A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“It is fine fiction that America was founded by pilgrims seeking freedom to believe as they wished, that they came to the Americas spread and bred and filled the empty land. In truth, the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape, a forgetting place.”
In 1882, French philosopher Joseph Ernest Renan delivered a lecture on the classical texts relating to a civic form of nationalism. Renan’s writings espousing a civic form of nationalism were a direct response to the ethnic nationalism being championed by German philosophers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried Herder. Renan notes that there is a false mythological pinning to the idea of a nation. That painting is of an inevitable structure, a paradigm that was not created inherently by and for political forces and reasons, respectively. That painting tells a lie that the nation was an inevitable force that has been around for years upon years, being created as if it was the most natural creation to come to mind. The nation like Germany, France, and England did not exist until recent memory when one considers the overarching time period of human existence, even if 1882 seems to be eons ago.
Renan brings up the examples of the Assyrian Empire and the Persian Empire, which are understood within the nation context of being nations themselves, even if that notion is historically inappropriate to use in such a context. But there was no contemporary parallel of patriotism for either of those empires being compared to the nation as we understand the structure today, as the former has never existed in a nation-state context and the feudal structure of the Persian Empire simply did not create conditions that would necessitate the urgent creation of a national identity. As Renan points out, for example, France legitimately became the name of a country where the Franks were historically a minority population. That romanticization and normalization of the process of creating a state has another dangerous side effect in that the normal creation of a nation inherently mitigates the violence and force that often perpetrates its creation in the first place. America is no different. America was not founded upon Christian principles of equality. The Bill of Rights did not apply to everyone. America was founded upon the genocide of indigenous and black people upon whose literal backs white people created a nation to call their own.
The America of a gloriously rising past where everyone was welcome and everyone was eager to be welcomed does not exist. It never has. It is certainly not the nation that Essie MacGowan was ever hoping to be a part of. She was content with a part of her existence, even if some part of her knew that her romance with her mistress’s son was likely to not reach a conclusion of contentment. As one would expect, her lover throws her under the bus (or wagon?), standing silently by as she charged with the false crime of thievery. When Essie went before the judge, she had an understandable expectation that she would be sentenced to hang and that was that. What a miserable way to go, she must have thought to herself. The judge, perhaps looking at her age, instead sentenced her to become an indentured servant in this new country called America. For Essie, America was not the land of opportunity and dreams. It was an escape from dangling from a noose. The first time aboard the wretched ship to the New World, Essie came across a charming captain who was quite smitten with the young Irish lass. Sensing an opportunity to escape the wretched life awaiting her, Essie finds a new lease as the captain’s wife.
Yet Essie’s story takes a twist here, for she is a woman hardened by her experience. If she was going to be unjustly punished and chastised for being a thief, well, then she might as well become one. Essie’s journey becomes one of a woman committed to making a life for herself, a life where she didn’t need to depend on any man for her survival. She becomes just a touch too audacious, however, and is caught several years down the road by a man who noticed her flighty fingers around some linen. This time there was no escape from America for Essie and off she went. In a dark commentary on men, Essie’s master finds that he has a soft spot for the woman and her journey thematically arrives back in that dark, cramped ship. One night many years down the road, an elderly Essie is sitting in a rocking chair and all of a sudden she hears a voice, a voice to whom she had prayed since she was a child.
When Essie was a child, her mother used to tell her the quiet tales of the leprechauns, these quiet and mischievous beings whom you would always leave a bit of offering for so they would stay by your side for you would never want them to go turn against you. No matter how little you had, Essie was told, you kept some aside so the leprechauns could eat. If you had one piece of bread to last you the entire day, you took a chunk off of that bread and you kept it by your side so the leprechaun could feast, and it was not the chunk of bread that you yourself would not eat. As Essie grew older, the power of those stories never waned. As one tumult from life led to another, those stories she was told on the rocky Irish shores served as a way for her to continue to hold some belief, some strength, some faith that helped her capacity to survive and at times, even thrive. When she was first imprisoned on the ship of indentured servants, she still kept the bits of bread aside. Essie’s belief in the leprechaun, the belief that brought Mad Sweeney to America, is religious in a sense even if it does not become cloaked in what we traditionally think of religion as being.
Besides the bread, Essie never espoused the strict rituals that can be an indicator of an oppressive orthodoxy. She simply believed in a set of stories that gave her some sense of independence from the patriarchal oppression around her. Essie was critically never a fanatic, but she managed to always draw some sense of strength and perseverance from the stories of her childhood. When she it sitting in a rocking chair and looking upon the oncoming figure, she is in equal parts surprised and unsurprised at the identity of that figure. Her own grandchildren were now too afraid for the stories she had grown up with and garnered strength from, but they would have their own stories and Essie was content with that because she recognized that people drew strength from different beliefs and faiths. When Mad Sweeney came to grasp her hand and lead her into the afterlife, Essie notes that in spite of what she had suffered, she had led a good life and she always knew that she could count on a sense of comfort and strength from him. She had no grudges and she would gladly walk hand in hand with him into the oncoming afterlife, away from this land where there was no time for faeries, for magic, or for leprechauns.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+Mad Sweeney killed Laura at Wednesday’s behest, which explains his promise to have Laura properly resurrected. The moment he decides to sacrifice his luck to save Laura points intensely towards his guilt and it gives the characters layers like never before.
+Anubis and Mr. Ibis are fantastic
+I love how queerness is such a defining aspect of this series
+“So a thief she became.”
+“The more abundant the blessings, the more we forget to pray.”
+“I hear there’s chances there. I’m Susan now.” What a great little piece of commentary on the American Dream and assimilation
+“In the Americas, anyone can be anything they insist upon.”
+“What the fuck is happy?”
+“The condemned never know when the hangman has coiled his noose.”
+“I was a king once.”
+The backdrop of the slaves when Essie is married to her master is a sharp visual reminder that even with Essie’s plight as an indentured servant, there was not the equivalence to slavery people so often believe to be the case these days
+Emily Browning’s double duty as Laura and Essie is incredibly impressive. Kudos to Pablo Schreiber and Omid Abtahi as well
+Shoutout to costume designer Suttirat Larlarb for a phenomenal job of telling Essie’s story through her costuming
Episode Title: A Prayer for Mad Sweeney
Teleplay by: Maria Melnik
Directed by: Adam Kane
Image Courtesy: Collider
Source: Ernst Renan, “What is a Nation?”
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Syrian Refugee/Refugee Crises
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