One of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s favorite “Coming to America” stories in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was the tale of Essie Tregowan, a woman from Cornwall whose unfortunate fate prompted her to lead a life of con artistry, thievery, and prostitution. In translating the story for the show, it became a great way to incorporate actress Emily Browning and offer a parallel to Laura Moon’s journey while giving the leprechaun Mad Sweeney an origin story.
Since “Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is also the penultimate episode of Season 1, it comes with a major revelation.
Fans may notice Essie Tregowan is now Essie MacGowan, and that’s just because the showrunners changed her birthplace in Ireland. As a young woman working as a maid, she strikes an affair with the son of her mistress named Bartholomew. He gifts her a family heirloom as a sign of their love, but when the woman of the house catches her with it, he denies having ever given it freely and Essie is sentenced to death as a thief. Instead of an execution, the judge takes pity on her and banishes her to the Americas for a period of seven years.
Since she kept the stories of faeries and leprechauns alive from the old country, she came into good fortune, though she would take that fortune down a road that would lead her to become what her former mistress already assumed her to be. “Her world branded Essie MacGowan a thief, so a thief she became,” Mr. Ibis says, scribbling away at her story.
With some luck, she seduces the captain of the ship, convinces him to bring her to London as his wife, and then once he sets sail on another journey, Essie flees into the city with his valuables. One move leads to another and her life of thievery lands her in jail in a cell next to Mad Sweeney.
Unlike the other “Coming to America”s, this one takes up a significant portion of the episode, unpacking more of Laura’s journey with Sweeney. Laura and Essie, both played by Browning, have a strong impulse to turn every shift coming their way to good fortune, even when it seems their situations are comfortable. Laura, unsatisfied with her picture-perfect marriage to Shadow, turns to thievery much as Essie does when she’s transplanted to London.
Perhaps of more significance, both women face a loss of identity. Laura still struggles to find life beyond death when she knows that life has a deadline, and Essie longs to become someone else, as she says in her story to Sweeney about an “Indian woman” named Susan in the States. The same could be said of Sweeney.
After Essie, through another series of lucky events, winds up in the U.S. as a wet nurse to a tobacco farmer, she marries him, bears his children, and lives out the rest of her days on the farm. But, as she finds in becoming a grandmother, there’s no place for her or her stories from the old country in this new world. Sweeney, too, feels lonely and adrift, which is why he takes a liking to Essie and visits her at the end of her life.
We learn in the present that he’s only fighting Wednesday’s war against the New Gods because he “owes a battle.” It seems he once was supposed to fight for the deity long ago but fled when he saw a vision of his own death. After the ice cream truck he and Laura stole crashes, causing the coin to skip out from Laura’s body, he goes to retrieve his trinket and reunite with Wednesday in Wisconsin. Perhaps because he feels a connection to Laura or perhaps because Laura reminds him of Essie, but mostly because he feels guilt for having been the one to cause the car crash that killed Laura and Robbie in the first place, he replaces it and returns with her to the road.
This dual casting is the latest grand experiment from American Gods, and one that works well. Though the episode isn’t charged with the same energy as previous chapters, the parallel lines worked cohesively in exploring Laura, a character who has become far more than the book’s cheating undead ex-wife of Shadow.
I’m also going to start shipping this unlikely pair of Laura and Sweeney, though greater powers than I can figure out their catchy couple name.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
— Was that rabbit jumping out on the road a god trying once again to kill Laura? My first thought was Easter, played by Kristen Chenoweth and who we’ll meet in next week’s season finale. But she doesn’t seem like the violent type. I suppose we’ll find out.
— God bless Salim and his mission of love to find the Jinn. Here’s hoping for a fiery reunion.
— The giant white buffalo statue reminds me of a scene from the book where Wednesday explains to Shadow that some of these tourist sites have been some of the strongest and most sacred places of power in America. People don’t always go to church and they don’t always say their prayers, but they will make the pilgrimage across state lines to see the landmark where a once sacred animal, now transformed into tourist attraction, resided.
— Some killer quotes: “We get so few lovers’ quarrels these days,” “Unfortunately, the more abundant the blessings, the more we forget to pray,” “Dying worked for me, you should try it some time.”