The worst one can say about “The Midnight Ride” is that John Noble never makes an appearance. Also, that stuff with Luke, Abbie’s ex who’s hoping to rekindle the flame right up until a dead man tells him to get over it—don’t care. The actor is bland, and the character’s freak out over a couple of news clippings was both forced and goofy; so far at least, that whole plot thread (which took up maybe three minutes of the episode) is a wash. And if we’re going to be really picky, there were bits and pieces stuck into Abbie and Ichabod’s heart to heart chats that weren’t quite perfect, and that whole Live Sex Chat gag was (if you’ll excuse the expression) a bit too broad.
It was funny, though, and even the corniest of Ichabod and Abbie’s talks is lightened by humor and the actors’ natural chemistry. So those minor caveats aside, “The Midnight Ride” was great fun, simultaneously batshit crazy and somehow coherent, with the usual mishmash of historical fan fiction, gruesome horror, and witty repartee mixed into a cocktail that should be overpowering and trite, and yet isn’t. The story structure continues to resist the typical approach for a genre series; instead of carefully building a world and then unleashing hell, Sleepy Hollow started with Hell and let the rest catch up. It’s a serialized narrative (note the excessively long intro and “previously on” segments that kick off each episode) that still manages to fit in standalone stories; this week’s hour has the most satisfying climax the show has managed yet. The pilot was the kind of endearing mess that practically screams that it’s not going to make it past episode three—something so lopsided and oddly winning that it seems inevitable that the writers will run out of ideas right about the same time the audience runs out of patience. Yet they haven’t. If anything, they’ve been picking up steam, and tonight’s entry just clicked, with a frantic race to first retrieve, then destroy, and then simply hold on to the Headless Horseman’s skull.
Okay, so here is something I would normally stop and criticize: The episode begins with (after a flashback to Paul Revere’s ride, a rant from Ichabod about free water, and Abbie’s brief chat with Officer Blandness) (who I’m sure is a very nice person) the Horseman tracking down the Freemason’s headquarters and slaughtering the bunch of them minutes before Ichabod arrives on the scene for a critical conference. We just met these characters last week, in an episode already crowded with Ichabod’s flashback to his meet-cute with Katrina, and with the first (and please god not last) appearance of John Noble. We know barely anything about them apart from the fact that they are determined good guys with poison on hand who should probably update their outmoded sexist membership requirements. And now they’re all dead, without even a backstory to their credit.
This should be bad writing; it’s a weird, wasteful way to use a guest cast, and it fits with the show’s brisk-bordering-on-abrupt approach to anyone who isn’t Ichabod, Abbie, and as of this episode, Captain Irving. That’s a dangerous way to tell a story on television, because it means burning through ideas fast, and it also reduces our emotional investment in new characters. I doubt anyone cried any tears over the Freemasons’ deaths, and I doubt we were really supposed to. But the more often people vanish or die horribly minutes after we meet them, the less those deaths matter, no matter how freaky it looks to see their heads hanging from a church somewhere.
And yet. And yet—while I don’t see this as being an effective long-term strategy (maybe things will slow down a tad in season two?), for right now, it works like gangbusters, because it means our heroes never get to settle down into a comfortable, protected position. The appearance of the Freemasons last week implied that Ichabod had a loyal group he could draw on for support and information in his time of trial. Now that they’re gone, the support vanishes with them, a fact Ichabod clearly realizes as he searches through their house for clues on how he can possibly stop the Horseman. Crane is upset by the loss even if we aren’t, and his attitude the entire episode is a little more on edge, and a little more desperate, than it has been in the past. In terms of a supporting cast, the show has some work to do (Irving has come into his own, at least), but Ichabod and Abbie are strong enough right now that so long as they’re affected by what’s happening around them, those events matter.
The humor is also important; whatever else is going on, the writers have mastered the art of being funny without undercutting stakes, and most of the jokes serve as a great way to illuminate character. (As well as being, y’know, funny.) Ichabod’s rant at a Tarrytown museum tour guide is hilarious, but it also, like so many of his sardonic comments, underlines just how alone he is, in a world where everything he once knew has turned into legend and barely remembered historical trivia. The montage of failed head destruction changed up the pacing (at its best, the show’s pacing is kind of insane, in a good way; it rarely settles into a familiar rhythm, which means everything constantly feels like its rushing forward), pointed out just how screwed our heroes are, and included a shot of Abbie ducking a skull into a tub of acid whilst wearing a hazmat suit, which is just cool.
Maybe that’s the secret: the fact that Sleepy Hollow is still managing to pull off its own zany kind of cool. Tom Mison continues to make the most out of every twist they give him, and Nicole Beharie keeps up just fine, and this week, they managed to trap the physical manifestation of death through the power of an ancient code, silver teeth, and a set of UV lamps. Oh, and they also found time to debate Thomas Jefferson’s deeply flawed morality, his relationship with Sally Hemmings, and his apparent weakness for plagiarism. This show is scratching itches I never knew I had.
- I know I say this every week, but man, Tom Mison is taking a solid role and having an absolute blast with it; he manages to make ranting at tour guides both amusing and surprisingly soulful. And Nicole Beharie is right up there with him.
- Okay, I do have one question: If the Horseman can’t sense where his head is, how did he know to go to the lab when Irving went to pick the head up? Did he tail him?
- “I’m the only one amongst you who doesn’t require medication!” -Ichabod, fighting the system