American Gods – S1 E7: A Prayer for Mad Sweeney – Reviewed

"He appears to have died of terrible mustache..."
With just two episodes left in the first season, it seems perhaps odd or unexpected that American Gods would take almost all of one of those episodes to explore the personalities and backstories of two of its supporting characters, but that is exactly what it does with A Prayer for Mad Sweeney. Despite being the penultimate episode of the season, for this hour we mostly leave the main Shadow and Wednesday story arc behind, and instead learn a lot about the unexpectedly complex and compelling character of Mad Sweeney, the abrasive, insult-hurling leprechaun. And this turns out to be an excellent decision: A Prayer for Mad Sweeney is an outstanding episode, every bit as strong as the one which similarly explored Laura's past a few weeks ago. It reinforces what we have known all along: American Gods isn't really about its ostensible story arc concerning the brewing war between the old and new deities, but is instead about its characters, and the philosophical questions of belief, meaning, cultural identity, and alienation which they represent. This is an outstanding hour of television, and by the time it is over, Pablo Schreiber's Mad Sweeney has grown from the rudely-antagonistic comic relief into a very fascinating character.

The most fun dead-person road-trip on film since Wristcutters: A Love Story.

The episode cross-cuts between two parallel storylines. In the present day, Laura and Mad Sweeney continue their road-trip – and continue to hurl insults at each other – while deeper issues weighing on both their minds begin to surface. In the past (via a longer and more in-depth Coming to America segment, narrated as per usual by our historian-god, Mr. Ibis) we see how the leprechaun was brought to America through the beliefs of a struggling Irish immigrant – who happens to look exactly like Laura (and is likewise played by Emily Browning). As these stories unfold in parallel, the struggles of this immigrant mirror and contrast with Laura's own journey, and the mythological roots of Mad Sweeney cast a very different light on the jaded, angry jerk he has become. There is a lot more to this character than there originally appeared to be – both in terms of the writing, and in terms of Schreiber's performance. He has been very good all season, playing this not-exactly-likeable character with angry abandon, but with the deeper material provided by this episode he truly sets himself apart as one of the best performers in this whole ensemble. Browning is just as excellent as ever, and gets to show off her range thanks to the double-role the script provides. When the two of them are on-screen together we don't even miss Shadow and Wednesday: they have such a strong double-act that I found myself wishing the episode was longer.

Making an offering to the gods...
and hoping they are not gluten-sensitive.
As with last week's episode, A Prayer for Mad Sweeney takes us significantly outside the scope of Neil Gaiman's original novel. As Laura and Mad Sweeney develop from the supporting players they were in the book (Sweeney in particular was a very minor character) to the major co-stars they are now, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green take the soul of the material and run with it, fleshing it out into something that is at once distinctly Gaiman's story, and yet new and original in its own right. This is a truly excellent approach to the material, not only allowing the characters to grow and change organically, but also giving even those familiar with the novel plenty of new surprises and added characterization. I had figured that Laura's role would flesh out into a more substantial female lead, but I certainly never expected Mad Sweeney – a bit player who was memorable, but not around all that much – to turn into such a major part of the show. American Gods has truly come into its own as a series that both stands apart from the novel and enhances it. When the season finale comes next weekend, it is certainly going to feel like too soon.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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