Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Review - 'American Gods', S01E07 - 'A Prayer for Mad Sweeney'

On thing that I've had to gradually come to terms with, while watching the first season of American Gods, is the fact that what should be the season's overarching plot-line actually feels like its least important element, so far. Wednesday's efforts to recruit Old Gods for an upcoming war against the New Gods of America has been a catalyst for much of the drama that has taken place, of course – but, the war, itself, has always been something that existed in the background.

Instead, this first season has seemed much more interesting in simple world-building – introducing its cast of wildly varied characters, and giving each the time they need to truly establish themselves. The result of all of this has been a variety of incredibly entertaining, though loosely connected, sequences which haven't done very much to push forward any central narrative. The season's fourth episode even set aside Wednesday and Shadow's road-trip entirely, in order to focus on exploring the background of Laura Moon – and now, with only one episode to go, the seventh episode does the same for Mad Sweeney.

Rather than addressing Sweeney's very long, and no doubt very complicated, past directly, though, much of this episode plays out as an extended 'Coming to America' vignette centred around Essie MacGowan – a young Irish woman whose various misfortunes eventually bring her to America. As what is, essentially, an entirely stand-alone story, Essie's tale is often a genuinely fascinating. Throughout the episode, we see the young servant getting romantically involved with the son of the family that employs her, only to be accused of stealing the necklace that he gives her – and, we see her shipped off to America, only for her to make her way back to London by manipulating the ship's captain. From there, we see Essie reinvent herself as a thief in London, only for her to end up in prison once again when she is eventually caught – eventually ending up back in American once again, where she lives out the rest of her life.

Through it all, it is actually Essie's faith in the fairy-folk of Irish folklore that contributes to her various fortunes and misfortunes. When she makes her offerings to the fairy-folk, things go well for her – but, whenever she neglects to do so, her fortunes take a very sudden turn. Though they only meet directly on two occasions, the obvious implication is that it was actually Mad Sweeney, himself, who was responsible for all of this – with her belief even drawing him to America, in the end.

Staged as another tale for Mr Ibis's book (and, opening with a very entertaining look at the day-to-day lives of the two Egyptian deities who chose to run a funeral home, together), this whole extended sequence plays out as much as a self-contained period drama, as anything – though, the deliberately anachronistic sound-track, during key scenes, does give it a very unique feel. More importantly, though, the extended sequence also features another great performance from Emily Browning, who finds herself cast in the very different role of Essie MacGowan. While I'm not entirely sure whether the audience was meant to come to the conclusion that Essie and Laura Moon are actually distantly related (though, that is obviously strongly implied), I don't think it actually matters, in the end. Casting Emily Browning in both roles definitely set up a strong thematic parallel, at least, as both find their lives drastically altered by an encounter with the supernatural (with, with Mad Sweeney, in particular). Also, the fact that she was able to establish Essie as such a rounded and complex character, and one so distinct from Laura, over such a short-time was very impressive.

Alongside this, the episode also devotes some time to a continuation of Laura and Mad Sweeney's adventures, and a more detailed look at Sweeney's motivations. The revelation that it was Sweeney, under orders from Wednesday, who had a part to play in the car-crash that took Laura's life might not be entirely unexpected – but, it provided some great moments of drama for Pablo Schreiber, as we saw some clear signs of Sweeney's inner conflict. Overall, while Emily Browning might have had the most to do, here, this was also a great episode for Schreiber, as well – with a quiet scene between Sweeney and an older Essie (played by Fionnula Flanagan, who also played Essie's grandmother in an earlier scene) being another stand-out.

It was a bit of a shame that Salim would be sent off on his own so quickly, since I had enjoyed the dynamic between the three in the previous episode – but, it is obviously the tense and antagonistic relationship between these two that the writers want to focus on. Considering who great the various scenes between the two have been, so far, I can't really argue that that decision was a mistake.

In the end, the only real issue I had with this episode was its placement. It did strike me as a bit strange that the creator's would choose to devote the season's penultimate episode entirely to what is, essentially, a stand-alone story. Obviously, it was decided that now was the right time to delve more deeply into the character of Mad Sweeney, though – which has me ever interested what the season's final episode may have in store for the character.

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