American Gods Episode 7: A Prayer for Mad Sweeney is answered in mysterious ways

Contributed by
Jun 14, 2017, 3:02 PM EDT (Updated)

Liz: Devotion can be power in itself. It is one of those intangible things that can break prison walls, deliver a wandering soul or set an apathetic heart aflame. It burns in beliefs so ancient that their ghosts still linger where the fires crackled and the stories were told, long after the last ashes were gone in a fairy whisper of wind. It breathes life into the dead and transforms the living.

There is something about this episode that strikes you in the solar plexus like a beam of the supernatural golden light that keeps flashing before Laura’s eyes. The powers beyond us can be terrible to behold even if they are overgrown fairies with shaggy hair and battered leather boots, or a blazing red Mohawk and unwashed jeans. Something ancient and thrumming sets them apart as the creatures to whom our ancestors used to send prayers, entwined in the tendrils of incense smoke or wrapped in a midnight offering.

Somewhere in the murk of the woods is a shadowy figure emerging from a shroud of mist—but only if you believe.

Alyse: Tonight’s episode was the most straightforward episode thus far, and frankly, that was a little disappointing. Essie’s storyline was not particularly interesting. It was a fairly uncomplicated “coming to America” story with a dollop of faerie folk. Tonight was mainly about Essie, and while it was important, she just isn’t a compelling character.

Liz: Mr. Ibis’ fountain pen is the last silent witness bleeding out stories that would otherwise be buried forever. The accounts he scrawls into the ancient papyrus pages of his journal are more than just interludes. Their gravity is especially evident when Jacquel can tell, just by the overshadowed look on his business partner’s face, that behind that stoic expression there is a story inside him bubbling to the surface of his consciousness like hot magma. It could be forever lost if it doesn’t soon erupt in scrolls of black ink.

Something about Jacquel is also unearthed in the shadows of the funeral home as he works to the sound of a creaky old Victrola. He often appears as a menacing figure in past episodes, a grim reaper who made even Laura’s bones rattle when he reminded her that her doom in the underworld would yet be carried out. Jacquel is actually far from brutal. His hands work almost reverently to paint foundation onto colorless skin and give the corpse lying on the gurney before him one last semblance of life in the cold, naked indignity of death. He is the neo-Anubis, approaching the work as his alter ego must have pieced together the bloody limbs of Osiris that Set scattered about the desert and embalming the reassembled body into the first mummy, as the legend echoes from forgotten tomb walls.  

Alyse: Tonight, we see Jacquel’s work ethic, hurrying to clear the “table” for a pair of deaths due in an hour. The call hasn’t come in yet, but Jacquel knows. He knows. In the meantime, Ibis has a story to tell, another “coming to America” tale. The story of a young Irish girl named Essie McGowan.

Liz: On the mystic shores of Ireland, a superstitious young girl grows up leaving bowls of cream on the windowsill and slices of fruit-studded cake in the woods for the fairy folk. Essie McGowan insists on leaving something even for to the ornery leprechaun for his blessing. She may not see the silhouette rising from the mist, or the face attached to the voice she hears on the other side of her clammy prison cell, but Essie believes so strongly in the magical beings that her devotion brings them across the ocean. Did her ancestors awake the leprechauns, or did the leprechauns startle them when they emerged in the night? Either way, the often fickle and frivolous Essie who is the embodiment of “malice draped in pretty” remains steadfast in one thing. There is always a bowl of cream at the windowsill, waiting there apparently for no one at all.

The prayers Essie whispers after sundown are what so many of the dying old gods thirst for. Wherever her suspiciously fine skirts and shoes take her, she is shadowed by the leprechaun, whether or not she realizes that she is under the protection of an otherworldly being.

