In the penultimate episode of season 1, American Gods pauses for a digressive hour that aims to tell the tale of Mad Sweeney.
At its core, American Gods is about storytelling. The myths and legends from which its characters are derived are also the source of their power – or at least the stories serve as the delivery mechanism through which the gods can acquire the faith and belief that keeps them running. So far in season 1, the series has addressed the notion of storytelling through monologues of existing gods, like Mr. Nancy’s second episode introduction, the expository dialogue of Media, and, of course the circuitous education of Shadow Moon by Mr. Wednesday.
So it’s no big surprise, then, that the series would devote an entire episode to the act of someone telling a story, someone who isn’t one of the primary characters preparing for war against Mr. World and his new gods, but rather a supporting player, an individual who has so far spent his time on the margins of the series’ larger story. This person is Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes), the man who assists Mr. Jacquel in his duties as a mortician, and is shown in ‘A Prayer for Mad Sweeney’ to be the chronicler of the stories of the Old Gods.
It’s understandable that executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and credited writer Maria Melnik, would want to further explore Mr. Ibis and his role in the series, especially as it pertains to the metaphorical nature of storytelling that’s so important to the show and the book it’s based on, but for it to happen as the penultimate episode of the season seems a little misguided. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like about ‘A Prayer for Mad Sweeney’; it is a well-drawn hour of television that offers some insight into the cantankerous leprechaun and at the same time better establishes the present-day relationship between Sweeney and Laura Moon. And yet, with a war between the Old Gods and the New on the horizon, and the mystery of Shadow Moon’s connection to Mr. Wednesday waiting to be resolved, diverting the audience’s attention with a bottle episode like this is a little like spending the last day of your vacation stopping to have a peek at the World’s Largest Prairie Dog when you’re supposed to be on your way to see the Grand Canyon.
The potential error in the positioning of an hour like this ahead of the season finale aside, the episode makes good use of Emily Browning in the dual roles of the undead Laura and, for the purposes of Mr. Ibis’s story, the young Essie MacGowan, a red-headed Irish lass whose belief in folk tales about fairies and leprechauns ties her fate to that of Mad Sweeney’s. Although a proper introduction between the two isn’t made until the hour’s end, when the terrific Fionnula Flanagan, who appears earlier as an even younger Essie’s grandmother, plays the now aged Essie.
Essie’s story, then, is a lot like the gods in American Gods, in that she finds herself adjusting to situations seemingly out of her control, and then using her newfound circumstances to eek out some kind of subsistance. There are echoes of the gods’ tales in Essie’s wayward journey from Ireland to America, not only in the way belief sees them wash up on foreign soil but also in how they’re forced to reimagine and repackage themselves due to circumstance. In this case, Essie first works in the kitchen of a wealthy home and when she’s not too busy peeling vegetables, she’s regaling children with stories her grandmother told her when she was young. After a tryst with the homeowner’s son leads to Essie being accused of thievery and sentenced to seven years indentured servitude an ocean away, the young woman finds herself actually becoming that which she was unfairly branded.
What ‘A Prayer for Mad Sweeney’ is truly successful at is in demonstrating the malleable nature of identity and how circumstances and need can forever alter who a person is, which can be something of a surprise even to themselves. The episode’s story, then, is less about Mad Sweeney and how he came to find himself in America than it is about Laura Moon, and how her current circumstances – a living being trapped in a decaying body – have largely rewritten the understanding she had of herself and, in particular, the pre-death Laura Moon’s death wish. Or, more to the point, the episode demonstrates that Laura might have never had much in the way of an understanding of her self, which might account for the unhappiness that plagued her.
As Essie moves from kitchen staff with plenty of stories to tell to a thief on the streets of London, and then the former indentured servant and eventual wife of a wealthy landowner in America, the hour plays around with the common themes of the series so far in mostly entertaining fashion. It’s great fun to see Browning put into a role that is so different and yet contains many similarities to the role of Laura. It’s also fun to see the series reiterate the idea that everyone important to the story is a con artist in some form or another.
Something resonates in the conclusion of Essie’s story – both the idea that her stories have no home in America and that after enduring so much she’s managed to carve out a reasonably peaceful, perhaps even happy existence in the end – and that brings some hope to Laura’s thread. And yet, as the penultimate episode of season 1, seeing American Gods pause for a digressive hour that aims to tell the tale of Mad Sweeney, the viewer is caught between enjoying a sentimental tangent and wondering whether or not the show can just get on with telling the story at hand.
That leaves the series with a lot of ground to cover in next week’s finale. It will be interesting to see where American Gods leaves things ahead of season 2.
American Gods continues next Sunday with ‘Come to Jesus’ @9pm on Starz.
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