Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 7. Not seen American Gods? Read our spoiler-free review of the first two episodes here.
One of the greatest assets of this first season of American Gods has been the breathing space it allows its various subplots, as well as its breaking away from traditional episodic structure, be it devoting an entire instalment to a flashback or lavishing a lot of attention on the various side vignettes of Neil Gaiman’s source novel. It’s an enjoyably weird show, one that prefers to luxuriate in a particular mood, before actually explaining what it’s just shown you.
Unfortunately, there can be a breaking point regarding a show’s otherwise pleasing qualities, and Episode 7, A Prayer for Mad Sweeney, hits it. That’s not necessarily down to the instalment being bad per se, nor its storytelling quirk (the ‘Coming to America’ prologue device becoming the focus of an entire episode) being inherently objectionable. The direction (from Adam Kane) and performances continue to be very engaging, and Pablo Schreiber and Emily Browning would be wise to submit this episode for any Emmy consideration, in light of the dual turns they get to play with (and play well).
No, the pressing bugbear with A Prayer for Mad Sweeney is almost entirely down to its placement in the season. This is Season 1’s penultimate episode, right before the proverbial excrement is presumably about to hit the proverbial fan. Savvy viewers will be aware that the show has been picked up for a second season, and that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have apparently only adapted about a fifth of the novel for this first one. That being said, one expects the finale will have something in a way of a narrative game-changer; conflicts coming to a head in a big way, with most, if not all, of the show’s major players colliding in some way.
As such, despite the show’s tendency towards a leisurely pace, one might also expect that the penultimate episode would get all the pieces set up for the finale. A little bit of Shadow and Wednesday here, a bit of the New Gods there; a smidgen of Mad Sweeney and Laura, alongside a tiny tease of what you can expect of the final chapter’s story. But Episode 7 doesn’t do that. We’ve had a Wednesday-free episode before, but this is the first instalment that doesn’t feature Shadow even once. All the drip-feed teasing about the war of the Gods and Wisconsin wasn’t a source of frustration when it didn’t seem like we’d suddenly be deprived of the main storyline completely, right before the finale.
Instead, excluding the scene-setting opening with Ibis and Jacquel at their funeral parlour, this episode is devoted entirely to Laura and Mad Sweeney – and, briefly, Salim, before he hightails it out of the story with an actual sense of urgency. Well, not just Sweeney and Laura. We also get an earlier incarnation of Sweeney, portrayed far more sympathetically than before now, and Emily Browning as a faerie-indulging woman named Essie MacGowan, one of supposedly several parties responsible for bringing the leprechaun to America in the 18th century.
As a means of expanding the characters of Sweeney and Laura, Episode 8 is strong, and it also further cements Browning as the show’s MVP (apologies to Ian McShane). They’re great characters and we get an interesting insight into Sweeney, in particular. It just would have been so much better if we’d got this a little earlier in the run, or if the show’s first season order had been a little longer than just eight episodes. As such, this instalment is tainted by the nagging feeling that the pieces haven’t been properly set up for the closer. Then again, maybe a little faith is needed…
American Gods is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. You can watch American Gods online every Monday, with new episodes arriving within 24 hours of their US broadcast.