Well, we were bound to encounter a less than stellar episode eventually, and A Prayer for Mad Sweeney is that episode. It’s certainly not bad; in fact, it’s very enjoyable and if it were placed anywhere else besides as the penultimate episode of the season, it would raise from less-than-stellar to good. The problem is that this episode is essentially one long detour from the main plotline right before the season finale. It’s a great story that’s well told, but placing the episode this close to the finale was a mistake. Written by Maria Melnik (and Michael Green and Bryan Fuller) and directed by Adam Kane, A Prayer for Mad Sweeney tells the story of how Mad Sweeney came to America. After her reunion with Shadow (Ricky Whittle) ends far too quickly, Laura (Emily Browning) turns to an unlikely travel companion to find her way back to life, and back to Shadow. Mad Sweeney’s (Pablo Schreiber) long, winding, and often tragic past is explored. (As always, this episode will feature spoilers. You have been warned.)A Prayer for Mad Sweeney has a lot in common with the earlier episode Git Gone in that both episodes are shot in the Cinemascope format (2:35:1) and both episodes are told primarily through flashbacks. In the case of A Prayer for Mad Sweeney, the episode is told as though it’s a story being written by Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) in his book, complete with his narration throughout both the parts set in the past and the parts set in the present with Laura and Mad Sweeney continuing to make their way to Kentucky in search of a man who can properly resurrect Laura. As a storytelling method, this is brilliant, particularly because the entire episode revolves around two actors: Pablo Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney and Emily Browning in a dual role as Laura Moon and Essie Macgowan. So, having the episode told as though it’s an actual story helps emphasize the dual journeys that Mad Sweeney/Essie and Mad Sweeney/Laura are on. It’s a nice touch, for sure. Plus it gives Demore Barnes a bit more to do, which is nice since he’s primarily been second fiddle to Chris Obi’s excellent performance as Anubis/Mr. Jacquel. A large part of the episode tells the story of Essie Macgowan, an Irish woman who believes in the faeries and leprechauns and banshees (etc). Essie’s life was one of hardship which led her to a life of crime. After being proposed to by her original master’s son (and then being accused of stealing the necklace he gave her), Essie was sentenced to indentured servitude in the Americas. On her voyage over, she made a deal with the captain of the ship to take her back to England. The two end up married, but after the captain leaves for his next trip, Essie robs him dry and forges a life on her own in London. She continues to steal all the while, always making sure to leave a piece of bread or some milk for the leprechauns, until the day she doesn’t. She’s caught (again) for stealing, and this time is sentenced to death. In her prison cell, she hears Mad Sweeney’s voice from the neighboring cell. The two talk and he hints at a way for her to get out of the jail. She is able to do so (by getting impregnated by the guard) and is sent to America (again) to become an indentured servant. She is purchased by a tobacco field owner who needs a maid for his new child. Eventually, the two marry and she raises his child along with her own as he dies and she grows older. All the while, she continues to follow the rituals of her beliefs and leaves bread and milk out for the leprechauns. As she’s dying, she receives a visit from Mad Sweeney who ushers her peacefully into her death. In all, it’s a lovely story, and it’s nice to see how Mad Sweeney ended up in America. The rest of the episode continues the B-Plot of the series and follows Salim (Omid Abtahi), Laura, and Mad Sweeney as they make their way to Kentucky. After stopping at a statue of a white buffalo, Laura releases Salim from their deal (after learning where all the gods are intending to meet: House on the Rock). Laura and Mad Sweeney continue traveling together. Their dynamic remains similar to the way it’s been for the last few episodes; they’re hostile to each other, but the longer they spend together, the more alike they realize they are. Mad Sweeney keeps getting visited by crows (presumably Wednesday’s crows) who seem to want him to get rid of Laura. He ignores them and the two continue driving until a mischievous looking bunny hops into the middle of the road, causing Laura to swerve, and ultimately crash, the ice cream truck they’ve been driving. She flies through the windshield, ripping open her torso, and the coin keeping her alive falls out. Mad Sweeney finds the coin and briefly considers taking it and leaving her corpse behind. But, in an act of kindness, he returns the coin to her and they continue on their journey. These two stories are intercut with one another to form the meat of the episode. They compliment each other, both showing the depth and kindness of Mad Sweeney’s character. Underneath his brash exterior is a god who really does care. He has a heart and that’s nice to see. Pablo Schreiber plays Mad Sweeney’s softer side surprisingly well. There’s something unexpected about him delivering his lines in a genuine manner instead of the normal way Mad Sweeney behaves. Schreiber definitely is the standout in this episode, but Emily Browning follows very close behind. Emily Browning playing both Essie and Laura offers an interesting dynamic to the episode as well. Both characters have similarities and their journeys through the episode are similar, but both characters are also radically different and Emily Browning portrays those difference stunningly. If you didn’t know any better, you’d almost believe two different actresses were playing them. She’s really that impressive. Based on its own merits, this is a really good episode. The problem is that it’s also the penultimate episode of the season. Being the penultimate episode comes with some expectations and responsibilities, and A Prayer for Mad Sweeney doesn’t really succeed in either of those. It doesn’t really build up suspense or excitement for the finale at all, as it’s almost completely unrelated to the ongoing plotline with Shadow and Wednesday that the finale will presumably explore. The episode might work better if you were to binge watch the show, but waiting all week, after last week’s exciting episode, for the penultimate episode of the season and getting this one is a letdown. It’s like the momentum of the show just grinds to a halt as it goes on a tangent with a story about Mad Sweeney in which Mad Sweeney appears for maybe a quarter of the story. Again, on it’s own A Prayer for Mad Sweeney is a great episode, but in the context of the season, it feels misplaced. It would be hard to place it anywhere else with the present day scenes, but having it be the penultimate episode of the season just doesn’t quite work. On its own, A Prayer for Mad Sweeney is a well written and well-directed piece of television. Maria Melnik, Bryan Fuller, and Michael Green are able to tell a beautiful story while expertly connecting it to an ongoing storyline. Adam Kane directs the episode beautifully, really relishing the opportunity to enjoy the various locales the episode explores. The costumes for Essie’s story are exquisite, really capturing the time period they’re from while also matching the general look of the show. Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber give truly wonderful performances throughout the entire episode. It’s nice that they were given an episode that just revolves around them so they have the chance to truly shine on their own.
As an episode, I give A Prayer for Mad Sweeney four out of five wands, but in the context of the season as a whole, I drop it down to three out of five wands. I wish I could just judge it on its own, but it is part of a larger story and has to be judged in that context. It’s a really good episode that suffers from its placement in the season as a whole. Perhaps after the finale airs, the placement will make more sense, but as I have to judge this episode now as it is, those are my grades. It’s great television; I just wish it wasn’t the penultimate episode of the season.
The first season of American Gods concludes with Come to Jesus, premiering next Sunday at 9 pm on STARZ.