Page to Screen: American Gods 1.07: “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” Review

At the Ibis and Jacquel funeral home, the bodies are piling up and keeping the godly duo busy. But Jacquel notes Ibis’s fingers are itching to return to writing and excuses his partner to begin another Coming to America, this one beginning in 1721. Ibis writes:

“It is fine fiction that America was founded by pilgrims seeking freedom to believe as they wished, that they came to the Americas, spread and bred and filled the empty land. In truth, the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape, a forgetting place. In the days when you could be hanged in a London prison for the theft of 12 pennies, the Americas became a symbol of clemency.”

In Bantry Bay, Ireland, a young Essie MacGowan (Keller Viaene) listens to the stories her grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) spins about magical creatures like fairies and leprechauns and believes in them deeply. Especially in the devilish leprechauns, for whom she begins setting out offerings of food, milk, and if she can spare it, portions of gold. Believing in something helps offset her feeling of loneliness while waiting for the return of her father, a ship’s captain, who is seemingly always at sea.

Maturing into a beautiful woman, Essie falls for a boy named Bartholomew. The two make love by the fireplace, and he gifts her a necklace with promises of love and marriage before he goes off to Oxford. The boy’s mother, the lady of the house, has a hard time believing her son’s affections could be won over by a lowly servant girl and accuses Essie of stealing. Spineless Bartholomew denies giving the family heirloom to Essie, letting her take the rap, and she’s sent to the Americas as an indentured servant. 

On the high seas, Essie catches the eye of the ship’s captain, and he brings her to his home in London to be his wife. But a switch of sorts has been flipped within Essie, and she becomes a thief. She sells off her husband’s best china and finest silver before scuttling off on her own, lifting anything that strikes her fancy.

She eventually gets caught and finds herself facing the gallows in Newgate Prison. Still a believer, she places food outside her barred window for the leprechauns. Unbeknownst to her, Mad Sweeney is in the next cell. They share a moment of soul searching, bonding over their cavalier lives. Essie says she’s ready to settle down and longs for America where a person can start over fresh. The following morning, the food is gone and salvation comes in an unlikely source: a horny warden who impregnates her, the baby saving her from hanging and becoming the ticket that gets her back on a boat bound for the Americas—this time permanently.

The screenplay differs slightly from Gaiman’s book, which paints a more sympathetic woman. In American Gods, Essie’s last name is Tregowan, and she falls in love with Bartholomew, who gets her pregnant. The baby is stillborn, and despite the scandal, the squire’s wife lets Essie keep her former position in the scullery out of respect for Essie’s mom, who was a very fine cook we are told. However, her heart turns cold to the family. She sneaks a lover, Josiah Horner, into her room, and during the night, he pilfers the house. Eventually, he is caught, and she is implicated as having helped him.

In both novel and screenplay, we are shown a tender side to Mad Sweeney, who after years of receiving gifts from Essie comes to her in her final moments as she’s shelling peas on her front porch.

“You’ve done me many a good turn,” she said.

“Good and ill,” said the squinting Stranger. “We’re like the wind. We blows both ways.”

Essie nodded.

“Will you take my hand, Essie Tregowan?” And he reached out a hand to her. Freckled it was, and although Essie’s eyesight was going she could see each orange hair on the back of his hand, glowing golden in the afternoon sunlight. She bit her lip. Then, hesitantly, she placed her blue-knotted hand in his.

She was still warm when they found her, although the life had fled her body and only half the peas were shelled.

In the present day, Laura Moon is still following her guiding light, Shadow, with Mad Sweeney and Salim in tow. They stop by a roadside attraction for Salim to pray, and Laura takes pity on him and releases him from their agreement, telling Salim his jinn is at the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. She then steals an ice cream truck—smart move to keep the flesh from slipping off any farther—and in short order swerves to avoid running over a bunny rabbit but ends up killing herself a second time.

Sweeney’s lucky gold coin is lying on the pavement a few feet away from her body. Just what he’s been waiting for, and as expected, he greedily retrieves the piece. But before he walks away, he stops. Has the leprechaun had a change of heart? Have memories of the plucky Essie MacGowan made room in his heart for the plucky Laura Moon? Or was it the heart to heart just moments before when Sweeney told Laura that he’s done much worse things in his lifetime than serve out Wednesday’s orders, let alone flee a battle that would have left him for dead?

Could this be a chance for some sort of redemption? After all, in a flashback, we find out that he is the cause of Laura’s first death in the infamous car wreck with Robbie. I suppose if I spoke Gaelic and understood the curses he shouts before he returns the coin to her, I’d get where he’s coming from … because, for the record, I’m having a hard time following if these gods want Laura dead or undead. Regardless, I’m pretty sure Wednesday wants her nowhere near Shadow—at least not yet.

Whatever the case, Sweeney places the coin on her chest, which has been ripped wide open, and the piece melts down inside and reinvigorates her. She wakes up and punches him square in the face for the best laugh of the series. Some thanks. She wraps a jacket around her exposed ribcage, flips the ice cream truck right side up, and they continue on their way in search of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday.

This was another superb episode on par with “Git Gone,” nicely expanding and complementing the characters in the novel. The screenplay by Maria Melnik deserves extra kudos for fusing the two mediums brilliantly together.

See Also: Page to Screen: American Gods 1.06: “A Murder of Gods”


David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.


  1. Alan Williams

    After last weeks episode, this weeks raised the bar back up again. I really enjoyed the split tale, and having Emily Browning in both the Laura and (adult) Essie roles – with a little help from some makeup and hair dye – work well alongside the epoch enduring Mad Sweeney.

    Laura and Sweeney work well together and I’m glad that the episode departed from the book in the way that it did. I hope there’s is more of these two in the future (before Laura rots away completely at least).

    Season finale next week, not quite sure how I feel about that. Glad it’s over or looking forward to season 2?

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