American Gods Episode 7: “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” spends nearly the entire hour following Essie MacGowan: an 18th century Irish immigrant whose superstitions help bring leprechauns to the Americas. American Gods positions Essie as a relentless social climber willing to sleep her way to the top, but her reality is a lot more grim: Essie’s real crime seems to be turning the tables on exploitative men who knowingly abuse power dynamics that work in their favor. But — Essie’s the real criminal, right? Because she smirks a lot. Cool. Okay.
Let me be more specific: Mr. Ibis, the Egyptian wisdom god/funeral director/narrator for American Gods’s “Coming to America” segments, positions Essie as a relentless social climber willing to fuck her way to the top. Ibis narrates over the episode’s many sex scenes to let you know that Essie’s machinations led to these moments — that she’s the one who’s really in control. But is she? I’m not entirely convinced.
So let’s review Essie’s Manipulative Sex Babe Case File:
While working as a servant in a wealthy home, Essie seduces/falls in love with the family’s son and heir. He gifts her with an heirloom and leaves for college. When his family discovers this gift, they accuse her of theft and the wealthy son betrays Essie to save face. By aligning herself with Wealthy Son, Essie stands to receive financial stability and an escape from all the various horrors of being an 18th century Irish peasant. By betraying her, Wealthy Son sentences Essie to death so that he can sidestep telling his mom about proposing to their maid.
After she is sentenced to transportation to the Americas — a horrifying ordeal the episode takes great pains to explore — Essie hooks up with the captain of the vessel delivering her to indentured servitude. By aligning herself with Ship Captain, Essie stands to receive financial stability — and is significantly more likely to not die during her journey. She can also escape indentured servitude for a time. The captain falls in love with Essie because of her beauty — he spots her in the cramped, unsanitary bowels of the ship and makes his move. I find it a little doubtful that even the most powerful feminine wiles can circumvent the deeply unerotic typhoid and cholera-steeped atmosphere of a penal transport vessel. In contrast, a much more potent aphrodisiac: abusing your power as the captain of a ship full of condemned criminals to bone a hot chick who can’t really consent because her other option is pretty much just death. What’s she gonna do? Swim home?
Once Essie’s escape is discovered, the warden at Newgate Prison strikes a deal with her: he benevolently offers to impregnate Essie in order to commute her death sentence. By taking his deal, Essie can continue to avoid death. Essie’s sadness and resignation throughout the obligatory sex scene is bad enough, but Ibis’s obtrusive voiceover, delightfully musing over Essie’s debauchery through her sexual abuse, made my skin crawl.
Finally, in the Americas, Essie plays the long game to slow-burn seduce the wealthy landowner that she is indentured to. This scheming harpy convinces the landowner that she is but a poor widow with chaste morals and traps him into marriage — only to spend a happy decade raising children with him until his untimely death.
In the American Gods novel, Essie’s machinations feel more intentional, but she’s still trapped in bloodthirsty interlocking systems of oppression that are content with disposing of her like trash. Maybe Ibis’s literal voiceover in the show only emphasizes how little agency Essie really has over her life. But seeing Essie’s lack of agency, and feeling it all the more clearly after experiencing it throughout this episode, only makes her more reprehensible when she eventually becomes complicit in systematic oppression. Because as sympathetic as parts of Essie’s story may be, American Gods goes out of its way to criticize her for manipulating men, but seems reluctant to call out an obvious, troubling reality: as a Southern plantation owner, Essie absolutely owns slaves — slaves whose fates in the Americas were far more grim than hers.
Early in the episode, we get a look at indentured servitude that emphasizes white servants in the shots. But this is what we see of the people who work in Essie’s Carolina plantation near the end of the episode:
Regardless of whether or not Essie deserved our sympathy throughout this episode, it’s hard to ignore that Essie’s transportation and forced labor had an expiration date. The people working on her farm don’t have this luxury. By the end of Essie’s life, indentured servitude would sharply decline, coinciding with the rise of slavery. South Carolina’s slave population more than doubled between 1790 and 1820. By obscuring the people working Essie’s farm, American Gods asks us to ignore this reality and focus on Essie’s fragility as a defenseless white woman, at a point in her life when she couldn’t have more agency. We’re asked to forget the men who drowned on that ship with Anansi in episode 2 to enjoy Essie’s heartfelt departure from this mortal plane with Mad Sweeney.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at The Daily Dot summarizes some of the issues with this segment of the episode:
The myth of Irish slavery has become a popular talking point in the debate over reparations. White supremacists love to spread misinformation about this period, including the idea that Irish immigrants had a worse time than black slaves. But as Liam Stack explained in the New York Times this year, indentured servitude was different from slavery, and led to different results than the long-lasting discrimination against black Americans. Most obviously: “Unlike slaves, servants were considered legally human.”
