A Prayer for Mad Sweeney on AMERICAN GODS, Explained

Spoilers for episode 7 of American Gods follow! You have been warned.

Mad Sweeney might not be a “god,” exactly, but he came to America just the same as everyone else–and now, American Gods is showing us how. For the most part this episode is fairly straightforward so there aren’t too many juice pieces of behind-the-scenes supplemental material to get into, but just in case you got lost like Essie MacGowan on the moors, here’s a breakdown:

Coming To America: 1721

In a nice change of pace, the episode begins with a scene before Mr. Ibis begins one of his now-trademark Coming To America stories, offering an Irish Red Ale (what delightful foreshadowing!) to Jacquel as he begins his embalming work. The story Ibis has to tell this week is a memorable one in the book that deals with an oft-forgotten aspect of colonial American history: penal transportation.

“The American Colonies were as much a dumping ground as they were an escape,” the tale begins, and it’s true: according to a 2015 article in Gizmodo’s PaleoFuture, about 52,000 convicts were sent from Great Britain to the Americas between 1718 and 1775. Most worked as indentured servants, meaning that they more or less fulfilled the same functions as slaves, except depending on the length of their sentence they were often released and allowed to live out the rest of their time in freedom. It’s not something we talk about in our nation’s history very much–as Gizmodo points out, even Thomas Jefferson almost immediately tried to downplay the number of convicts in America right after the War of Independence–but it’s a well-documented fact that it happened.

The Fairy Folk

Essie MacGowen (changed from Tregowan, along with a few other details) is a low class Irish girl who, despite the fact that Emily Browning is doing double duty, bears no relation to Laura Moon–at least, she doesn’t in the original book. And while she doesn’t necessarily believe in gods, per se, she certainly subscribes to a belief in fairies and other supernatural creatures.

Nowadays, Americans (and Essie’s grandmother, it sounds like) mistakenly see most Celtic mythological figures as quaint and cutesy thanks to decades of sugarcoating. However, true Irish folklore paints characters like the trooping fairies (known in Ireland as the aos sí), the púca, the banshee, and the leprechaun as much more dangerous than you’d expect; Most people use the word “mischievous,” but that makes them sound fun and harmless, which they are not. For some, the practice of leaving gifts for fairies is just as much about protecting yourself from them as it is about asking for “blessings,” which is probably why Essie’s tales take on a darker edge when she grows up and starts telling them herself. They are, as Salim says later in the episode, unpleasant creatures.

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The ritual Essie performs, tying a cut strand of her own hair around a slice of bread is straight from Neil Gaiman’s text (with an added piece of gold, specifically to attract a leprechaun), but I can’t tell for the life of me where it came from beyond that. Still, it has the intended effect for a time, right up until Essie is accused of stealing and sent to the colonies. Except not for long, because homegirl’s got a lot of tricks up her flouncy 18th-century sleeves. She quickly returns to make a name for herself as a thief (because why defy expectations at this point?), and her nightly gifts to the fairies help her out even all the way from London–until, once again, they don’t.

It’s in prison the second time that she meets Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), who interestingly enough is also down on his luck, possibly because not enough people in London believe in leprechauns the same way they do in Ireland. But Essie still does, and when she’s sent to to colonies again with her child, Sweeney comes with her as a manifestation of her belief. Perhaps it’s because of his gratitude that her life radically improves once she sets foot in Virginia–she lives out the rest of her days in relative comfort as the widow of the man who bought her servitude, until Sweeney returns at the end of her life (calling himself a ‘man of the mounds,” which is not really a phrase people use but which is fairly close to the literal translation of the word “banshee,” albeit with a general swap) to take her to the afterlife.

One quick note: Fionnula Flanagan, who plays Essie’s grandmother and elderly Essie, is the only person in the cast of this episode who’s actually Irish. Both Browning and Schreiber are putting on accents, with varying degrees of success. Hey, at least it’s better than David Boreanaz from Angel ever managed.

Laura and Sweeney

Meanwhile in the present, Laura, Salim and Mad Sweeney are still road-tripping together and stop at a tourist trap–a white buffalo, which Mr. Ibis informs us was sacred to the Lakota tribe (finally, we have a specific Native American ). It might feel like a weird choice, but as Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow in the book, roadside attractions are often constructed on places of supernatural power. Where other cultures build temples or cathedrals or “stone circles,” in the USA, people “feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited.” Surely we’ll hear more about this when the characters in the TV show finally make their way to House on the Rock in Wisconsin, which we now know is where all the gods are heading.

Laura and Sweeney are still on their way to Kentucky first, though, so they let Salim go off ahead and abscond with the perfect vehicle for Laura’s particular condition: an ice cream truck. While en route, Sweeney opens up about another aspect of his mythological origins: he was once a king and fled “as a bird” from a battle he thought he would die in, and now he’s joined up with Wednesday to fulfill that destiny. It’s not exactly the way the original Buile Shuibhne tale goes, but it certainly offers an interesting insight into this version of the character.

Also interesting is Sweeney’s plan to cause an accident so that the coin will find its way out of Laura’s body by sheer physical force, with the help of a white rabbit he seems to know (anyone else get a General Mills vibe from this?). It works, but Sweeney immediately feels conflicted–because, we learn, he was the one who caused the car crash that killed Laura, and seemingly on Wednesday’s command. After screaming about it in Celtic for a while, he returns the coin and all of Laura’s loose body parts to her, and the two go on their way.

Next week is the season finale, so things are bound to come to a head in some way. In the meantime, what did you think of this episode? Let us know in the comments!

Images: Starz

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