Warning! This review is full of spoilers
When novels are adapted for movies, they necessarily have to be streamlined massively. Characters disappear or merge with others, subplots dissolve and narrative sideshows get shuttered up. But Neil Gaiman's American Gods is getting a very different treatment thanks to the creative freedoms granted by longform-narrative, non-network television. Things don't need to be cut, subplots can breathe and sideshows can play out as loudly as they please.
We've already seen one episode (the fourth, Git Gone), structured as one big flashback. Now we have one which takes the 'Coming To America' prologue device and makes it the focus of an entire instalment.
Tainted by the frustration of just wanting to see that main plot move along a bit faster now, please.
It's a double-edged sword. As a standalone 50-odd minute story, the tale of 18th Century, faerie-appeasing independent woman Essie MacGowan (or Tregowan, as she's named in the book) — a bonus role for the impressively chameleonic Emily Browning — is fantastically absorbing. It not only further cements Browning as this series' strongest player, but also feeds in the backstory of Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), repitching him as a far more sympathetic fellow than we'd at first took him for: a fate-battered, manipulated fellah who looks after his own, and who's just about had enough of being messed around.
However, in the context of this entire season, A Prayer For Mad Sweeney is tainted by the frustration of just wanting to see that main plot move along a bit faster now, please. All these drip-fed teases about the war, Wisconsin, and now "The House on the Rock" are starting to test the patience; the fact that this is the first episode to exclude Shadow completely only emphasises the 'one step forward, two steps backwards' pace of this show.
That said, we do get one huge revelation, which clarifies Mad Sweeney's exact role in Mr. Wednesday's contorted plans — he's a supernatural bag man and fixer, forced to do some terrible things. And he's a great character, too, so getting a bit more time in his company hardly hurts.
Q. Is Essie MacGowan related to Laura?
There's no reason to say she isn't an ancestor, but it feels unlikely and dramatically irrelevant. The point is, Laura reminds Mad Sweeney of Essie, so we see her cast in Laura's form (as well as that of the strangely uncredited Fionnula Flanagan) to help explain the beefy Leprechaun's guilt-driven decision to return the coin to her at the end of the episode.
Q. What's with the creepy rabbit?
Animals always have significance in American Gods: cats and ravens have obviously featured heavily thus far. So that Monty Python And The Holy Grail-ish white rabbit was most likely some kind of supernatural agent deliberately sent to slow Laura and Mad Sweeney. Our best guess is it was working for Old God Easter (or Eostr), who has yet to appear, but is played by Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies collaborator Kristin Chenoweth
Q. What's The House On The Rock that Sweeney referred to?
Where it's all set to kick off. Eventually. And, like many of the locations in Gaiman's novel, it's a real place, too: a tourist attraction quite literally built on a 60-foot high column of rock, filled with strange objects and featuring what it boasts as the world's largest indoor carousel.