When news of Sleepy Hollow first broke last summer, I thought it was the most hilariously stupid idea I’d ever heard. Here, I was sure, was the next spiritual successor to The Cape, a show so ill-conceived, so fundamentally awkward in its design and strenuously, woefully inept in its execution, that it would implode almost immediately. A fan-fiction-esque retelling of “The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow” that turned Ichabod Crane into an action hero, and had the Headless Horseman wielding a machine gun? Oh, it was like stupid Christmas was coming early. When the trailers came out, I fixated on the line “The answers are in George Washington’s Bible!” No matter how many times I repeated it, it never stopping being funny. And the truth of it is, it’s still a pretty funny line. The twists and turns of the first season of this marvelous, unexpected, and thoroughly entertaining series are ornate, bold, and bizarre; removed from context, they sound like over-worked parody. And yet there’s a sincerity to the storytelling here that makes those twists work. The writers aren’t talking down to their audience. While it’s impossible to say for certain, it feels like the people working on this show believe in what they’re doing, and that, combined with a strong sense of humor, great production design, and a terrific cast, has made all the difference.
Tonight’s two-part season finale (“The Indispensable Man” and “Bad Blood”) builds to a feverish quintuple cliffhanger of a climax, pulling off the biggest turn of the show so far with as much aplomb as we’ve come to expect. The reveal that John Noble’s Henry Parrish is actually Ichabod and Katrina’s son Jeremy, resurrected by Moloch after two hundred years in a pine box, and now transformed into the avatar of War, is something it’s going to take me some time to wrap my head around. The finale of “Bad Blood” goes to great lengths (via a long expository, gloating monologue from Jeremy, along with flashbacks) to justify the reveal, and I have no real arguments as to the plausibility of it, for want of a better term; it makes enough sense to fit in with everything we’ve seen so far, it explains the lack of answers about Jeremy following the reveal that he was buried by the coven, and it fits in with the earlier twist of the Horseman being a former friend of Ichabod’s—these avatars aren’t going to be simple symbols made flesh. Plus, Noble got to sneer and speechify, and that’s always quite enjoyable.
The downside is, there’s a certain lack of impact in all of this revealing, and it speaks to a problem with the show that’s been evident from the start: speed. The idea that kind, gentle-natured Parrish has been secretly a villain all this time is not something I would’ve guessed, and the season did a good job of leaving that possibility open without underlining it; and yet, when he reveals himself, it’s more of a “Oh, that’s cool” moment than a “FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!” one. The latter is harder to come by, to be sure, but Parrish’s long monologue about how betrayed he felt by his parents, and all the rage he’s filled with, combined with the shots of Katrina and Ichabod looking devastated at what should’ve been their moment of greatest happiness (in that Katrina had finally escaped from Purgatory, with Abbie remaining behind in her stead), never quite landed. This is, I suspect, because so much happened in S1, and so fast, that not everything sticks. There were legitimately moving references to Jeremy in the past, but I’ll confess that when Parrish confessed his identity, it took me a few seconds to remember just who the hell he was. The fact that Jeremy is more concept than character fundamentally limits the impact of his return. It’s a clever move, and a smart way to end the season, but it left me a little cold.
There’s another twist earlier in the two-part finale that speaks to this, I think: Ichabod’s decision to burn Washington’s map into Purgatory in front of Abbie, then going on to copy the thing down in secret from memory. Basically, Abbie thinks the map is a bad idea, but Ichabod wants to use it to save Katrina, and they spend most of “The Indispensable Man” tracking it down. Ichabod’s willingness to destroy the item was a great show of trust on his part, enough so that the scene at the end of the first hour when he sketches the map in anew seemed to indicate a new, darker shift for his and Abbie’s relationship. While I have no interest in a Sleepy Hollow in which Ichabod and Abbie aren’t friends, the idea that they might have distinct agendas, and that those agendas might end up in well-intentioned opposition, has potential. Neither lead is an anti-hero, nor should they be, but having Ichabod, whose stalwart honesty has been one of the character’s central traits, demonstrate that he has desires that will allow him to betray his principles was exciting, and suggested a more morally complex finale than I was initially expecting.
Yet within ten minutes of the beginning of “Bad Blood,” he’s revealed the freshly drawn map to Abbie, apologized, and the two of them are basically fine. Conveniently, George Washington’s Bible suggests that they’ll need a binding spell to stop the horseman War, and the only witch they know is Katrina, which means they need to go into Purgatory after all. But having the confession come so fast after the crime is a waste of a potentially interesting development. And, again, it’s all in the name of speed. Ichabod can’t keep a secret from Abby for very long because this is not a show that withholds anything for very long. That’s part of the appeal; it burns through plot like a ten year-old burning through her Halloween candy, and the resulting sugar rush is generally fantastic—but it sometimes makes me wish for a little more discipline, a little more delayed gratification. A bar of chocolate tastes so much better when you hold back long enough to eat your vegetables first.