Alyse: Essie’s grandmother would tell her stories of fairies and leprechauns, and advise her to always leave a gift for the leprechauns. Even though they are mean, they still want their blessings. So Essie always left an offering to the leprechauns: cream when she could; a crust of bread or a sprinkle of salt when she was skint. When she grew up, she worked for a well-to-do family and told the tales of the leprechauns to the children. Despite the constant hunger, Essie never neglects to leave an offering for the leprechauns, even if it is just a morsel. While in prison for theft, she befriends a prisoner in the next cell – Mad Sweeney. He doesn’t think it is fair that she be killed for stealing, but Essie assures him she had her chance. He suggests that she could bribe her way out, but Essie has given up hope. Nonetheless, she still leaves her offering for the leprechaun, and the next day, she faces a sentence of transportation to the Americas and takes her beliefs in leprechauns with her. She is not the only one who brought Sweeney here, but I sense she is the last to believe.

So what is the lesson here? Be nice to the gods, and they will be nice to you. And the gods need faith in order to continue to exist. This tale tells of Mad Sweeney, how he got to America, and honestly, it explains how he has become sidelined. He’s basically just Wednesday’s errand boy now, especially without his lucky coin.

Liz: Essie and Laura are separated by several hundred years, the Atlantic ocean and probably multiple strains of DNA, but despite that they somehow seem to be faces reflected on opposite sides of the same mirror. Laura’s fleeting existence of stealing profits another woman’s husband in a neon-lit world of casino table sand forbidden bedrooms is really just the fast-forwarded version of another tramp who had little enough shame to go thieving for apples and pins and bolts of lace in broad daylight. Except Laura wasn’t guarded by a leprechaun when the grand theft she masterminded slammed her husband in prison for the next several years or when she met her demise with her face buried in another man’s crotch as his truck crashed to its end.

Essie’s lively face facing into Laura’s gray complexion creates an eerie connection between two women from two vastly different eras who somehow shared a heartbeat. Both played roulette with their lives and reputations. The glaring difference is that Essie, with occasional lapse, never stopped putting out those bowls of cream, where self-proclaimed nonbeliever Laura cannot deny flickers of what she can otherwise not explain even as she clings to disbelief.

Alyse: Laura and Essie both being portrayed by Emily Browning was an interesting choice. I read in an interview with showrunner Bryan Fuller that the decision to use her wasn’t made until they were casting for the role. Liz told me that the two characters had no connection in the book, but the decision to have them played by the same actress inextricably links them. While a good case could be made that they are just similar characters, the customary use of this trope in television would mean that they are relatives. The familial link between characters feels especially strong when Mad Sweeney’s sudden care for Laura becomes evident in his “dilemma.”

Liz: Up until now we’ve known Mad Sweeney as a gangly drunk who thirsts for gold as much as booze. He was never really a character to sympathize with unless you can conjure up dregs of sympathy for a whiskey-doused madman who steals cars with the jerk of a crowbar, spews insults even when half-asleep and selfishly serves his own interests. Anyone who barks at his boss’s feathered messengers while pissing against a telephone pole certainly doesn’t deserve the Citizen of the Year award.

 What gives us an alternate view of Sweeney is his being faced with an overwhelming annoyingly inconvenient dilemma. He feels a sort of magnetism towards what he alone wants and feels he deserves for no other reason than wanting it. Then there is that voice—dare I call it altruistic?—which keeps growing consistently louder between his ears. He usually drowns out it out Jack Daniels, if he isn’t passed out on a barstool first. Maybe he hears it now because he’s halfway sober (or at least appears to be). Seeing this crass leprechaun struggle against his demons when he told off Wednesday’s ravens a moment earlier is completely unexpected. If there is a prayer for Mad Sweeney, there may be a silver of hope for him yet.

Alyse: No spoilers, but Mad Sweeney is faced with a powerful decision in tonight’s episode. He can take the one thing he has been looking for, or he can sacrifice it for someone else. Mad Sweeney’s time with Essie really cements the reasons for his decision. Regardless of whether Essie and Laura are the same person or of the same bloodline, he sees similarities between the two women, and I think that this helps cement his ultimate decision. Someone had faith in him in the past, even when they were down. Now he has to do the same.