American Gods episode 7, “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney,” tells the story of how a certain leprechaun hitched a ride to America with an Irish lass named Essie.
In “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” episode 7 of American Gods goes to Ireland to meet a lass named Essie. Shadow and Wednesday have the week off, but we get twice the Emily Browning, as she plays both Essie and her regular character Laura Moon. However, as the title suggests, episode 7 is all about Mad Sweeney.
“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” begins at the funeral parlor of Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis. They’re preparing a man’s body for the grave. As Ibis holds forth on the provenance of his beer, the phone rings. They know who it is, because they always do. Jacquel can sense that Ibis has a story to tell, so he takes the call.
Demore Barnes (Mr. Ibis), Chistopher Obi (Mr. Jacquel) – 107 (Official image fc383c5f-1c7b-4621-9ece-47e456b722f9 via Starz)
Ibis turns on some jazz, opens his book and dips his pen in ink.
Coming to America, 1792
When the British Empire decided to populate America with its citizens, religious pilgrims were an afterthought. The colonies were a dumping ground for criminals.
For poor English lawbreakers, transportation meant indentured servitude; slavery instead of hanging. But it was temporary. After a few years they were free to start new lives in America.
This story starts in Ireland, where a girl named Essie learns the ways of the fairy folk from her grandmother. She shows her the leprechaun’s mounds, adding that they need to leave gifts leprechauns if they want their blessings.
At 17, Essie McGowan is a pretty lass who looks suspiciously like a freckly, redheaded Laura Moon. She works in the kitchen of a manor house, telling the children stories of the little folk. A handsome young man often watches from the next room, writing with a feather quill, occasionally grinning at her tales.
Emily Browning (Essie MacGowan) – 107 (Official image 3d44cda8-d0c1-4366-83bc-f8522d4c12c9 via Starz)
"Leprechauns, helping you with your troubles one day, biting your eyes out the next."
One night, Essie gets lost in the fog walking on the moor. But she remembered her grandmother’s words and leaves her bread out on a rock while she sleeps. When she wakes, the bread is gone. It worked! She can see the lighthouse she’d been using as a guide.
But Essie is ambitious and wants more than a servant’s life. She has one gold coin to her name, and she leaves it in the mound as an offering for the leprechaun. Afterward, Mad Sweeney crests the hill, watching Essie walk away.
Back at the manor, Essie approaches the handsome young man, who falls instantly in love. Essie wants him to make sure to remember her when he goes off to Oxford. He promises to marry her during the Christmas holiday, giving her a necklace that belonged to his grandmother.
Another servant notices Essie wearing the necklace and turns her in to the lady of the house. Of course, everyone believes Essie stole it. The lady questions her son, who denies everything. Essie is sentenced to seven years transportation in North Carolina.
During the long, gross voyage, she never stops leaving offerings for leprechauns, looking for a leg up. She seduces the captain, convincing him to take her back to London to start a new life. They marry and he sails away again a few weeks later, promising to hurry back.
Essie tries to be a housewife, but boredom and ambition are a poisonous combination. She starts to steal. Society already branded her a thief, and so a thief she became. She takes just little things at first. Of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Back in London, Essie no longer thinks of theft as sin. For a while at least, she leaves many expensive gifts for the leprechaun. But she grows careless, and eventually neglects him. Not a good idea.
It’s 1736 an inevitably, someone recognizes Essie as the woman who escaped transportation. She’s brought to prison, waiting for the gallows. A familiar voice (to us, at least) in the next cell tells her not to eat the nasty food they leave, and says this is no place for a pretty girl like her. He can hear it in her voice. She definitely does not belong here.
They two share their stories of arrest. Essie skips dinner, but finally remembers to leave a bit of the moldy bread on the little sill of her window for the leprechaun. She talks about America. It’s a place anyone can be anything and be happy. But she’d be content to be content with a house and a tree and companionship.
When Essie wakes in the morning the bread is gone from her window. She talks to Sweeney, but there is no answer. However, a jailer comes by with a lovely tray of food. He looks at her pretty face and says it’s a shame that go to waste at the gallows. It will be 12 weeks before her sentencing, and he says there’s a way she could avoid being hanged.
Essie sleeps with him willingly, if not enthusiastically. Twelve weeks later, she’s able to go before the judge and plead her belly. Pregnant women don’t hang. It’s transportation again, this time for life.
The ship’s hold is a terrible place for anyone, let alone a pregnant woman. But when they land in Virginia, Essie gives birth to a healthy a baby and a tobacco farmer hires her as a wet nurse. Over the years, as the children grow, she tells them both her tales of the little folk.
By the time Essie’s child and the farmer’s son are about three, they’re practically living as brothers. She tells them about the little folk and still leaves an offering every night for the leprechaun.
Virginia 1732 Emily Browning (Essie MacGowan) – 107 (Official image 4438015a-6c1a-4c9d-aec4-934ae941cac8 via Starz)
One night the tobacco farmer tries to kiss her, and she protests. She’s just a poor window, and can’t believe he’d expect her to prostitute herself. Essie had so much respect for him and she’s so disappointed. So the farmer proposes. They marry and name their son John, after his father.
