Tonight’s episode of American Gods, “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” pivots on another extended flashback, illustrating once again that the series is concerned less with tending to a singular narrative than with offering riffs on a theme. The show’s first season is nearly over, and we’re nowhere near the end of the story told by Neil Gaiman’s source novel, which also allowed for thematically intertwined tangents. The loose structure works better in the series than the book though, as the former has a decadent and melodramatic style that renders the plot nearly beside the point.
You probably come to this show to bask in its heightened giallo-tinged world and the cast’s ferociously emotive performances. The novel doesn’t have a corresponding kind of prose, as it’s crisp, workmanlike, and keeps one interested in what’s happening rather than in how it happens. So the diversions in the book feel like indulgences, whereas the show has elevated them to the center stage. This free-floating sense of narrative, somewhat experimental by the rigid plot dictates of most television, recalls co-creator Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal as well as American Horror Story.
We’ve met most of the significant players of American Gods, as each episode has been composed of a series of monologues where characters state their individual positions in the looming war of the gods, which is a symbol for the culture wars gripping America. This association, already explicit in Gaiman’s novel, has been heightened by Fuller and co-creator Michael Green so as to reflect the ugly intensity of the hatred between the political right and left that’s escalated since the book’s publication in 2001. Vulcan, for instance, who wasn’t in Gaiman’s novel, resembles a debauched Republican politician in his eagerness to allow his worshippers to kill one another with firearms in the service of power. Mr. Wednesday resembles a disingenuous centrist, while Mr. World suggests a supernatural corporate lobbyist. These powerful personalities leave human characters, such as Shadow Moon, feeling stranded and disoriented, like a lot of people so consumed in present global turmoil that they might not even remember what they believe.
In this context, the show’s structure isn’t as casual as it seems: The escalating war serves as the narrative through line, while the tangents provide sideline context as to the orientation of said war. “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” announces its intentions boldly when Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes), the show’s ongoing narrator, proclaims, “It is fine fiction that America was founded by pilgrims seeking freedom to believe as they wished, that they came to the Americas, spread and bred and filled the empty land. In truth, the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape. A forgetting place.”
Such a passage could have just as easily come out of Nancy Isenberg’s scalding White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America as American Gods, and the casualness of Ibis’s delivery is shocking even for those who’re willing to hear his message. It’s a statement cuts to the heart of the culture wars: Conservatives insist that the United States is a place of fair competition and mobile class distinction, which is objectively false, while liberals call for analysis and reform of a racist culture that pits the under classes of various colors against one another to the benefit of their masters. What Ibis’s observation indicates is the beginning of classes that still exist in this country, as an extension of the United Kingdom’s class system. America was a dumping place for Europe of people who entered indentured servitude to escape execution, often for petty crimes. Enslavement is a legacy shared by Caucasians and non-Caucasians alike.
This idea is dramatized in “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” via the trials and tribulations of Essie Macgowan (Emily Browning), an Irish woman who’s sentenced to “transportation” to North America in the 1700s for the crime of accepting a gift from her master’s son, who’s her lover. Essie endures travel on a ship that’s reminiscent of the slave ship transporting Africans to America earlier in the series, only this one is full of discarded whites, who’re vomiting in the cramped quarters as the ocean violently roils. The corpses of those who can’t take the jostling and starvation are casually tossed out the window, while men hungrily eye the comely Essie.
To survive, Essie steals and fucks her way to the top of her available social ladder, again dodging execution and prison, eventually inheriting a tobacco farm and orchard in Virginia. Throughout the decades, Essie, a fierce survivor, credits her pluck and inventiveness to merry folk such as leprechauns, to whom she routinely makes an offering of bread and milk, no matter how dire her straits. And, indeed, we occasionally see that the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) is watching over Essie, providing companionship at a particularly hopeless moment as well as everlasting empathy.
The episode is driven by a question that’s haunted American Gods throughout its run so far: Do religion and art, central tenants of culture, allow us real transcendence or merely launder, and thus empower, our subjugation? Does watching shows like American Gods, as well as writing and reading these sorts of recaps, give us a sense of misplaced moral and social accomplishment that allows us a safe and tiny catharsis while evil and indifference reign? Or do they provide a spark of hope that’s necessary to keeping civil progress alive during dark times? There isn’t a pat answer, as all of these possibilities are simultaneously true in oscillating degrees. Essie’s belief in the supernatural blesses her with profound mental and spiritual resiliency, but it could have just as easily enabled her to daydream while she’s exploited into oblivion.
The casting of Browning as Essie is a poignant inspiration that positions the Irishwoman in parallel with the actress’s regular character on the show, Laura Moon, who’s also in a partnership with Mad Sweeney. Essie’s story alternates with Mad and Laura’s continued trip to find someone who can reinstate Laura’s life. We learn that Mad set Laura up to die in the first place at Mr. Wednesday’s request, and Mad’s guilt over this treachery leads to the episode’s most moving moment. As Laura lays dying—again—of yet another vehicular crash, her magic gold coin dislodged from her stomach, Mad retrieves the coin and returns it to her body, performing a temporary resurrection to tide her over for the permanent rejuvenation that may or may not eventually follow. For all his bluster and pomp, it appears that Mad is a moral entity—or at least a conflicted one, as he feels an indentured servitude to Wednesday that echoes the under-acknowledged legacy of Caucasian slavery that drives “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney.”
It’s been clear for a few episodes now that Browning and Schreiber have considerable chemistry—something Browning doesn’t have with Ricky Whittle, her actual romantic opposite in the series. In fairness to Whittle, Shadow Moon is a thankless role, basically an audience surrogate who’s routinely upstaged by every other character. That said, Browning and Schreiber still forge something special—call it an acknowledgement of an electrical incommunicado that springs from looking at someone and recognizing that you’re both on the same wavelength. Laura and Mad are romantics who cloak themselves in pretenses of cynicism, and Browning and Schreiber correspondingly deliver their hard and uproarious lines with a punk-rock defensiveness. They’re intensely sexy and enchanting. In the midst of its social outrage, American Gods has made room for a warped and modern romantic comedy. In their fact-based dystopia, Fuller and Green dare to hope.
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