Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on AMERICAN GODS, S1 Ep7; “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney.” Pull over to the side for minor accidents.
In the penultimate episode of this first all-too-brief season of American Gods, what seems to be a lengthy deviation from the primary story arc, upon which Shadow is traveling with Mr. Wednesday, is slowly revealed to be a delicate act of shading in the background and defining the details–a process similar to Mr. Jackal applying his handiwork to the bodies laid out upon his table. Through the shifting, tragic existence of Mad Sweeney, we gain new insight into the way this world is put together across both time and distance.
STORIES WITHIN STORIES, ECHOES WITHIN ECHOES
“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is largely a story about the role a story can play in guiding one’s existence, which is why this chapter is largely placed in the hands of Mr. Ibis–a being who, we see, is sometimes unaware of his own compulsion to write until his partner points it out to him. The tale he spins of Essie MacGowan is of a life in which chances to alter the narrative were often taken–indeed, she tended to choose the path that changed her life most dramatically. However, Ibis is also telling us a story of a storyteller, a woman whose greatest joy throughout her life was in sharing the stories of the leprechauns and of diligently observing the rituals of offering even when she had next to nothing to give.
The series has established before now that a god’s power comes in part from the strength of their story, and that worship only follows when their story is told well. Essie is shown to be a rare citizen of Ireland whose belief in her national legend went well beyond amusement or belief and manifested as regular activity. Mad Sweeney is a product of that activity, and his presence in America a direct result of Essie and a handful like her who also, in one manner or another, came to live in the new world with their faith intact. But Mad Sweeney is also aware that his power has become diluted over time by a “land with no time for magic,” a land where his story eroded and then became co-opted by breakfast cereal marketing. We learn his story in both the telling and the things not told–he was a king of his people once, who foresaw his death and chose to flee it; he was a man who could protect his believers and offer them twists of good fortune, and at the end of their lives provide them with solace. Today, he finds himself a manhandled errand boy for Mr. Wednesday, filled with anger and spite for that. When he refuses his chance to retrieve his lucky coin from Laura and fulfill what seems to be a command from Wednesday to return her to the grave, he chooses instead to reclaim a certain benevolence in his being.
However, he may also have chosen to resurrect Laura once again out of a sort of subconscious obligation, which is depicted by having Essie and Laura both played by actress Emily Browning. Since the story is never explicit about the intent of this narrative decision, we are left with a few potential choices. The story could imply, for example, that Laura Moon is a blood descendant of Essie MacGowan, or that Essie’s soul returned in Laura’s body, and that either of these possibilities could have led Mad Sweeney to feel a sense of connection to the woman who once gave him sustenance through her belief and sacrifices. It could also be a portrayal of Mad Sweeney’s perspective, however–the reason Laura looks so much like Essie is that she is similar in fashion if not altogether in attitude. While Essie believed in the leprechauns and their dominion over luck, Laura spent her adult career as a blackjack dealer, making her finely attuned to the language of chance. Essie’s decision to leave behind a life with the sea captain who loved her, to instead embrace the vocation of thievery despite its risks, recalls Laura’s own inability to be satisfied with her marriage to Shadow and to finally push for the robbery that led to their ruin.
As a long-lived creature, Mad Sweeney is in a position to see when certain themes start to echo, although, like Ibis, he may not always be fully aware of what he sees. The life he lives now and the life he sees ahead is rife with such echoes or occasional warped reflections. Essie was twice “sentenced to transportation,” and now Sweeney, Laura, and Salim find themselves obligated to travel. He once escaped a war as a king and now finds himself heading into another one as a mere pawn. He once enjoyed offerings of fine dairy and now finds himself imprisoned in an ice cream truck. Essie was once a thief and Laura has no compunctions about stealing; while Essie’s success as a criminal is symbolized by pilfering items of clothing and small details to adorn herself, Laura is a woman whose flesh is literally falling off of her.
It is a deliberate choice on the part of the producers to have Fionnula Flanagan play both Essie’s grandmother, who first taught Essie how to believe, and then Essie herself during the final moments of her life. Even while standing on Earth, the gods see things from a higher plane, and as such the implication is that Sweeney does not see enough significant difference between certain human beings to see them as distinct people. Essie’s grandmother and elder Essie look the same to him, and so too do younger Essie and Laura Moon.
THE NATURE OF SERVITUDE
The complex relationship between the gods and their followers involves a give-and-take in terms of loyalty and service. Mortal worship would assume that humanity serves the whims of the gods, but within the context of this tale we also see how a key point of the debate–gradually escalating into battle–is whether the gods also owe humanity anything at all in return. Laura asks Salim about his relationship with God, specifying the difference between loving a god and being in love with one, and while he doesn’t decide on an answer right then, nor offer an articulation of the difference, he seems to acknowledge the importance of the distinction and what it may one day mean for him.
Authority and servitude factor heavily into this chapter–Essie’s life is defined by the jobs she holds and by the penalties that the law hands down to her, and Sweeney finds himself pushing back against both the hold Laura has on him and whatever allegiance he has to Wednesday’s agenda. Sweeney’s angry rant in Gaelic seems to at last be an assertion of identity–he recognizes that he remains under both thumbs but he also demands to head into whatever chaos is coming with his sense of self fully realized. This may or may not have been inspired by his time with Salim, who has demonstrated the initiative to discard any requirements of society or religion that do not offer him happiness. After all, before Salim departs their company, he makes a point of telling Sweeney what an unpleasant person he is, and Sweeney’s later declaration, delivered in part to Wednesday but mostly to existence itself, represents an escalation from that judgment.
When Essie speaks with Sweeney through the walls at Newgate, she conjures the idea of a king in America; Sweeney responds that America has no king, and Essie retorts that every country needs a king. Previously, we have seen Sweeney refer to his lucky coin as a “coin you give to the king of America,” which now carries additional meaning and context. Did he decide that this offhand observation of Essie’s was correct, after all, and does he now think of this unseen monarch as a god higher than himself–a god to whom he would only be willing to make such a sacrifice? If so, then the hierarchy continues to shift again–while Ibis observed that people are greater than gods, Sweeney is a godlike being who seems to consider America itself, and the power of its narrative, as the highest being of all. If push comes to shove it’s reasonable to think he will act in that narrative’s interests instead of Wednesday’s, Laura’s, or even his own.
The abiding refrain of America is that it is a land of opportunity, where anybody can choose to be anything. The price of that opportunity, however, is that such a land may enforce its own will upon you and change you into something that you did not expect to be, whether you like it or not. Anubis and Thoth are gods of death and of writing, and as such, naturally they gravitate towards running a funeral parlor. The buffalo god, which we have previously seen wandering Shadow’s dreams and who once accepted the sacrifices of the Siberian migrants in order to help them survive, has seemingly been turned into a roadside attraction. Essie, Laura, and Sweeney have aligned themselves with the fickleness of fate, and their ever-shifting roles and forms reflect that fickleness. All gods and those mortals swept up in the wake of the coming storm are either choosing sides or choosing stations. The ominous tone in Wednesday’s speeches and the deadly results of his actions seem to make clear that if a choice is not made, he will see to it that a form and function are assigned.