Every day, she sends the kids off to school with a little bread and salt to keep them safe. Ten years go by. One night Essie thinks she hears a banshee scream, and just a week later, her husband dies of fever. Essie takes over running the farm, always leaving bread for the leprechaun.
Essie grows old. Now she’s a grandma, telling her grandchildren the little people stories. But it scares them, so she stops. She still keeps the stories her heart.
Then one quiet night, Essie falls asleep in the rocking chair on her porch. Someone says her name and she opens her eyes. It’s Sweeney.
We blow both ways
Grandma Essie asks Sweeney if she knows him. He kindly tells her he’s the man of the mounds, but here, no one leaves him offerings, even at harvest time.
"If you are who I think you are, I have no quarrel with you.Nor I with you. Although it was you that brought me here, you and a few others like you. Into this land with no time for magic, no place for fairies and such folk. You have done me many a good turn.Good and ill. We’re like the wind. We blow both ways. Aye.Will you take my hand, Essie McGowan?"
Back in the present, we find Laura and Sweeney in Salim’s taxi, while Laura stares into the distance at Shadow’s beacon glow. Salim pulls over to pray at a roadside attraction, a towering white buffalo.
Emily Browning (Laura Moon) – American Gods 107 (Official image dcb8944a-6f72-498c-8ee7-20a1ad1aa8fd via Starz
This is a memorial to Tatonka Sky, a buffalo believed sacred by the Lakota. Because it was born on the site, on the ranch of Derek Arnold, Jr., on June 10, 2008. Thousands came in pilgrimage to see it, but both bull and rancher died from lightning strike a year and a day after its birth.
While Laura stays with Salim, Sweeney goes behind some trees for a pit stop. A huge raven watches from a branch. He tells it to tell Wednesday “#$%& you.”
Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney) -American Gods episode 107 (Official image 50638f27-1bc6-4374-87b4-a291cf650668 via Starz)
Sweeney is in a hurry to get back on the road, because he didn’t want to take this side trip. After he tells Laura he wanted to go straight to the House on the Rock in Wisconsin, she runs over to tell Salim that’s where the gods are going to meet up.
Laura releases Salim to go seek his Jinn in Wisconsin. He peels off in the taxi, yelling back at Sweeney that he’s an unpleasant creature. Then Laura and Sweeney steal an ice cream truck.
Laura drives the ice cream truck down a back road as a white bunny observes from the verge. Mad Sweeney eats a rocket pop and tosses gold coins out the window. She asks how much gold he has.
"How much is in a hoard? I was a king once. I was. Then they made me a bird, and then mother church came along and turned us all into saints and trolls and fairies. General Mills did the rest."
Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney), Emily Browning (Laura Moon) – American Gods episode 107 (Official Image 59824df7-413e-4f8c-84f7-9a1319e0d12f via Starz)
Laura changes the subject, asking him why he wants to go to the House on the Rock in Wisconsin so much. What is Wednesday offering? He tells her war. Sweeney was supposed to go to war, long ago.
"On the eve of battle, I looked into the fire, and I saw my death, sure as Sunday. I saw–I knew I would die that day if I stayed. I put on my boots and dropped my sword, and I flew. I owe a battle."
"You’re following Wednesday so you can fight in his war, and die, and for that you run his errands?I don’t wish for that.Dying worked for me. Everyone should try it at least once. Seems like you’ve walked the earth a couple hundred years in those boots already, so… you’re due."
From the side of the road, a familiar-looking bunny runs in front of the ice cream truck like it’s been waiting for just this moment. Laura swerves and the truck rolls over, Mad Sweeney and ice cream flying everywhere. A coin rolls down the road. Laura lies sprawled on the asphalt, her autopsy scar undone, her ribcage open to the sky.
Sweeney wakes up and crawls out the ice cream truck’s broken window. He looks at Laura’s death-glazed eyes. When he notices his coin lying on the road beside her, grabs it, kisses it and then stops, thinking back…
The leprechaun remembers the day he killed Laura, climbing out of the truck that swerved in front of her and Robbie, looking up to a raven watching from a nearby tree. Her dying body lies broken on the ground. Sweeney talks to the raven.
"Tell him. Tell him it’s done."
He watches Laura die for the first time.
Sneaky Wednesday. This scene was not in the book, but I knew he had to be involved. It put Shadow in exactly the right position and frame of mind to be taken in by Wednesday’s offers of employment. The old man is playing a long con.
In the present again, Sweeney turns around, cursing in Gaelic at the top of his voice. He places the coin back under Laura’s skin. She wakes up and punches him in the face.
Laura pulls on a jacket to cover her naked bones and runs over to the truck. She uprights it, ordering him to climb back in. They get back on the road, the ice cream truck’s jangly music sounding much worse for the wear.
Regarding Laura and Essie
If this episode leaves you wondering about a connection between Laura and Essie, you aren’t alone. It’s possible that Essie’s grandchildren move from Virginia to Indiana, where Laura spent her life. But in March, Variety reported that it was merely a casting decision “that just worked out well.” It does give the show writers an opportunity to tie the two characters together in a later season, although there isn’t an obvious reason to do so. However, the book doesn’t say the two aren’t related, so if it makes sense for future plot points, maybe they’ll write it in.
Want to know more about Mad Sweeney’s past? Check back with Culturess on Wednesday for my American Gods explainer and more tales of the little folk and leprechauns.