So that was kind of a mess.
That’s not really surprising; I could’ve probably typed the opening bit of this review last week, and not had to change much when it came time to watch the episode. (Not that I would ever, ever do that.) Second episodes tend to be messy, because they have to get down to the dirty, unglamorous business of being a TV show. Pilots are intentionally flashy and attention-getting; they’re trying to sell an audience on a concept. Second episodes want to keep that sale going, but also need to set up what the series is actually going to look like. This is especially true of network television, where purely serialized seasons are more rare. The pilot of Sleepy Hollow introduced us to Ichabod and Abbie, it established the threat of the Headless Horseman and the potential of the Apocalypse, and it suggested a way forward. “Blood Moon” largely sticks to that suggestion; nothing in this hour serves as a drastic change, and, promisingly, there’s a good sense that the writers have a clear idea of what structure they’re aiming for. Our heroes hunt down a new monster every week. Every so often, the Headless Horseman pops up, and Abbie deals with her past. This is a tried-and-true formula for genre television, and while it doesn’t always work, it’s comforting to know that the people in charge know how this works.
This is still kind of a mess, though, because while the underlying spine is there, the script is still trying to do too much. We’ve got the dream sequence with Katrina, we’ve got Abbie struggling to come to terms with her past and her current situation, we’ve got Ichabod showing Abbie a secret route into the archives, we’ve got a flashback to Clancy Brown, we’ve got ghost Clancy Brown, and we’ve got Abbie’s sister, Jenny, doing the full Linda Hamilton routine in an asylum, spitting out her meds and glaring at a newspaper clipping tacked to a wall like she’s trying to set it on fire with her mind. (The clipping is about the Incident Abbie described last episode; there’s still a gap between what we heard, and the intensity of the response it inspired, that is either intentional or just sloppy.) Oh, and there’s also the evil witch Serilda, resurrected by a resurrected Andy Dunn (so that’s why they cast John Cho), and trying to hunt down the ancestors of the one in charge of burning her alive at the stake so she complete the process of becoming a real, live, evil young woman.
Any of these threads couple be interesting, and few of them could sustain an entire hour on their own, but trying to cram all of them into a single hour is too much. Clancy Brown’s reappearance is probably the biggest mistake. Don’t get me wrong: Brown is a fantastic actor, and it’s great that the show isn’t quite done with him. But to have him return so soon after his death, in an already overloaded episode, shortchanges the impact of his appearance. We haven’t had a chance to get used to his absence yet, and more importantly, Abbie hasn’t. There was a funeral, which was fine, but all her grief boils down to a few lines of dialogue about how much she misses him. The emotional beats on this show are probably never going to be subtle, and they don’t really need to be, but they do need enough breathing room to have any effect at all. Otherwise, it’s just another plot point. And a silly one at that: The dead Sheriff just tells Abbie to believe in herself, and gives her the number (49) of her sister’s room at the asylum, which doesn’t seem like quite enough reason to throw off the shackles of the grave. Also, why not just say, “Go see your sister”? Ghost union rules against comprehensibility?
The plot that suffers the most from all this cramming is what should have been the episode’s centerpiece. As a threat, Serilda is mostly just a great makeup job. (And then, when resurrected, a woman with a taste for fireproof undergarments.) There’s some backstory about Ichabod running into her while she was alive, and we learn that Katrina was responsible for capturing her, but all the exposition doesn’t really take the place of creating an actual character. Again, the problem is time: Serilda’s story doesn’t have much space to build before she’s in the secret passage, dumping ashes on her bones before getting blown up by some conveniently stored gunpowder. She didn’t need that much pathos, or some tortured past, but there’s no real personality to her beyond the “blood moon,” which is a nice phrase that means not much. Thankfully, she was spooky; it’s easier to cut the script slack when it manages some decent scares, and this hit the right pressure points. Even better, bringing John Cho back as a kind of put-upon Igor (or Renfield) is a great choice. So far humor is one of the show’s biggest strengths, and having a pale, slowly rotting corpse rolling his eyes and complaining about his duties fits in well. (And he doesn’t even diminish the spookiness.)
So, this is wobbly, and if I had to guess, I’d say it’ll take a few episodes for the show to settle into a groove, if it ever does. But as with the pilot, there’s promise, and even if that promise isn’t quite as bright, it’s still more than enough to keep watching. Ichabod and Abbie remain likable, engaging leads, and their conversations have great rhythm to them, even when their forced to spout frustratingly leaden exposition. Ichabod’s struggles with the modern world are still more funny than shticky (Abbie’s Post-It notes on seemingly every object in his motel room was a nice touch), and their chemistry manages to make an inherently ridiculous premise seem almost reasonable. The show, for the most part, looks great. It’s still goofy, and “Blood Moon” is an example of how problematic that goofiness can be, but there’s something there. There’s cause for concern; but there’s reason to hope. This fall season, that’s about the best you’re gonna get.
- Does anyone else kind of hate “But witches were really real!” stories? If you’re a fan of the horror genre (and I am), you kind of have to just roll with it after a while, but there’s something fundamentally wrong about taking the historical fact that a bunch of women were tortured and executed because of religious hysteria, and using that as a starting point to say the hysterics were right. Sure, this is fiction, and that was a long time ago, but it always bothers me.
- Well, somebody did their research; Katrina refers to the Four Horsemen as “Conquest, War, Famine, and Death,” which is indeed who they are. Sorry, Pestilence.
- Ichabod catches a clip of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Which is cool.
- This week we met Luke, who is a former flame of Abbie’s. This will probably be relevant later.
- “I want you to know it isn’t personal.” People need to stop saying that.
- “It’s a nice name. Sorry it had to be yours.” Dunn, to a kid.
- That kid’s mom is really quick on the draw when Ichabod starts asking her about the last of the Hemmington line. I’d like to think that’s the first time her son heard that he’s adopted.