Note: Reminder that this recap of “American Gods” is from the point of view of someone who hasn’t read the book. Because I haven’t read the book. Please no spoilers or comparisons between the two in the comments. Thanks! Also note: This recap may contain adult language.
Previously on “American Gods”: Shadow (Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Wednesday (Ian MacShane) head to Virginia to see old god Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen), whom Mr. Wednesday wants to recruit to his side. In a parallel story, Laura (Emily Browning), Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), and Salim (Omid Abtahi) head to Kentucky to see a person about a resurrection. Shadow continues to grill Mr. Wednesday about what’s happening, and Mr. Wednesday continues to obfuscate his answers. Mr. Wednesday asks Vulcan to forge him a sword for battle and pledge his loyalty; Vulcan, who’s adapted to the new order by getting worshipped via guns and ammo, obliges, then betrays Mr. Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday obliterates Vulcan, telling a shaken Shadow that the other gods will assume the new gods murdered him because he took Mr. Wednesday’s side. In Salim’s taxi, the unlikely trio get to know each other better (with Laura and Salim agreeing Mad is a jerk of the highest order); while Mad sleeps, Laura detours them to Indiana so she can see her mother and family. She spies them while they’re eating, but they don’t see her. She decides to leave them behind and continue her search for Shadow. She is attracting even more flies now.
“Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” written solely by series writer Maria Melnick, improves on last week’s episode immeasurably in terms of pacing, but the plotting doesn’t advance the story much, highlighting character studies instead. Adam Kane returns as director, and while the story isn’t what I’d like to see at this point in the season, he does a fine job visually, framing some beautiful shots of the countryside and what life was like in 1721.
Did I say 1721? Yes, because we’re getting a little backstory on our resident cranky leprechaun, Mad Sweeney in parallel narratives of his past and present-day adventures. First, though, we see Anubis (Chris Obi) listening to music on a Victrola while tending to a dead body. Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) brings him Irish Red Ale. Anubis says he knows Mr. Ibis has another story to tell; “I can see it in your fingers,” he says. Mr. Ibis consults a map, sees New England, and begins writing in his book, “Coming to America – 1721.”
The story is briefly interrupted by a phone call that Anubis takes, then settles in with a narrator explaining indentured servitude as we see three ships filled with former prisoners. The prisoners are sold in the New World and become indentured servants. When their servitude ends, they are allowed to make the best of their circumstances. We then see Mad walking up to a house asking for Essie MacGowan. Mr. Ibis’s story settles on Essie and of the tales of the leprechaun.
We backtrack further to see Essie as a little girl in Ireland. Her grandmother joins her while she’s waiting for her dad’s ship to arrive. She tells Essie there’s a fairy mound behind them, a door to another world. Everyone there is merry except the leprechauns, she says, because they sit around hoarding gold. Kind of like dragons, only they don’t breathe fire (as far as I know).
As Essie ages (and is played by Emily Browning taking on double duty this week), she continues telling tales of fairy folk and how to leave them gifts for good luck. She also tells a group of kids scary tales of leprechauns. Leprechauns aren’t jolly wee folk drinking and leaving pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, apparently. Well, we know that Mad likes to drink, and he likes his gold, but he doesn’t like sharing and he’s definitely not a merry soul.
The Narrator tells us that Essie “possessed a rare token of ambition.” Women back in 1721 were apparently not ambitious (or not allowed to be, more like, as we’ll see). That ambition will lead to trouble. Essie ties a piece of bread with her hair and puts a coin on it as an offering for a leprechaun. We see Mad silhouetted in the dark after she leaves.
