Angry Leprechauns And Undead Wives Make Strange Bedfellows On American Gods
Are Mad Sweeney and Laura secretly the show's lead characters?
With only one episode left in its first season, American Gods feels as close to an anthology series like Black Mirror -- where each episode is a stand-alone "short story" -- as it does to a show that follows a sustained plot over multiple episodes.
Granted, there IS a bigger story brewing about the impending battle between the old and new gods, but that often plays like a background concern. Individual episodes frequently take long detours -- both narratively and stylistically -- to show us the histories of particular gods or the idiosyncratic concerns of major characters. Neil Gaiman's book did the same thing, but it nevertheless makes the series feel distinct in the current TV landscape. It's a little bit short story and a little bit novel.
I'm just glad that most of the detours are interesting, notwithstanding last week's irritating road trip to Gunsville, USA. The latest episode is a perfect example: it focuses entirely on Mad Sweeney, Laura, and Essie McGowan, an Irishwoman from the early 1700s who is also played by Emily Browning, albeit with a curly red wig, cutesy-poo overbite, and painted-on freckles.
Essie's story is interesting on its own: a domestic servant who is betrayed by the rich young asshole she loves, she is sentenced to indentured servitude in America. She escapes her punishment, though, by shacking up with the captain of the boat that's taking her overseas.
Shortly after she marries the captain, she waltzes away from his house and takes up a successful life of London pickpocketing. Part of her success as a thief -- or really all of it, according to the script -- lies in her obeisance to leprechauns. No matter what, she always leaves food, milk, and even gold out for them, and they honor her fealty by making sure nobody notices if a nice piece of Battenberg lace ends up in her pocket.
Eventually, though, Essie gets cocky, and she stops honoring the leps. And just like that, she's busted by the London police. When she's in jail, she not only remembers to feed the fairies, but also ends up in a cell next to...Mad Sweeney!
Whoa! Earlier, we'd seen that Essie was the one who originally left Sweeney the lucky gold coin that's now inside Laura's body. So clearly, the leprechaun and the lass have a strong connection. It continues when Essie's luck changes again, getting her released from prison and sent to America for good. Only this time, she never forgets to leave out food, so she (a) brings leprechauns to the U.S.; (b) passes on stories about them to her children; and (c) ends up marrying the farmer who initially bought her service.
And when she's about to die, Old Essie (who is played by the glorious Fionnula Flanagan) is visited by Mad Sweeney.
They have a lovely conversation that's full of love for one another -- not romantic love, but the tenderness you feel for someone who knows your past.
Like I said, this is all really interesting, since it explains how Sweeney got to the America and clarifies that leprechauns are not, as Sweeney keeps saying, the chirping idiots on Lucky Charms boxes.
I also enjoy how this story reframes Sweeney's relationship with Laura. When we're not watching Essie, we see Sweeney and Laura on their drive to find the person who will fully resurrect Laura's undead body. Since Essie is also played by Browning, there's a strong suggestion that Laura herself is Essie's descendant. (This is never explicitly stated, but why else cast the same actress in both parts?) So suddenly, Sweeney's insults and bickering seem like the misguided affection of someone who has loved Laura, in some form or another, for generations.
At the end of the episode, when a car crash knocks the coin out of Laura's body -- the coin her ancestor gave Sweeney in the first place -- he puts it back inside her, bringing her back to life a second time. That's a lovely, powerful gesture that only makes sense because of what we learn from this week's backstory.
Frankly, I could spend a lot more time with these two. Does Laura feel the ancient connection to Sweeney, too? And how will she react when she learns -- as we do this week -- that he was involved in the car crash that killed her in the first place? It's possible that Essie McGowan will never show up again -- that she's just another short story element -- but the memory of her will certainly color whatever happens to Leprechaun and Dead Wife from here on out.