Warning: This recap of the “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” episode of American Gods contains spoilers.
Pablo Schreiber’s comic turn as Mad Sweeney has a note of sadness and loss added to it this week as we learn how he got from the Emerald Isles to the shores of America. But just when you start to feel sorry for him, we also find out what all those guilty looks have been for: Sweeney’s been a bad leprechaun. A murdering one.
In 1791, Essie Macgowan (Emily Browning), a young girl in Ireland, keeps to the superstitions of her people and asks the leprechauns for help in seducing the son of a lord. She fails and is sent to the New World as a criminal, but seduces the ship’s captain and returns to the British Isles. She is caught again and sentenced to death, but gets pregnant by her jailer and has her sentence commuted to exile, once again, in America. She marries a farmer and dies in America, bringing Mad Sweeney stateside.
In present times, Laura releases Salim (Omid Abtahi) from his agreement to drive them to find Shadow. She carjacks an ice cream truck and swerves to avoid a rabbit, throwing her and Mad Sweeney from the truck. The magic coin flies from her body but, rather than keeping it, Mad Sweeney puts it back in her and they continue on.
The story of how the leprechauns got to America and their eventual fate is tragic and hilarious in equal measure: “I was a king once. I was. Then they made me a bird. Then Mother Church came along and turned us all into saints and trolls and fairies. General Mills did the rest.” Most of it is in the original book, though it’s fleshed out wonderfully here. The really interesting thing is that, in a brief flashback, Mad Sweeney is revealed to be the one who caused the accident that killed Laura.
Both this and the resurrection plot were created for the show and are brilliant in the way that they add new information without ever contradicting the events of the original – a too-common complaint of adaptations. They fit so well, you’d think that Gaiman originally intended them to be in the book. But while they match the spirit of the book, the tone is very much for TV.
Mad Sweeney is as loud and crass as the show’s blaring neon credits and this version of him — vulgar and petulant and racked with guilt — could only exist here. His offer to bring her back to life rather than trying to trick the coin from her or, as we see in this episode, allowing fate to knock it loose from her chest, is a tangled mess of regret and shame that would be unwieldy on the page, but it feels at home in a series that will go on for several seasons.
It’s a shame Salim exits the story here (though there’s every reason to believe he’ll meet back up with them at some future point); it would have been nice to explore his faith and practice a little more. Of course, a deep dive into any of the big religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism) would inevitably lead to someone taking offense and eventual calls for a boycott, but Salim is far and away the kindest, most reasonable character we’ve met so far. Maybe he and Mad Sweeney can take a road trip once the business at the House on the Rock is concluded.
Browning isn’t the only one doing double duty — as Laura and Essie — this episode. Fionnula Flanagan plays both Essie’s grandmother near the beginning and Essie herself near the end. Flanagan isn’t a household name, but she’s been a character actor since the ’60s and was a staple of American TV in the ’70s and ’80s, appearing in no less than three different Star Trek series.
The ancient legend of Mad Sweeney is just as bonkers as the modern version.
Next episode, Shadow and Mr. Wednesday hope to recruit Ostara, an Old God who we know as Easter. Does the bunny on the road mean that she caused the accident?
America has given birth to — or at least popularized — dozens of musical genres. But if you talked to someone from the year 2400, it is likely the sound most associated with the US would be ’50s doo-wop in the way that we think of mariachi music for Mexico or the shamisen when we think of Japan. Dion’s“Runaround Sue” is the most recognizable tune of the era, but Shep & The Limelights, Baby Washington, and The Tads also make appearances. It feels oddly appropriate for a tale of the American Dream realized, whether it be in 18th century or the 21st.
American Gods airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
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