We’ve all met him. He’s that genial kid at school who was never out of trouble and disappeared off the radar only to pop up years later either as the Prime Minister’s most trusted advisor or as a mugshot on Crimewatch. He’s the guy who made the party go with a swing but turned on a sixpence. He’s maybe looking at you now from across the street, a glint of danger in his eye. And if you don’t know him in person, you’ve heard the stories. This week’s episode of American Gods takes a detour away from the main plotline and gives us the story of its own resident nutjob, Mad Sweeney…
A Prayer for Mad Sweeney is easily the series most unfussy episode, the larger part being a flashback narrated by the excellent Delmore Barnes as Old God mortician extraordinaire Mr. Ibis. You’ll recall him as the chap who, with his partner Mr. Jacquel, stitched Laura Moon back together after her unfortunate road crash. Barnes also appears in person at the top and tale of an episode that serves as an extended ‘Coming to America’ story for both Sweeney and the woman who summoned him forth, Essie MacGowan (Tregowan in the book), an enterprising, slavery-dodging devotee of the fairies. We meet her as both a young woman and in old age, forever leaving edible offerings to the magical wee folk. You have to do at least one good deed in your life.
Essie looks a lot like Laura Moon and behaves a lot like her as well, what with being a heartless, manipulative con artist and tea leaf, which may lead you to believe the two women are more closely connected. But the similarity is really there to set up a reason for the 21st Century Sweeney to exhibit the closest thing he can muster to compassion for Laura. Because he certainly gets a golden opportunity (pun intended) this week to walk away from their road trip and head to Wisconsin to assist Wednesday in matters of war.
That he doesn’t do a runner is a crucial turning point, played out in a quietly affecting scene on a deserted road that underlines just how fiendishly good this series is at making us like these characters. Laura reminds Sweeney of Essie and, through her, the better part of himself. Turns out he’s not such a psycho after all. The dramatic conversation between Sweeney’s past and present is enriched by two perfectly pitched performances and a production that we now take for granted to deliver fifty minutes of pure cinema every week.
As you’d hope, this one is a showcase for Pablo Schreiber and, in her dual role as Laura and Essie, Emily Browning. There’s always a danger with two-handers that you’re sending the audience into a room with two people who can’t hold the running time or are just plain boring (hello EastEnders). Not so here, we already knew Schreiber and Browning were a great pairing but after this week you simply won’t want to see them separated again. Shame life isn’t like that, or the afterlife, come to that.
AMERICAN GODS EPISODE 7: “A PRAYER FOR MAD SWEENEY” / DIRECTOR: ADAM KANE / WRITERS: BRYAN FULLER, MICHAEL GREEN, MARIA MELNIK / STARRING: RICKY WHITTLE, IAN MCSHANE, EMILY BROWNING, PABLO SCHREIBER / AIR DATE: 11TH JUNE (USA ON STARZ); 12TH JUNE (UK ON AMAZON PRIME)