In the Old Country: American Gods, “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”

If nothing else, this was a bold choice for a penultimate episode of the season. I genuinely don’t know if I liked it or not. My opinion has vacillated all night between annoyance and delight. Perhaps when looking back on the season as a whole, this detour will make more sense. But right now and with only eight episodes this season, it’s hard to justify any time spent away from Shadow and Wednesday.

American Gods has been hinting all along that the show was bigger than Shadow and Wednesday—probably the biggest departure from the novel thus far—and last night solidified it. This is Laura’s journey as much as it is Shadow’s. What that means in the long run, who the hell knows. I mean, they have to get to House on the Rock in the finale, that’s a given, but at this rate it’s looking like they’re going to show up just in time for the closing credits. They still have to meet Easter (Kristin Chenoweth has been promo-ed extensively, so not much of a spoiler). In the book, Wednesday and Shadow visit her in San Francisco, but I can’t see that happening with so little time left. And, frankly, so much stuff happens in the House on the Rock that there’s no way one episode can cram all that in and also wrap up the season’s loose ends. So, newbies, I’m as lost as y’all are right now.

Laura and Mad Sweeney’s relationship is doomed, that much is obvious even if you haven’t read the book (not that it’s in the novel anyway). So the character that has to benefit the most from this episode-long “Coming to America” has to be Laura by way of Essie. While we learn about Mad Sweeney’s past, it’s really Laura we’re getting to know through her historical proxy. Like Essie, Laura is beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious. Both women started off in towns and jobs that were beneath them. Essie needed a bigger challenge than to be a scullery maid just as Laura was drowning as a card dealer at a casino. But when they got the things they wanted—Essie with her captain, Laura with her con man—they squandered the opportunity. For Essie, that blowback came in being sent back to America, where Essie MacGowan “died” and she was reborn Essie Richardson. Laura’s death and resurrection are literal rather than metaphorical, but the result is the same.

This episode marks the second time in less than a month when Laura is thrown through the windshield of a moving vehicle. Talk about bad luck. The reveal that Mad Sweeney killed Laura the first time is a heartbreaker. Good thing he just told that story about how he’s going to battle with Wednesday to make up for not going to battle when he was human or him saving Laura instead of leaving her dead might not make much sense. But this begs the question of why Wednesday wanted Laura dead in the first place. And, more importantly, why Wednesday needs Shadow in particular. What is it about Shadow that makes him so special? Other than that he can make it snow and can spy on Dead Wife from hundreds of miles away. Whatever Wednesday’s up to, it’s more than staging a battleground.

Since American Gods took a detour, I’m going to take one of my own in this review to talk about white privilege. Look at the difference between Essie’s forced immigration to the United States versus the African slaves from the second episode. The first time she sails to the New World, Ibis talks of the gripping hunger and being packed in tight, but unlike the enslaved Africans she still has food and room to move around. She has the option to sex her way out of imprisonment, where the mother of the man who summoned Anansi had no such choice, for when she refused she was killed and dumped overboard. On the first trip Essie gets as far as Carolina, one of the primary ports for the African slave trade. 10.7 million African slaves were brought to US soil, and 40% of those went through Charlestown. In Carolina, Essie meets Susan and thinks how cool it is that she has a new name and a new life in a new world. Susan, however, probably didn’t think it was so great. With “skin like a brick,” she was probably a slave and therefore wouldn’t have had any choice in her name. Slaves were often renamed when passed between plantations. They owned nothing, not even their name.

Think about the privilege inherent in Essie’s experience. Having privilege isn’t the same as having an easy life, but it does mean that the system is set up to benefit some at the disadvantage of others (and before you start in on the whole “Irish slaves” myth go visit historian Liam Hogan’s Twitter and get yourself some education). What Essie goes through as an indentured servant is very different from what slaves went through. Essie could work or sleep her way to freedom, options denied enslaved Africans. Essie could take a new name where Susan was likely given hers. Essie could build a life she wanted where Susan’s existence depended on the whims of her master. Essie could raise her own child alongside Richardson’s, whereas an enslaved wet nurse often left her children in the slave quarters and tended to them only in the wee hours of the night.

Now think about that privilege in the context of a story being told by an Egyptian god brought to the New World against his will. A story told by an old god living in Cairo, Illinois, a former thriving metropolis sunk into poverty and viciously segregated. The lynchings of Black residents and terrible race riots in the 1960s, coupled with the severe economic decline triggered by shifting capitalistic models, have conspired to bring Cairo to its knees. It’s a town undone by corporate scheming and political maneuvering as much as its own internal discord. The town is forgotten and abandoned just like the two old gods who live there.

Even after all this hemming and hawing, I still don’t know how to feel about “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney.” The thematic elements—the cyclical nature of Essie and Laura’s stories, the reuse of characters (not just Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber but also Fionnula Flanagan as both Essie’s gran and grandma Essie), and the hints at the uniqueness of American mythology—are all great. But to see this episode at this point in the season…why? What’s the point? What have we learned that we absolutely had to know before the House on the Rock? No matter how much grumbling I do, however, I trust showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green implicitly. They know what they’re doing, and even when they don’t, they do it with such flair that it works anyway. I just need the finale to be a little tighter than this. Tangents are great, but they still need to lead somewhere.

Music

Final Thoughts

  • “You are an unpleasant creature.”
  • “Unfortunately, the more abundant the blessings, the more we forget to pray.”
  • Writer Maria Melnik also wrote on one of my all-time favorite shows, coincidentally also on Starz: Black Sails.
  • Whoo boy, that red wig on Emily Browning, that’s some Americans level terrible. Rip that baby off and burn it.
  • Wonder if that white rabbit is connected to Easter? She’s supposed to turn up this season…
  • I highly recommend reading this haunting photoessay on Cairo.
  • And while you’re thinking about white privilege built on Black bodies, consider that most of the songs playing over Essie’s story are Doo Wop or Uptown Soul, both subgenres of R&B.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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