The only other real fault I can find in the finale is the same one I always seem to find of late: Irving and his woes. The fallout from last week’s possession demon takes an unexpected turn when Irving’s bosses look into the two deaths at the cabin, even going so far as to take a sample of Macy’s DNA to test against DNA they found on the priest’s corpse. I’m not sure they’ll really have a case there, but Irving decides he has to protect his daughter and confesses to the crime. It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, it’s a bold move that adds some immediately pressing suspense to a storyline which has often struggled to remain relevant. On the other hand, there’s no telling if it will stick (given the way this show operates, it’s entirely possible that the second season premiere has Frank cleared of all charges because reasons), and even if it does, it’s an oddly disconnected move. As the writers have worked to give the show’s secondary characters more to do, it’s sometimes seemed like a mash-up of different shows, and no more so than with Irving’s scenes. Instead of developing, Irving has become a distraction from the truly important stuff, and its telling how few scenes he’s had with Ichabod and Abbie in the last few episodes.
So, for next season, here’s hoping the writers get a slightly better handle on pacing (giving more time to building relationships and emotional investment while still maintaining the breakneck excitement the show manages at its best will be a neat trick), and find some way to make Irving work. Because otherwise, that me who dismissed the show out of hand last summer? That me was really, really wrong. Whatever their imperfections, these final hours show enough of Sleepy Hollow working that any criticism is almost beside the point. (Aren’t you glad you read all this?) From Ichabod struggling with auto-correct before pleading with Abbie to give him a new smart phone, to both characters getting a glimpse of happiness in Purgatory—or something like it—before remembering each other and coming back to themselves, there’s a lot to savor. And if this review seems to fixate on a few complaints, that’s because the ample pleasures in evidence resist analysis. Poor Andy is transformed from an uncomfortable looking corpse to a bad-ass demon who still manages to fail his boss, and it manages to be thrilling, sad, and darkly funny all at once. George Washington is such a brilliant strategist that he arranges to have himself brought back from the dead just so he can record what he saw on the other side, which takes the apparent omniscience of the Founding Fathers so often found in pop culture to an unexpected end point. And at the heart of everything is Ichabod and Abbie, doing their best to save the world and suffering for it. The former has been buried alive by the son he never knew he had, while his wife, freshly freed from Purgatory, is held captive by a headless monster who has god only knows what in mind; the latter is trapped in Purgatory, having discovered too late to help anyone what it was she forget as a child. Is it next fall yet?
Episode(s) grade: A-
Season grade: B+
- Abby’s purgatorial dollhouse is a great example of fast storytelling done well. Jenny’s monologue about the dollhouse she and her sister had as children, and how Abbie used that dollhouse to try and protect them both from their tumultuous home life, is a fine speech that doesn’t need to lead to a pay-off apart from reminding us that the two are very close. Yet when the pay-off arrives, it feels organic, and unforced. Also, delightfully weird. Purgatory does not look like a fun place to be.
- Modern Things Of Which Ichabod Does Not Approve This Week: Auto correct, the way phone companies market their products, and he’s also iffy on social networks. (“How is it you have 500 friends? I only had seven close companions, and four of them died. Those were good odds.”) However, he is willing to accept emoticons. (“‘On my way. Colon closed parenthesis.’ Oh. It’s a man’s face. I suppose that’s charming.”)
- The solution to the “how do we keep Ichabod in his old-fashioned clothes even though they’re two centuries old”) is brilliant. I’m not even sure that ever would have bothered me, but having Ichabod buy replacements from a troupe of historical re-enactors is delightful.
- “Many a mickle makes a muckle.” Can we bring this saying back? I think we should bring this saying back.
- “I have more than faith. I’m a mental patient with a gun.” -Jenny
- Always good to see Clancy Brown again, if only for a little while. And Victor Garber as Ichabod’s father was a fine touch.
- “According to hidden messages found in George Washington’s Bible…” The fact that someone says this with a straight face, and I had no strong urge to laugh, is remarkable.
- Jenny’s storyline, while ultimately futile, works well; the church sign reveal was neat, although I’m not sure why the Horseman decided to leave her in the overturned truck without making sure she was dead.
- “I married a witch. How… cool.” See you next season, everyone!