So maybe Essie was wronged — by society, by individual men — but she eventually became complicit in profiting from systems of oppression. Why does American Gods’s voiceover frame her sexuality — and victimization by sexual coercion — as Essie’s primary character flaw? By backing away from these painful points of contrast, American Gods misses opportunities to do more than shock viewers with resignation fucking and gristly, half-baked noose symbolism — to leave the lasting societal impact you know this show wants to feel like it’s making with scenes like Anansi’s monologue or Mexican Jesus’s sacrifice.
But for now, we’ll just have to take what American Gods offers us: narratives that teeter on the edge of meaningful storytelling without ever diving in, and shitty people — including women — who take agency where they can get it, and fuck everybody else, am I right?
Because we can’t talk about Essie’s flaws as an antihero without also talking about the woman who shares her face: Laura Moon.
And who is Laura Moon?
Is she Shadow’s semi-departed, reluctant ex-wife?
Is she Mad Sweeney’s foul-mouthed sidekick?
Is she the reincarnation of a superstitious Irish con-woman with knack for profiting off of mostly terrible men?
As far as I can tell, Laura isn’t really any of these things. But one thing’s for sure: Laura Moon is a chaotic neutral asshole, and she thrives under the influence of her own shitty attitude. On the other hand, having Emily Browning play both Laura Moon and Essie McGowan is definitely a Choice — the showrunners thought that linking Laura to Mad Sweeney on a deeper level would benefit the story. But why? There are no good answers to this question. I just hope that American Gods doesn’t feed us a shitty narrative where Mad Sweeney’s viciousness towards Laura is played off as ~mischievous foreplay~ (because what could be sexier than verbal and attempted physical assault, am I right?).
Ibis’s voyeuristic narration feels like another Choice. Ibis helpfully informs the viewer that “intelligence is not unheard of in women,” but “beauty is had by all of 17” (lol k). He waxes poetic about murder babes and “malice draped in beauty.” Maybe Ibis’s backhanded compliments about the “fairer sex” are supposed to establish character flaws for the show’s long haul, but they come across like the ramblings of a dude who really enjoys the musicality of his own writing. In a show that goofs up context on the regular, it’s hard to know whether or not these choices are worth reading into.
Most of all, I was disappointed that “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” did not end in his death. Fortunately, a solid 1/4th of the episode focused on people (and birds) dunking on him, which I appreciated. And in a benevolent move rooted in selfishness, Laura got Salim the info he needed to head to Wisconsin on his own. I was relieved to see Salim get out while the gettin’ was good. So, not all bad stuff this week.
But at this point, we are 7/8ths of the way through the first season of American Gods, with one episode to go — and we just spent an entire hour of character development time on somebody we’re probably never going to see again. Episode 8, “Come to Jesus,” promises to be a crazy ride — and one we might not be prepared for. Will Shadow finally learn about Wednesday’s semi secret identity? Are we going to see some Zoryas? And most importantly: IS MEXICAN JESUS COMING BACK? Let’s see where the end of the first long stretch of the Great American Gods Roadtrip takes us.
- I forgot to talk about the bunny and the ice cream truck but everything happens so much, you guys
- Props to the costume department for their attention to detail on the embroidery on Essie’s dress but what’s up with the Raggedy Ann wigs tho
- What elements of the 1700s immigrant experience are the upbeat doo-wop music cues supposed to represent?
- Mad Sweeney used to be a king. Mr. World used to be a forest god. Vulcan used to be…Vulcan (??). This is gonna be a Thing, isn’t it?
- Kristin Chenoweth is great and all but I’m STILL MAD that Easter isn’t thick & curvy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You know who would have made an excellent Easter?
- Is there a clause in Emily Browning’s contract specifying that at least one of Laura’s nipples must be visible at all times? I’ll be damned if I’m going to add “rigor mortis” and “erect nipples” to my search history, so the logistics of this aesthetic choice will just have to stay a mystery.
- If Wednesday lays even one finger on Mexican Jesus I am done with this show forever!!!!!!!!
- If stealing a cat is wrong, I don’t want to be right
- Orlando Jones has the best take on Essie MacGowan so far: