Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x7)

When it comes to adaptations of novels, especially novels that I hold dear to my heart, I am a book purist. The book did it first, it did it the best, and the adaptation need not stray into uncharted waters because the perfect layout--with a clear beginning, middle, and an end--has already been written. The adaptation's job is to color the world with living, breathing actors who can capture the written word perfectly. In other words, an episode like this week's "A Prayer for Mad Sweeney" shouldn't have so captured my heart and been such a careful and considerate character study of two side character who, in the novel "American Gods," appear only a handful of times and mostly without adding anything character driven to the plot. Mad Sweeney and Laura show up to move the plot along--and one of them vanishes fairly quickly--or to hinder Shadow emotionally and literally but that's all. Fodder for the text, you might say. What this episode did was nothing short of remarkable, if only because I find that I honestly don't care that the vast majority of this episode took a brief "Coming to America" side story in Gaiman's novel meant to demonstrate how myths come to America from various places and made it feel like a piece of narrative as worthy to be told as Shadow's hero's journey and Mr. Wednesday's war. Put some bread and cream out for the fairy folk and let's go!

Nothing in this episode should have worked. Mad Sweeney has largely been played for laughs; he's been punched, kicked, robbed, and thrown from a moving vehicle at least once. His luck has run out and because we heavily and automatically associate leprechauns with luck, there's an inherent dramatic irony in watching a 6 foot plus Irish leprechaun stumble his way around modern America, getting his ass more or less handed to him at every turn. Mad Sweeney has been loud, rude, crude, and a danging thread in Mr. Wednesday's sprawling opus. Laura, on the other hand, got a whole episode to color her character but it did her few favors. Understand her we might, but sympathizing with her is much harder as we watched her attempts to find a reason to live before she actually died. This is why throwing in Salim, with his doe eyed belief and rigorous religious practice, was a delightful and smart move on the part of the writers. Two totally impious and unholy individuals strike up a deal with deeply pious and religious taxi driver who has literally been one with a mythical being. If there wasn't a coming war in America, it might be the start of sitcom. It's curious, then, that the writers dispense with Salim so quickly, sending him off in search for his djinn (stopping five times a day to pray to Allah along the way). That's why this episode shouldn't have worked; it does away with what was working to focus on two elements that, up until now, have been periphery to the main thrusts of the major plot of the show. To wit, Shadow and Mr. Wednesday do not appear at all and instead we get a multi-generational, mythical flashback about how Mad Sweeney came to American via a very stubborn, obstinate, and resilient Irish girl named Essie (cleverly played by the same actress portraying Laura Moon). What strikes me most about this episode is how singularly focused it is. Sure the themes of belief and prayer and remembrance are all there, tucked inside Essie's pocket like so much salt and bread. But what this episode is really about--almost in joyous celebration--is life. Just that. Good old fashioned life, with all the twists, turns, faults, and triumphs that come with it.

This story had love, hate, greed, choices, sex, grief, pain, heartache, and death all wrapped into one and in spite of taking place in 1721, Essie and Mad Sweeney's story felt universal. This is a life fully lived and while Laura and Essie aren't the same person, and Mad Sweeney isn't human at all, there's something transcendental about the way Essie's story was told. As if everyone is Essie because we've all been through the same hallmarks of life that she passed through. One of the things this adaptation of American Gods is trying to do, and I'd saying doing very well, is tell an immigrant story, of what it means to come to America. It doesn't matter if they are Vikings in the 9th century, an Egyptian woman, an Arabic man in New York, a group of Natives from long ago who crossed the Bering Straight, or a red haired Irish girl who lied and cunningly schemed her way to America, all the immigrant stories are the same at their core. They are painful and hopeful, sad and joyous. They are human stories, not to point to fine a point on it. The reason these Old Gods can come together and join up with Wednesday, in spite of coming from vastly different mythologies, from different time periods over different parts of the world, is because they understand what it means to be an immigrant. They are more alike than they are different and in the end, when Mad Sweeney gives up his lucky coin to save the already dead girl lying on the side of the road it's because he understands what it means to want something, to go after something and to feel alone--because after all, isn't Laura Moon just another kind of immigrant--and he's capturing the commonality of all the peoples and gods before him. His need for his lucky coin doesn't outweigh Laura's need for Shadow or forgiveness. If anything, his need for his lucky coin means he understands why Laura is holding on to Shadow and why Essie held on to her stories and beliefs. In America--a land where gods live and die as belief turns from the old to the new warp speed fast and without cycling back around--it's important to hold on to those things, those totems, those beliefs, that make us who we are. It's the same for all of us, be we human or god.

Miscellaneous Notes on A Prayer for Mad Sweeney 

--It sounds like all the gods are headed for the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. Hopefully, we aren't too far behind because--no exaggeration--it's my favorite part of the novel.

--"In truth, the American colonies were more of a dumping ground.

--"I will eat you!" Honestly surprised more people do not threaten Huginn and Muninn given how annoying they can be.

--Mad Sweeney himself becomes a much more sympathetic figure in this episode as we not only hear about how he fled from a war, but also hear just how far his kind have fallen over time. From kings to fairies to being a joke and mascot for a breakfast cereal. Is it any wonder he'd join up with Wednesday?

--Another thing that shouldn't have worked but did: the 1950 doo-whop soundtrack that played throughout most of the flashbacks.

--"The more abundant the blessings, the more we forget to pray."

No comments:

Post a Comment