I’ve massively loved the primary season of American Gods: admired its range and its technical daring, thrilled with its romances, been heartened by its compassion for one-off characters. However beneath all this pleasure, I’ve felt proof against the present’s charms, or possibly it’s extra exact to say I felt a resistance inside the present, an unwillingness to allow us to in.
My expectations had been set excessive by the staggering success of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, a psychological thriller reimagined as a nakedly emotional psychosexual drama, which not solely has a coronary heart however thrusts that coronary heart, uncooked and bloody, beneath our noses at each flip. In its first six episodes, Fuller and Michael Inexperienced’s collection rivals Hannibal’s wit and audacity, however beneath all its colourful tales, American Gods has felt shielded. Even because it reveals its characters’ emotional interiors (Shadow’s quiet scrubbing away of his old life, Laura’s suicidal restlessness, Zorya Vechernyaya’s susceptibility to romance), the collection has felt distant, as if it’s holding its coronary heart in reserve. Or possibly as if it’s exhibiting feelings moderately than embodying them, with the convincing veneer good con depends on.
There’s loads of feeling on the floor, however I couldn’t fairly work out the place the collection’ emotional middle resides, the place its coronary heart beats—or if it even does. After the sixth episode, I resigned myself to the likelihood that, for all its potent imagery and noisy ardour, possibly American Gods didn’t have a coronary heart. Then “Prayer For Mad Sweeney” got here alongside to spill out the hidden coronary heart of American Gods on the pavement for all to see.
Being acquainted with Neil Gaiman’s novel (which I’ll glancingly talk about, however not spoil, on this assessment), I by no means thought the collection would make a partnership between Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney its emotional core. But it surely has, with admirable success, partially because of the unstable chemistry and savage understanding with which Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber imbue their smallest glances and broadest violence. Their connection is the present’s beating coronary heart, however Laura, as Browning says, is the spleen.
Schreiber makes the leprechaun’s hardships and accidents—which multiply because the season goes on, speckling his face with scabs and scars and slashes—as comical as they’re vicious. Within the first few episodes, Mad Sweeney’s bluster switches from hilarious to menacing in a break up second. However in “Prayer For Mad Sweeney,” that already spectacular efficiency expands with the identical unsettling velocity. The overblown clichés, collected from generations of half-believers, disappear in a flicker of the attention, and Mad Sweeney collapses into the soulful sorrow of a person—a god—misplaced in a land that may’t imagine in him. Even a lifeless lady strolling and a person in love with a jinn discover it laborious to imagine in leprechauns. Mad Sweeney is an outdated superstition changed into a cartoon, and he is aware of it.
Emily Browning will get to indicate her vary, too, reaching past the plucky, disagreeable, uncompromising Laura Moon (whose unapologetic air is a delight) to play the equally unapologetic Essie MacGowan (Essie Tregowan within the e book). As a convict, transported and indentured rather than execution, Essie makes shift as finest she will be able to in a brand new nation. So does Mad Sweeney, whom she invokes within the Americas by laying out milk and bread in supplication as her grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan, wanting and sounding just like the very soul of Eire previous) did earlier than her.
So the destiny of Essie MacGowan is certain up with the destiny of the leprechaun, who embodies the buildup of his believers’ most firmly held Irish stereotypes, from the felony to the comical, from transported convicts of the colonies to the Lucky Charms mascot of the company age. By casting Browning as Essie, American Gods provides better depth to the already highly effective connection between Laura and Mad Sweeney and between the actors, who make that connection look as easy as it’s explosive.
By the identical token, that includes Flanagan each as Essie’s gran and as Essie in outdated age strikes a sleek word, echoing on a small scale the larger-scale reappearance of Laura-as-Essie. Small staging particulars additionally trace on the cyclical nature of Essie’s story, just like the hand-tatted lace that lands her in jail once more and the hand-tatted lace cover over the mattress she’ll share with John. This story, and these characters’ fates, are woven collectively by Essie’s eye for finery and her starvation for freedom—from everybody however the piskies and leprechauns whose favors she seeks.
It’s not simply that gold coin animating her corpse that ties Mad Sweeney’s journey to Laura Moon’s. The destiny of Laura Moon was certain up with Mad Sweeney from the very first episode. “Prayer For Mad Sweeney” confirms that Laura and Robbie’s “accident” was no accident. It was successful, organized by Wednesday (judging by the ravens that hector the leprechaun at a roadside attraction) and carried out by Mad Sweeney, designed to unfetter Shadow Moon from his final earthly tie and free him to journey with a god and a con artist. It’s removed from the primary revelation that Wednesday will double-deal the folks he implores to belief him, however it’s probably the most unsettling to this point.
When the crash disgorges that coveted coin from Laura’s chest, Mad Sweeney has what he needs. He’s free, free to take again his luck, free to depart her corpse as soon as once more sprawled on a street. However this episode exhibits how tightly certain he and Laura Moon are and have been, even earlier than there was a Laura Moon. His reluctant choice to provide her again the animating coin is greater than essential to the plot; it’s essential to no matter stays of his soul, to no matter it’s gods have rather than humanity.
“Prayer For Mad Sweeney” is the cleverest and probably the most emotionally resonant reinvention of a vignette from the novel. It’s affecting, it’s suspenseful, it’s creative, and it deepens the connection between two core characters. I discover myself wishing the collection would prolong comparable therapy to different characters. Bilquis, Mr. Nancy, Ibis, Jacquel: All of them deserve as a lot humanizing depth as Mad Sweeney and Laura Moon. With one episode left on this season, and at the very least yet another outdated god to be launched, we’ll seemingly have to attend to see if season two does them justice.