Sunday, June 11, 2017

REVIEW: 'American Gods' - A Woman in the Past Prays to Mad Sweeney in 'A Prayer for Mad Sweeney'

Starz's American Gods - Episode 1.07 "A Prayer For Mad Sweeney"

Her brief reunion with Shadow over far too quickly, Laura turns to an unlikely travel companion to find her way back to life, and back to Shadow. Mad Sweeney's long, winding, and often tragic past is explored.

As American Gods has gone alone, it's become clear that it's great at telling individual and specific stories and less good when it comes to the overall narrative. This is the penultimate episode of the season and it doesn't make significant progress on the main story at all. It makes it unclear what this entire season is actually building towards. The show has been great with moments that flesh out completely unexpected characters in different and nuanced ways. The visuals are powerful and make clear statements. And yet, is the actual plot building to this grand meeting of the gods in Wisconsin? Can the audience expect that to happen in next week's finale? That's not clear at all. Nor is Wednesday's true motivations for picking Shadow as his bodyguard. Those two characters represent the main narrative. That's not to say everything involving their quest has been bad. Moments with them have been great too like the bank robbery or the introductions of all of the New Gods. But there's not an overwhelming feeling of all of these disparate narrative threads coming together for a satisfying ending at the close of the season. In that way, it feels like an adaptation of only X-amount of pages from the source material. Of course, the book is dense with story. Its entire plot couldn't be covered in one season. But I have my doubts that everything will feel meaningful and resolved in interesting and compelling ways in next week's finale. I know the show will give us strong moments of character growth and insight. But the pending war remains underdeveloped as a major story.

These are concerns for the future but they are valid feelings to have right now. These doubts didn't lessen the overall impact of this episode. It serves as a complete detour from the main narrative of the season. It's odd that it's placed so close to the finale when it only makes a little progress with the present-day story. It sets up one big mystery that should have some big reveal in the finale for all of this to be worth it. Plus, it reveals where in Wisconsin all of these gods are going to be meeting. Salim heads there right away while Mad Sweeney and Laura are still on their own journey with very little purpose or progress. This episode being titled "A Prayer for Mad Sweeney" would seem to suggest an hour where his backstory is fleshed out. It would allow the audience to see him in a different light. One that isn't as abrasive as he has been throughout the previous episodes. He's been such a selfish asshole in the present day. But it's also fascinating to think about the people who used to pray to him and what he used to provide in return. It's a compelling premise. However, very little of it has to do with Mad Sweeney. He's much more of an important character in the story with Laura than he is with the tale of the past. It's there where he's the driver of the story because he's the one presented with a choice regarding life or death.

The present-day story is the simpler of the two in this hour as well. It all comes down to the choices that Mad Sweeney is willing to make. Why is he participating in Wednesday's war? And how far is he willing to go for it? He provides a sense of his backstory to Laura. He was to fight in a war a long time ago but fled because he feared his own death was coming. So now, he believes he owes the universe a war. That's why he's working with Wednesday. He feels it's time for him to pay his debt to the universe. He's not happy about it and pushes back every step of the way. But he still does exactly as Wednesday demands. That includes killing Laura in the first place. Yes, he was the cause of the car accident that killed her and Robbie. It's a bit of a random reveal in the context of this episode. It reveals that Mad Sweeney has been a part of Laura's life for much longer than she knows. But it also means Wednesday is more manipulative of Shadow than he's been led to believe. So, Shadow clearly has some importance. But that ongoing mystery really isn't as great or enticing as the show makes it out to be. It's much more interesting to see if Laura will actually stay dead once she gets into another accident. This one too seems like it was caused by a god. A bunny purposefully runs across the road so she swerves to miss it. Her chest is ripped open and the coin comes flying out. Mad Sweeney could run away with it. But he doesn't. He returns Laura to the undead creature she is. Why he does this is perhaps not as clear as the show intends it to be. Perhaps he feels remorse for killing her in the first place. However, that's not information the audience has until the second accident has already taken place. So, it's a bit weird in the structure - even though Mad Sweeney and Laura still make a strong character pairing.

Meanwhile, the story of the past is a fascinating exploration of how a person's faith changes because of time and life experiences. It does tell the story of how Mad Sweeney came to America in the first place. But it's also more interested in the life of one of his most ardent followers: Essie Tregowan. Of course, it should be noted that Essie is played by Emily Browning as well. So, Mad Sweeney may have a thing for women who carry the same face. But it's a completely different character for her to play. It could be seen as a cheap stunt to build a connection between two characters who seemingly appear far apart. But it's not that in the end. Essie is her own woman with her own story. Yes, it intersects with Mad Sweeney's as well. But her experiences with him are so different than Laura's. Essie is a true believer who understands and respects the power of the leprechauns. At first, it seems like the story is suggesting that Essie will one day become the love of Mad Sweeney's life. Most of her story is about her falling in love out of survival instead of genuine feelings for the various men. She fucks men simply to keep herself alive. Mad Sweeney would be the one to break the pattern. And yet, that's not true at all. Instead, he's the one constant in her life. Her faith ebbs and flows over the years. But leaving gifts for the leprechauns is always a part of it.

It's Essie who brings Mad Sweeney to America. They share a conversation when both of them happen to be in a prison at the same time. Him for punching a bar patron into a broken beer bottle and her for getting caught stealing for the second time. It's interesting that the show buys into the idea that identity is whatever the world sees in a person with this story. Essie wasn't a thief until she was labeled one by society. After that point, she made a life out of stealing men and various items. Until she was caught that is. Even then, she was still bartering in regards to the punishment. There is no reason why she survived this whole ordeal and made it to America to build a happy life and family. But that's exactly what occurs. This hour conveys her entire life story. From her first hearing about the stories of the leprechauns as a young girl to her being taken away to her death by Mad Sweeney himself. Everything in between is complicated and incredibly human. It's a nuanced story that shows the humanity amongst the criminal. It brings a new layer out of Mad Sweeney because he's fulfilling the desires of this woman. He's appreciative of the gifts she leaves out for him. As such, he rewards her at the end of her life. And perhaps that's why he helps Laura after the second accident. It's him being reminded of the power he has as a god and the good that he can still do despite Laura not being appreciative at all.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A Prayer For Mad Sweeney" was written by Maria Melnik and directed by Adam Kane.
  • It's nice to see more of the interactions between Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis. They are two gods who've been working together for a long time. Jacquel understands the funeral home business and also knows when Ibis needs to get a story onto paper. That's the case when it comes to Essie and Mad Sweeney. It's a much longer "Coming to America" sequence than the previous ones this season too.
  • Animals have proven to be a form of communication in this universe. Birds have spoken to Wednesday and Mad Sweeney. They understand what they're saying as well. And now, a rabbit forces the ice cream truck to crash. So, someone is clearly playing a major larger game than it first appears to be.
  • It's fascinating to see the many different ways Essie showed her faith over the years. At times, she was very open about it. She was sharing stories with children and leaving gifts behind. At other times, she had to be quiet about it. She had to keep these stories to herself. And other times still, she forgot about them because she was distracted by other things. All of these are important qualities throughout her story.
  • Salim is the most religious character of this narrative so far. He's a completely devout Muslim. He will pull the taxi over to pray five times a day like his faith calls for. He does it because he loves his god. That's something that intrigues Laura even though she doesn't feel the same way about anything - except Shadow.
  • Will Laura be successfully resurrected? That's the grand purpose of her journey with Mad Sweeney. He's taking her to the god who can make her human again. But will it work? It would strip her of her new powers but it would make her feel everything in her life again. She may have more appreciation for it now too.
  • It's pretty incredulous that the ice cream truck would still run after getting into a major accident like that, right? The action makes sure to showcase just how severe this crash really is. It happens in slow motion and is cool to watch. But then, Laura tips it back up and turns the ignition back on with very little problems.