American Gods | Episode 107 | ‘A Prayer for Mad Sweeny’ | Aired June 12, 2017
At its core, American Gods is obsessed with the stories we tell ourselves. Throughout history, people all over the world have used whatever story they needed to justify their actions. But it is a uniquely American experience to change the story. That is, to take an idea that has been passed down through generations and over just a few short years, watch it mutate into something entirely new that justifies a new cause.
The television adaptation of American Gods has not focused on this as much as the book. In the book, as in the show, we see versions of gods. But they are only versions. Last week’s episode opened with a vignette about Mexican immigrants to America. They brought a Mexican version of Jesus with them. But that is not the only manifestation of Jesus in America. Nor the only manifestation of Jesus in the world. Wherever belief is high, the gods will be made manifest, out of belief.
The Scribe of the Underworld
This week’s episode of American Gods was like a Percy Shelly poem with the number of narrators (not to mention ancient Egyptians) it had. Like most episodes of the show so far, this one opened up in the Ibis and Jacquel Funeral Parlor. Unlike most episodes, however, this one takes the time to linger with Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel.
The audience would be forgiven, up until now, if they did not realize that the Ibis and Jacquel Funeral Parlor is where most of our episodes begin. The sweeping brush strokes that script out the words “Coming to America,” and the calm but pointed narration of Mr. Ibis has been a narrative device more than a plot point. But in this episode, as though to drive home the importance of story, we spend time with Jacquel and Ibis.
In the funeral parlor, Jacquel is putting the finishing touches on a body whose funeral is the next day. Meanwhile, Ibis is feeling poetic about a particular beer the pair have just finished brewing. Ibis urges Jacquel to stop his work, but Jacquel insists he is too busy. Besides, he says, Ibis has a story to tell.
The opening is hardly built up, but it is enough to draw one’s attention. Afterward, there are a few more deliberate pauses which are sufficient to draw the eye. Ibis must haul out his massive book. The telephone rings suddenly. The stunning image of a fountain pen stabbing into an inkwell. All this is enough to remind us that we, the audience, are being told a story by American Gods’ showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. And that story is about a man, Mr. Ibis, who will now tell us a story. That story, in turn, is about a woman who tells stories.
The Luck of the Irish
The story Mr. Ibis relates to us is Mad Sweeny’s “Coming to America” story. But it isn’t crafted in the traditional “Coming to America” format. We spend almost the entire episode with Essie McGowan (Emily Browning doing a fantastic job pulling double duty in this episode as both Essie and Laura Moon). The broad strokes of Essie’s life are, perhaps, moderately curious. But they are interspersed with such fascinating detail and executed so well that the episode stands head and shoulders above many of the others this season.
Essie McGowan is a poor Irish girl who society accuses of a crime she did not commit. As punishment for this offense, a judge sentences her to Transportation to and indentured servitude in America. Nevertheless, she makes her way back to London, only to commit a crime. So Essie ends up back in America where she marries the man to whom she is an indentured servant, and grows old surrounded by a family who loves but does not quite understand her.
There are two characteristics which make Essie a character in American Gods and not a Brontë novel. The first is that she, like so many of our main characters, is a con artist and a thief. Essie’s story was an echo of Chernabog’s story from an earlier episode in that both of those characters became what society told them they were. Early on in her life, society labels Essie a thief, so she becomes a thief. And to survive as a thief, she becomes a con artist.
The other major defining characteristic of Essie is that she believes in the Irish faerie stories. Throughout her life, Essie holds strong to her belief in faeries and banshees and leprechauns. She leaves them offerings at all the right times. And she tells their stories to everyone she meets. In fact, it is the strength of her belief that eventually brings Mad Sweeny to America.
The Tales We Tell Ourselves
The power of stories and belief is central to American Gods. In one of the cutaways to the current timeline, Mad Sweeny tells Laura that he was a bird once. Now though, he says he’s a thing on a cereal box. The belief that people have in these gods has a profound and powerful impact on their lives.
It’s also worth noting that Mr. Jacquel tells Mr. Ibis that he has a story to write. The word story does not inherently constitute truth. We don’t see Ibis do any research. We see him think, and then we see him write. Essie McGowen may never have existed. But hundreds of people like her did. And at a certain point, that becomes a conversation about a belief in an idea, rather than about an individual.
Faith and trust in stories. That is what the first three of the final four episodes of American Gods‘ first season have highlighted. And at their center, we still find Shadow Moon, a man who doesn’t know what he believes or who he trusts. In next week’s season finale, it seems he might need to figure that out pretty quickly.
Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage of American Gods, including a recap of next week’s season finale. We’ll also be your source of off-season news until the show returns for Season 2 sometime next year.
American Gods airs on Starz on Sunday nights at 9:00 pm