In “Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” American Gods hits the breaks to tell a story of an Irish girl named Essie (Emily Browning) and explore how Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) came to America. It seems strange to tell this story in the episode before the season finale. Shadow (Ricky Whittle) and Wednesday (Ian McShane) don’t appear at all, and Wednesday’s war seems all but forgotten. Instead of moving the narrative forward, this episode takes a detour that seems to go in the opposite direction. Not only that, but the detour takes detours when Essie herself tells stories within her story. It’s a nesting egg of mythology—which seems to be the kind of storytelling that American Gods is most interested in. Stories crack to reveal more stories, over and over again.
If we are taking a break from the main narrative to focus on what seems like a one-off character, at least she’s interesting. Essie is an ambitious woman—it’s not just luck that saves her life repeatedly, it’s Essie working hard with the talents she has to get where she needs to go. Instead of portraying Essie as an evil seductress, American Gods shows that Essie is a complex person—it’s just that her talents are stealing and charming the men who can get her out of binds.
You can see this in her sex scenes, when the camera often focuses on things other than the sex. It’s not the most important thing to Essie, so it’s not the most important thing for the series to feature. Instead, the scenes often explore her setting. By doing this, American Gods shows that sex for Essie is about getting away from wherever she is, rather than an emotional or physical connection with the person she’s with. Sometimes the man she’s having sex with isn’t shown at all, or his face remains hidden. In Essie’s final sex scene, when she is with her husband John, the camera does focus tightly on the two of them, because this time Essie is trying to stay exactly where she is.
It’s smart to use Browning for this role. By using an actor who plays a character the audience already cares about, it helps connect the audience to Essie, who is completely new and whose story takes up the bulk of the episode. Browning does terrific work yet again—at first I didn’t even realize it was her. Her face may be the same, but her energy is different from when she plays Laura. Laura stomps when she walks and seems like she’s always on the verge of rolling her eyes. Essie glides when she walks, and takes pleasure in material things that Laura wouldn’t give a second glance. But the most important difference between Laura and Essie is their faith. Essie carries her faith with her throughout her life. Laura has none.
This is especially apparent in their respective death scenes. When Essie dies, her faith allows Mad Sweeney to guide her gently to the afterlife. When Laura dies—the first time—it’s because Mad Sweeney orchestrated it on orders from Wednesday, and he watches from afar as she takes her last breaths.
Laura dies a second time when the ice cream truck she stole flips over, flinging the magical coin from her body. It’s sad to see Laura, who has superhuman strength and a killer attitude, become lifeless once again when she loses her coin. And after watching Essie—who used men to save herself, which is different than needing a man to save her—it’s disheartening to see Mad Sweeney need be the one who places the coin back in Laura’s body to bring her back to life. I wish Laura hadn’t needed to die again for Mad Sweeney to show that he is invested in her life.
It’s unclear why Mad Sweeney has a change of heart and puts the coin back in Laura’s chest instead of taking his luck back and running. It could be because he feels guilty for killing her in the first place and is trying to make amends—though he never seemed particularly thoughtful or remorseful before. It could be because Laura reminds him of Essie, who he seemed to possibly care for, or at least feel connected to. It could be that he’s just tired of taking orders and not ready to go back to Wednesday and commit himself to a war that could lead to his death. Whatever they are, his motivations are less interesting than Laura and Essie’s journeys.
“In the Americas, anyone can be anything they insist upon,” Essie says when she’s in prison. Essie creates a new life for herself out of sheer will and a pretty face. It took dying for Laura to do it, but now she’s trying to do the same. Using them as mirror images of each other, plus the repetition of the car crash and Mad Sweeney’s involvement, touches on another theme in American Gods: history repeating itself. It doesn’t matter that the storytelling on American Gods isn’t linear, since stories go in circles anyway.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Real Life, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.