Later that evening, Essie is with the son of the owner of the household where she works who’d been watching her speak to the children earlier. They kiss passionately and then make love as the Narrator tells us neither is a virgin, a salient and funny point in how women were treated vs. men then (and sometimes now). The young man, Bartholomew (Jake Manley), gives her a necklace from his grandparents and emptily promises to marry her when he returns from college. One of the other servants at the house sees the necklace and tells Bartholomew’s mother about it. In front of everyone, his mother asks Bartholomew if he gave it to Essie freely; he denies it, crushing Essie, who is arrested and tried for theft. The judge sentences her to hang, but offers her an alternative to death: seven years on a ship to the New World, which is torturous for her.
Despite her misery, she continues leaving offerings for the fairies and leprechauns. Essie is a true believer. She becomes “allied” with the captain of the ship, who’s taken a fancy to her. She sleeps with him and begs him to take to her London instead, where no one knows her or her crimes. In London, they marry and seem happy, until eight weeks later when he has to sail for the New World again. The soundtrack goes anachronistic as “Runaround Sue” plays while the captain leaves and Essie robs him blind. She’s been branded a thief, so why not be one? Her ambition, though, is a curse.
The camera pushes through a keyhole at the captain’s house away from Essie and we’re back at Salim’s taxi. Laura sees Shadow’s light ahead of them as even more flies buzz around her. The Narrator continues talking, a new wrinkle in the overall storytelling of “American Gods,” but as the stories are parallel, it’s a fitting tactic. Our trio is at the statue of the great white buffalo, where they’ve stopped because it’s time for Salim to pray to Mecca. Mad goes off to relieve himself and a raven chats him up. Mad tells the bird to fuck off, that he’s on his way to Wisconsin. Laura overhears, but doesn’t get the significance of the exchange. She does learn, however, by goading Mad that they’re headed to a place called the House on the Rock.
Laura, who wants to let Salim go his own way despite Mad’s insistence not to, tells Salim where they’re going and that he’s free to leave and search for the Jinn on his own. As a parting shot, Salim says to Mad, “You are an unpleasant creature.” Salim’s pretty understated. Mad throws a fit and destroys a park bench. Laura spots an ice cream delivery truck, which is nice and cold and good for her skin; she gives the driver all of Mad’s money so they can “steal” the guy’s truck. The man agrees, but says he needs more “proof” he was robbed; he wants Laura to punch him, but Mad knows that’s a very bad idea and punches the guy himself.
Back in 1721, Essie has become an adept shoplifter whose “wide skirt was capable of containing a multitude of sins,” the Narrator blithely intones (playing into the sexism working against Essie). She continues to leave presents for leprechauns; we finally see someone take her offering. One day while Essie is buying a kitten, a man takes note of her; she winds up sleeping with him and she forgets to leave an offering that night. The very next day, Essie gets caught stealing.
Essie is charged with “returning from transportation” (her previous punishment) and with theft. She is placed in Newgate Prison to await the gallows—no mercy from the judge this time. At dinner in her cell, a voice from the next cell tells her not to eat the swill, just the bread. It’s Mad; he’s been jailed for fighting, surprise, surprise. They chat about Essie’s life. He says she should bribe the judge and he’ll give her the gold to do it. Essie realizes he’s a leprechaun.
She tells Mad her sad tale about growing up always waiting for her father. She wants him to go to America with her where he can deliver gold to their king; “Everyone needs a king,” she says, but Mad knows there are no kings in the New World. The next morning, she wakes up and talks to Mad, only he doesn’t answer. The warden comes and brings her good food, says it will be 12 weeks before her case comes forward, and that she might escape the gallows if…and then they have sex. A quick “Missing title” is used to cover a time jump, as Essie tells the judge she’s pregnant. She is sentenced to transportation for life, as even those sexist won’t hang a pregnant woman. That baby is gold.
Essie lands in Norfolk, Virginia with her child. She is purchased by a tobacco farmer whose wife recently died after childbirth; the surviving baby needs a wet nurse. Essie feeds both the farmer’s child and her own, and tells them her leprechaun tales.
In present times, Mad is freezing from the cold of the truck and complains loudly. “Quit it, you fucking baby!” Laura says. Mad tells Laura he was a king once; some “he” turned him into a bird, and after he was turned into one of the fairy folk. Mad says Mr. Wednesday wants a war, then reminisces when he was in a war and foresaw his own death in a field filled with fire and dead bodies. He went AWOL so he wouldn’t be killed, and now he owes a battle as a debt. Laura says maybe he should try death because it worked for her. A bunny (that we were shown earlier in their travel) suddenly runs in front of the truck and they crash. Seriously, you cannot trust animals in this world. Anyway, Laura is ejected through the windshield and her chest splits open, sending Mad’s lucky coin rolling down the street.
Elsewhere in America, the children are older and Essie is telling them her fairy stories. Her owner also begins leaving gifts as she does. One night, he makes a pass at her, and she spins a sob story about her being a “poor transportee girl” who has feelings for him but because she’s indentured, they can’t be together, lie lie lie. The farmer proposes to her and they marry. She withholds sex until after they marry; some time later, they have a son. We’re told they are married 10 years when one night, Essie swears she heard a banshee (a harbinger of death); a week later, the farmer dies of fever. Essie inherits the plantation and continues to leave gifts. Apples abundantly fall from the trees of her farm as it flourishes.
“The Widow Richardson” (Essie) ages and becomes a grandmother, telling her grandchildren the tales her grandmother told her. One of the girls cries, angering Essie’s daughter, so she stops for good. One night, Mad comes to her as she’s sleeping on a porch and calls her name.
In the present, Mad wakes up and crawls out of the overturned truck. He sees Laura’s dead body, and then his coin down road. He picks up the coin and starts to leave, but stops, flashing back to the night Laura died; he’s there as she’s broken and wheezing, telling a raven to tell Odin “it’s done.”
Mad of the past tells Essie he’s “a man of the mounds,” then gripes about how no one in the New World leaves him bread. He says she and others brought him and his kind with them, but there’s no magic in America (and thus no belief in him). Mad asks her to take his hand; she does. We circle back to Mr. Ibis writing Essie’s story, that Essie’s body was still warm when her family found her, but she was already dead and gone. Mr. Ibis closes his book. We see the lighthouse in Ireland where we first met Essie. End episode.
As I mentioned earlier, in terms of plot, very little advancement is made, but we do learn a great deal about Mad Sweeney’s inner struggle. He was brought to the New World of no magic and no belief in gods against his will, just as the transportees were. He continued to help Essie because she continued to believe in him and leave him gifts. As a result, Essie actually settles down with the farmer instead of robbing him and taking off after they marry. What sounded like a false narrative (the “poor transportee girl can’t be with her owner” thing) may actually have been true, or it became true through Essie’s growth as a woman, wife, and mother. That she withheld sex to make her story more “true” may have been a step toward settling her life vs. strictly yet another manipulation of a man. It’s hard to say for sure, but she never remarried after the farmer died and she kept her family together and her farm strong. For all her years of suffering, her faith in fairies and leprechauns ultimately paid off handsomely, and when it’s time for her to die, it seems as if Mad is a little sad to have to take her to the other side.
Present-day Mad, he of the fighting and drinking and swearing and unpleasant behavior all around, isn’t a happy creature. He’s being used by Mr. Wednesday in a war he wants no part of because he ran away from a battle in the past. He seems to have grown respect for “Dead Wife” and regrets what he did, as evidenced by his giving her back the lucky coin and restoring her to undeath when he could more easily have walked away. As Mr. Wednesday wanted Laura killed anyway, it’s in Mad’s best interest to head to Wisconsin and leave her dead for good, but he hesitates, ultimately restoring her so they can continue to the House on the Rock. Whether it’s guilt, Laura’s resemblance to Essie (minus the bad Irish accent), or something more driving Mad, he makes his choice and will have to live with whatever consequences await him at Mr. Wednesday’s hand. Here’s hoping all parties meet up in the season finale next week!
All photos courtesy of Starz