The White Buffalo is a familiar presence in American Gods, more like a ghost than a god. As the living embodiment of “the land,” it has haunted the continent from prehistoric times (Atsula’s journey in episode 5) to the present day. That buffalo has more staying power than the gods themselves.
Buffalo are the official animal of the United States, an appropriately patriotic yet morbid piece of symbolism for American Gods. Hunted to the brink of extinction by European settlers, buffalo represent the clash between invading colonists and America’s native population. At the start of the 19th century, there were between 30 and 60 million buffalo in the U.S., and they were a central aspect of Native American culture. Over the next hundred years, the settlers hunted those buffalo in a prolonged massacre, combining greed with a desire to quash the Native American way of life. By the turn of the century, there were only 300 buffalo left in the wild.
As an avatar of the land itself, the White Buffalo appears this week as a giant statue, a roadside attraction built by a rancher in 2008. (Mysteriously, the rancher and his family were killed by a lightning strike the next year. “That’s what you get for putting a god in a petting zoo,” remarks Mad Sweeney.) The statue towers overhead during the present-day scenes with Laura, Sweeney, and Salim, while the rest of the episode tells the longest “Coming to America” story to date.
This tale takes place when white, English-speaking people were still considered newcomers in America, rather than being the core population. Emily Browning (Laura Moon) plays an Irish woman who, after life of crime, gets shipped to the British colony as an indentured servant in 1721.
We meet Essie McGowan via Mr. Ibis, historian to the Old Gods. He relates her story while Anubis tends to a body in their funeral home, a welcome reminder that Chris Obi may be my favorite actor in a show full of memorable performers. His portrayal of Anubis is less flashy than showmen like Anansi and Mr. Wednesday, displaying a sense of calm and patient certainty that fits his role as a death god. Anubis isn’t emotionless (he got righteously angry when Laura disrespected him in episode 4), but he seems a little more detached than the other Old Gods, who seethe with desperation and pride. And in contrast to the many fraught relationships throughout the show, there’s something reassuring about the quiet humor and professionalism of his partnership with Mr. Ibis.
Essie grew up with tales of the leprechauns, always making sure to “pay” them with a saucer of milk on the windowsill. In exchange, she’s rewarded with the characteristically changeable gifts of a fairy blessing. She gets a necklace and a promise of love from her boss’s son, but then she’s quickly arrested for theft. After being deported to America for stealing, she seduces the captain and travels back to London to be his wife. She steals his silver and settles into a life of larcenous luxury, but eventually gets arrested and transported back to America. She’d gotten too cocky about her good fortune, and stopped leaving offerings for the leprechauns.
Once she realizes her mistake and makes amends, she gets her happily-ever-after. As the widow of a kindly colonial farmer, her fairytales become the conduit for Mad Sweeney’s arrival in America—hence the episode title, “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney.”
This episode finally fleshed out Mad Sweeney’s rather stereotypical role as an angry Irish drunk. By the time Essie meets him in the 18th century, he’s already unhappy with his lot in life. He used to be a legendary fairy king, but leprechauns have since been rebranded as playful household spirits, bribed with snacks to avoid bad luck. His job evolved to fit the expectations of people like Essie, but he’s ultimately the same person he was before—just compressed into an ill-fitting new role. This backstory explains Sweeney’s misery in the present day, now drawing his power from the cartoonish mascot role of leprechauns in American pop culture.
While Essie was a true believer, her modern doppelgänger remains as cynical as ever. This makes for an interesting dynamic during the road trip scenes with Laura, Sweeney, and Salim. Sweeney subsists on belief, whereas Laura is a lifelong non-believer. She now has a pragmatic attitude to the supernatural (especially the lucky coin that keeps her body ticking), but she doesn’t imbue her situation with any kind of faith. Meanwhile, Salim is the only purely faithful person in the show. He prays several times a day, without the tit-for-tat arrangement of the Old Gods’ style of religion. He believes from the heart, which may explain why Laura cuts him loose this week. He’s too much of a cinnamon roll for their chaotic mission to bring Laura back from the dead.
In a scene with strong hints of Bryan Fuller‘s imagination, Laura and Sweeney steal an ice cream truck. Their goal, of course, is to refrigerate Laura’s rotting corpse for the remainder of the journey. Unfortunately they then crash the truck, “killing” Laura by dislodging the magic coin from her body. But instead of leaving her in the dirt, Sweeney does something unexpected. After a brief vision that reveals Sweeney caused Laura’s death in episode 1, he reanimates her body so they can complete their quest. Evidently his role is more complicated than it seems.
American Gods mythology corner
“In truth, the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape.”
Neil Gaiman had a specific goal in mind when he wrote Essie’s story. He wanted to debunk myths about early Pilgrim settlers in America, shining a light on the reality of transportation. Speaking to Gizmodo, Gaiman explained:
“Somewhere in the nineties my son came back from school aged about twelve and says, ‘My teacher says you’re a liar.’ And I said ‘What?’ ‘My teacher says you’re a liar. I told them in school and I said that thing you told us about how people were transported to America instead of being hanged or put in prison and they went out to Virginia and they were sold to farmers and things. And she said, ‘That’s not true.’ And that people and Pilgrims only came to America in search for a better life and religious freedom.”
[Side note: If you enjoyed the historical elements of this episode, I recommend watching Black Sails, the show American Gods replaced on Starz. It’s an 18th century pirate drama with an unusual political viewpoint. The protagonists are a squad of feuding bisexual pirates, and their thematic enemy is the British Empire itself: a villainous entity powered by slavery, conscript soldiers, capitalism, and state-sanctioned violence. Fun!]
Penal transportation is a widely acknowledged aspect of Australian history, but you’re less likely to hear about it in the U.S. It doesn’t fit with popular perceptions of colonial life, which has led to some awkward conspiracy theories about people like Essie. Namely, that they were “white slaves.”
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.”
European convicts and poor people migrated to the Americas side-by-side, serving contracted periods as indentured servants. It was a brutal system, borne of inequality and desperation like the scenario we saw in Essie’s story. However, it wasn’t comparable to the mass enslavement of African people during the same period.
American Gods doesn’t exactly have a flawless record exploring racism and immigration, but I respect its cynical attitude. Instead of trying to impose a sense of fairness on history, it takes a messier point of view. Essie (like Laura) is an amoral asshole, but she’s also the victim of an unjust system, forced to give birth on a filthy deportation ship. Anansi’s slave ship scene similarly avoided any kind of straightforward moral purity. He inspired those slaves to revolt against their kidnappers, but he wasn’t there as a savior. His innocent worshippers became a human sacrifice, fueling his arrival in America. Essie, on the other hand, lived to a ripe old age on her husband’s farm—probably relying on indentured laborers to enrich her own family.