‘American Gods’ looks into the past and doubles down on its doubles.

“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is the penultimate episode of American Gods‘ first season. It’s also the second episode to take place primarily in flashback. And to show no sign of Wednesday, one of its main characters.

Penultimate episodes are precious things. It’s not uncommon that they’re actually more exciting and satisfying than the finale. They build up expectations that may or may not be fulfilled the following week. They bring things together and line things up, and promise either an explosion or relief.

But “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” doesn’t do any of those things. The protagonists are missing. So are the antagonists. All we have are the secondary characters, and even they are in a peculiar state of stasis. Jacquel and Ibis are stuck in their funeral home, and Mr. Ibis can’t seem to get his work done. Laura and Mad Sweeney are driving, but they never get anywhere.

The only person with any real drive is Salim, and he disappears. I wish I hadn’t cheered quite so loudly last week for our new little team because the fellowship has already been broken.

“Git Gone” was also a surprising leap into the backstory, but it felt warranted enough, especially since it was followed by two comparatively plot-heavy episodes. But those episodes are over and the momentum is gone again.

It’s true that American Gods is something of an ensemble piece, but it’s hard to argue that Shadow and Wednesday aren’t the “stars.” And the addition of “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” means that fully one-quarter of the episodes do nothing to advance their story. Wednesday doesn’t even appear in them.

Instead, all the real action takes place in the past. All the aligning and building up of this penultimate episode comes in the form of backstory. And it’s about a character we don’t even know… or do we?

American Gods Emily Browning

Emily Browning (Essie MacGowan)

What can we make of the decision to cast Emily Browning as Essie MacGowan? They have a certain similarity in outlook—Essie can only remember being happy as a little girl, and now would be content to be content. This is reminiscent of Laura’s depression, but it feels like a different animal. Essie isn’t depressed. And she does find her contentment. 

More than being similar, Essie is the deliberate opposite of Laura. The one constant in Essie’s life, as she moves back and forth across the ocean, is her fidelity to the stories she heard as a child. She remembers them, she follows them, and she passes them on.

Laura, on the other hand, has built a philosophy out of a lack of belief. She tells Shadow in the fourth episode that her parents taught her religion, but they also taught her stories about the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. When she found out the latter weren’t real, she stopped believing in the former. 

The double casting of Essie and Laura is the physical manifestation of the show’s doubling of the magical and the real that I’ve been harping on about all season. One believes in the gods and the other doesn’t. With death, Laura is assured that since she believed in nothing, she’ll go to nothing. Whereas Essie, who always believed, is taken peacefully to death by the being she always believed in. 

Which brings us, of course, to Mad Sweeney. According to the title, after all, this is his episode.

American Gods Mad Sweeney

Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney)

Mad Sweeney starts out feared and respected in Ireland. By the time he makes it to London he’s down on his luck, but he’s surprisingly somber and full of wisdom (and not the quaint sexual metaphor kind).

Importantly, he’s in prison for getting into a bar fight and putting out a man’s eye. When we meet him in the first episode he gets into a bar fight with Shadow… at the behest of Wednesday, a man with one eye.

Does this mean the man Mad Sweeney fought with in London was Wednesday himself? Maybe not. But it does represent a connection, particularly between the loss of quality of his life and Wednesday’s influence on it. When he goes to prison and faces the gallows, it’s under circumstances very reminiscent of his employment with Wednesday.

And that present employment shows how dire his circumstances have become. Even before he loses his luck, he’s living much, much rougher than he used to. Murdering for Wednesday. Picking fights for him (and getting beaten to a pulp, too). The night he kills Laura—long before things go south—he’s louder, angrier, bitterer. This tale of Essie McGowan’s life gives us a glimpse of how far he’s fallen, what he’s lost to be where he is now.

And maybe that’s the root of Emily Browning’s double casting.

Essie MacGowan believed in Mad Sweeney so much that she brought him to America. Now someone who looks exactly like her (and ought to fill her role) is defined by her very lack of belief. For Mad Sweeney, who must be aware of the resemblance, this might be the ultimate sign of his irrelevance, his loss of power. He brings about the end of both Essie and Laura’s lives, but the means and the motivations are very different.

Maybe that’s part of the reason he brings Laura back to life. She reminds him of someone who was dear to him, of course, but that very reminder also proves that he has little left to lose. And that brings him to sacrifice both his loyalty to Wednesday and his luck. This really is a turning point for Mad Sweeney, and it may even be his salvation.

It’s too bad it takes an entire penultimate episode to do it.

American Gods Laura Moon Mad Sweeney

Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney), Emily Browning (Laura Moon)

“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is the right episode at the wrong time. It would have made a lovely seventh episode… in a twelve-episode season. Or even ten. As it stands, it leaves you wondering what could possibly happen in the finale (when we last left our heroes they’d just murdered a god) that won’t feel rushed.

The contents of the book are, supposedly, going to be covered over the course of three seasons. This leaves plenty of room to give the characters more depth, which is good, but the distribution of that depth feels shaky. I wonder if the show would have been better as two seasons of twelve episodes rather than three seasons of eight. It’s true that American Gods is taking some brave steps in terms of pacing and focus.

It just might be too brave for an eight-episode season.

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