim’s exit came the need to find new transportation. So, since Laura had always wanted to steal a car, she stole herself an ice cream truck. With a little help from a rabbit — most likely one of Mr. Wednesday’s many friends — said ice cream truck flipped. It was here that we learned the answer to one of my burning questions as an AMERICAN GODS viewer: Yes, Laura’s death had been divine intervention. Seeing Laura’s body in the middle of the road, dead yet again since his own lucky coin had come out of her reopened chest, Mad Sweeney had a flashback to the first time he’d seen Laura’s corpse: right after her original accident.
In “Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” we learned that Laura’s original demise was caused by Mad Sweeney himself. With regret, he remembered telling Wednesday’s raven, “tell him it’s done.” So, despite having what he’d wanted when he started this road trip finally within his grasp, the leprechaun didn’t just take his lucky coin and run. In a moment that showed far more about who Mad Sweeney was than any of the long, drawn out history with Essie, the leprechaun put his coin back in Laura’s chest, reviving her. Luck is a fickle thing, as Mad Sweeney himself knows far too well, and his luck created a situation in which the only way to atone for something awful he’d done was to give up the one thing he wanted most.
But Mad Sweeney didn’t exactly enjoy doing it, which was pretty clear with all the screaming and the angry way he shoved Laura’s organs back into her body. Neither did he get any thanks for saving the dead wife. Instead, he got a punch to the face, attitude, and an air of impatience. Laura Moon is who she is, after all.
Additional thoughts on “Prayer for Mad Sweeney”
- What, exactly, was the point of changing Essie’s last name for television? I hate it when book-to-film adaptations do that.
- As always, the AMERICAN GODS soundtrack was the perfect combination of ironic and great at setting a certain mood. That distorted ice cream truck tune as Laura drove the wreckage away from her (second) accident was particularly witty, as was the choice of “Runaround Sue” in the transition from Essie’s story to Laura’s.
- Laura Moon, not-dead for the second time and turning an ice cream truck upright with her bare hands? More, please.
- Really, all of the transitions were incredibly well done.
- This idea of giving something freely continues to be important. Mad Sweeney can’t take his coin back from Laura unless it’s freely given, and then there was the question of Bartholomew’s gift to Essie. Another case for wondering just how much of a connection might exist between the two parts of “Prayer for Mad Sweeney.”
- “So, what’s the appeal? What’s Wednesday selling at this Godfest that you gotta get a ticket?” Laura makes Wednesday’s war sound like a fan convention. If someone wants to market such a convention exclusive to fans of AMERICAN GODS, they’ve just been handed its name on a silver platter.
- “You. Are an unpleasant creature!” Amazing delivery from Omid Abtahi, highlighting how Salim’s peaceful and kind nature was at war with his need to just tell Mad Sweeney off.
- “Intelligence has never been uncommon among women.” Write that on my grave. “Malice draped in pretty can get away with murder.” That, too.
- How is AMERICAN GODS so good at making something as mundane as dipping a pen in ink look like art? And turning teardrops to raindrops? Beautiful.
- Pablo Schreiber did such a great job with playing the different sides of Mad Sweeney here. Since his very first appearance in AMERICAN GODS, he’s been great with the angry, gruff leprechaun. That continued to be the case when he cursed at the raven during his pee break at the white buffalo, as well as during the character’s utter meltdown in the middle of the road, shouting all sorts of obscenities in the old language. But portraying things like the obvious regret over Mad Sweeney’s role in Laura’s demise, his struggle over whether or not to just take his coin and run, his farewell to Essie, or even his time in that prison cell? That was a new level of golden.
- “We’re in prison, Love. All we have to do is tell tales.” In yet another episode of AMERICAN GODS where oral history, namely the generations of retelling Essie’s fairytales, is vital, Mad Sweeney’s line took on a far deeper meaning than just the side comment of a character in literal prison. Maybe life is its own prison, and all we have to do to make it better is to tell the tales that go along with each of our own belief systems.
Make sure to watch the season finale of AMERICAN GODS on Sunday, June 18 at 9/8c on Starz.