Flashback episodes are an effective way to expand a character’s history, but in this eight-episode season of American Gods, devoting two chapters to extended flashbacks bogs down the pacing of the show’s larger story. “Prayer For Mad Sweeney” reinterprets the Essie Tregowan “Coming To America” segment of Neil Gaiman’s book, tying her character to Mad Sweeney and Laura Moon by changing her name to Essie McGowan, moving her from Cornwall to Ireland, and having her played by the same actress as Laura. Emily Browning’s performance as Essie immediately creates a bond between the two women, and the importance of that connection becomes clear at the end of the episode when Sweeney has the opportunity to take back the lucky coin he’s desperate to get his hands on.
The episode opens with Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel in their funeral home, where Mr. Ibis writes in his tome of American journeys while Mr. Jacquel prepares a dead body for a viewing. One of the visual signatures of American Gods is how the camera lingers on specific objects, often imbuing a sense of wonder to these otherwise mundane props. The close-up shot of a pen dipping into a shining pool of black ink reinforces Mr. Ibis’ age by highlighting his retro writing tool, and it adds an extra element of drama to the act of writing by zooming in on this first step of the process. Dipping a pen into ink isn’t all that notable on its own, but taking a moment to make that small action fill the entire frame gives it greater importance. This isn’t a frivolous journal Mr. Ibis is writing; it’s a chronicle of how a country came to be by detailing how its people arrived on its land, and the visuals provide a sense of how vital his work is.
“Prayer For Mad Sweeney” uses anachronistic doo-wop tunes to underscore Essie’s story, beginning with The Tads’ “She Is My Dream” when a young Essie is introduced, waiting for her father’s ship to return to the shores of Ireland. This music sets a warm, nostalgic tone, and when specific songs aren’t playing, music supervisor Brian Reitzell combines doo wop rhythms with the sounds of traditional Irish music to add a distinctly American flavor to the score. When we jump forward a few years, Baby Washington’s smooth, sultry “Ah Ha” plays while Essie makes love to the son of her employer, but their romance is short-lived: Essie is accused of stealing the necklace given to her by her lover, who refuses to acknowledge that it was a gift.
The songs add a playful quality to this story, which provides a nice contrast to the bleaker elements of Essie’s experience. After seducing her way out of indentured servitude during a voyage to America, Dion’s “Runaround Sue” plays when Essie betrays her new husband, Captain Clarke, and robs his home while he’s on his latest journey, and that music cue makes her embrace of the criminal lifestyle feel like a fun moment of liberation. After getting caught for shoplifting and being sent to the Americas for the second time, Essie finds another lover in an old tobacco farmer in need of a nursemaid, and Shep & The Limelights’ “Daddy’s Home” plays when they begin their relationship, a humorous song choice that draws attention to the age difference between the two of them.
Essie makes this perilous voyage to America twice, and her belief in leprechauns and practice of old rituals brings her luck that keeps her from a life of misery. It’s a compelling tale, but it also feels like an unnecessary tangent at this late point in the season. Perhaps co-creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and episode writer Maria Melnik thought that the viewers needed a breather after the heaviness of last week’s politically charged episode. This isn’t a light hour, but it’s definitely softer than most of what we’ve seen on American Gods, revealing a tender side of Sweeney that doesn’t get much exposure in the present day.
Adding more dimension to Sweeney is much appreciated given the stereotypical nature of his belligerent leprechaun character, and it gives Pablo Schreiber the opportunity to show off his range as he embodies this earlier, less harsh Sweeney. He’s off-screen for most of Essie’s story, but he’s a regular presence in her life. Their first face-to-face interaction comes when she’s thrown in prison for the second time and needs someone to talk to before she’s hanged, and Sweeney offers her companionship from the neighboring prison cell.
This is when Sweeney learns of the Americas, a place where you can find happiness by taking on a new name and new life. He’s eventually brought overseas by the few believers like Essie who share the myths of their old country, and when it’s time for Essie to shuffle off this mortal coil, Sweeney is the god who ushers her into the afterlife. He materializes in the dark of night looking like a total stud with his long hair and exposed chest hair, and Schreiber is smoldering as Sweeney gives thanks to this woman who provided sustenance to him for nearly her entire life. There’s an undercurrent of romance in Sweeney and Essie’s relationship, which makes me very curious about how Sweeney’s relationship with Laura will develop in the future.
This episode is a showcase for both Schreiber and Browning, who gets to play a very different character than Laura. Whereas Laura is deeply unhappy with her life and struggles with belief in a greater power, Essie is content with her circumstances and intensely devoted to the legends her grandmother told her. It’s interesting that the season’s two flashback-centric episodes — this one and “Git Gone” — are both anchored by Browning’s performance, and the amount of screen time she has had in the last four episodes situates her as the main actor in this cast, which is surprising given the size of Laura’s part in the book. The series is starting to feel like Laura’s story more than Shadow’s, and while the shift is intriguing, the overarching narrative is still structured around Shadow’s experience, so spending all this extra time with Laura comes across as a distraction from the main plot.
While the majority of “Prayer For Mad Sweeney” is flashback, there are a handful of scenes with Sweeney in the present as he continues his road trip with Laura Moon and Salim, who has one last moment with the pair before leaving them behind. Laura and Sweeney steal an ice cream truck after losing their ride, and they continue to bicker until a white rabbit jumps in front of the car, forcing Laura to swerve the vehicle and send it into a slow-motion flip. Laura’s sewn-up chest rips open as she flies through the windshield, and the magic coin that revived her busts through her rotting flesh and rolls down the street, leaving her fully dead on the concrete.
Sweeney wakes up after the accident and grabs his coin, but seeing Laura’s body reminds him of the role he played in her original death. Working under Wednesday’s orders, Sweeney was the one driving the truck that caused the car accident that killed Robbie and Laura, and his guilt compels him to place the coin back on Laura’s chest and revive her once again. This is when the connection between Laura and Essie becomes a key component of the story, and the physical resemblance of the two characters informs Sweeney’s behavior. Although we don’t explicitly know that Laura and Essie are related, Laura clearly reminds Sweeney of the woman who gave him power centuries earlier, and that intensifies his guilt to the point where he stops thinking about himself. Essie helped him survive all those years ago, and he returns the favor by giving life to the woman who shares her face.