With just one episode of its freshman season remaining, American Gods finally found its heart by putting Dead Wife and Mad Sweeney front and centre.
“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”
S01E07 spent three-quarters of its screentime in the late 18th century following young redheaded Irish lassie, Essie McGovern (surely an earlier incarnation of Laura Moon) and her incarcerations and indebted, indentured introduction to The New World.
With Mr Ibis’ pitch-perfect narration, the scenes with six-year-old Essie on Ireland’s craggy “Atlantick” Coast and as a young adult in the servants’ quarters of a grand Irish mansion brought us closer to any American Gods characters than ever before. The straw and mud covered markets and Newgate prison of London were season highlights in terms of physical location and production design, tone and feel. Amazing what can be achieved with a tight frame!
The same could be said for the tobacco plantation scenes in Norfolk, Virginia when Essie arrived as an indentured slave for a second time. The colours from Adam Kane’s Arri and Kevin Tod Haug’s VFX suite were heavenly; popping like a Samsung Galaxy 8.
Emily Browning knocked it out of the park as both Laura and Essie this week. All the more impressive when you consider that, as an Australian actress, Laura’s American and Essie’s Irish accents are essentially Emily’s second and third “languages.”
Incidentally, it was great to see Lost’s Fionnula Flanagan bringing some gravitas to both Essie’s grandmother and the elderly version of Essie.
Pablo Schrieber equally owned his scenes this week, not only lending simpatico to Mad Sweeney’s relatable backstory but turning the leprechaun from detestable, unnecessary member of the group to beloved within 42 minutes.
Considering the relationships and emotion in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, it’s surprising that this series has seemed so cold and distant; Laura might be dead and cold-off-the-slab but it’s like we’re outsiders viewing through a windshield, the story never really allowing us to fully engage or emote… until today.
Speaking of cold, that bunny wabbit which forced their freezing cold, stolen ice-cream truck off the road has gotta be Ēostre, the Germanic/pagan goddess of Easter and fertility, right?
The series’ only true reveal – that Mad Sweeney caused the car wreck which killed Laura in the first place (Mr Wednesday’s plan to embroil Shadow in his war) meant Sweeney’s literal change of heart in sacrificing his precious coin to bring Laura back to “life” lent the series’ first genuine hand-to-mouth moment of affectionate emotion… and her punching him across the road the series’ funniest.
21st century Americana meets 18th Century London and Eire
I’m unsure if Laura is a descendant or reincarnation of Essie but this episode’s two expertly melded time periods deftly linked Sweeney’s past and present, providing the best episode by a country mile.
The hour was improved all the more by the rockabilly 1950’s rock n’ roll song choices playing in Mr Ibis and Mr Jacquel’s funeral parlor (in Cairo, Illinois – Arrrghh! We geddit, already, Gaiman!) which bled wonderfully and anachronistically from Laura’s 21st century Americana into Essie’s 18th century scenes. Just delicious!
If I have one gripe with this episode it was the fact that when Sweeney finally caught up with Essie on her Virginia deathbed rocking chair, he mentioned that the magic in The New World was fading. I realise this is an underpinning tenet of the story, but trust me, antebellum America was still a very superstitious place. Just ask Washington Irving.
The writing’s on the wall…
The series opened all those moons ago with Mr Ibis writing the tale of the Vikings landing in America, stranding Odin there, so why, oh why didn’t the series take this narration route instead of hours of not-very-clever riddles behind the wheel of Shadow Moon and Mr Wednesday’s rudderless car?
Though I tend to steer away from narration, I would much rather have been immersed in this brilliant, emotive, rewarding, century-spanning storytelling technique. A narrator’s voice over would have taken all these disparate, jagged, ill-fitting story shapes and ideas and formed them into one beautiful jigsaw… or tapestry… or American quilt.
Imagine if Ibis’ voice-over had been employed throughout to convey how Czernobog came to America, rather than spending two hours listening to Peter Stormare’s clunky, meaningless exposition or cringeworthy, seemingly pointless visits to Vulcan, Virginia. Hell, we might have found out where this show was actually headed.
Sometimes the old ways are the best!
I truly hope that there’s more of this in season two because, just like the theme of the show, sometimes the old ways really are the best! After all, as I mentioned in my review of the pilot episode, American Gods is a story about stories.
The American Gods finalé strikes Sunday 18th June, with season two hopefully arriving next year.