Tonight’s episode is the last new Sleepy Hollow to air before the new year, but the good news is, they brought us a present: the return of Henry Parrish, also known as John Noble, also known as the best damn guest star a fan could want. After a rapid-fire cold open in which Parrish strangles Ichabod to allow him to enter Purgatory in order to contact Katrina to ask what happened to their son, “The Golem” briefly threatens to bog down into a decent but messy Monster Of The Week outing, plagued once more by the largely extraneous adventures of Irving and his failures as a family man. But between Noble’s excellent turn, and a plot that manages to find its heart at just the right moment, it all works out all right in the end. One of the show’s most unexpected strengths is the writers’ knack for finding emotional truth buried inside of absurd situations; here, it’s a child’s doll turned monstrous golem that stands in for a father’s guilt over being unable to protect and instruct his son. The creature is a nightmare made flesh, but its final scene carries with it an almost shocking amount of sorrow and regret. That’s not where I thought the episode was headed at the start, but it’s the highest praise I can give to say in retrospect, I can’t imagine it going anywhere else.
Unfortunately, to hit the highs, we have to wade through some lows. Of the three Irving scenes this week, only two are vaguely plot-relevant; in the first, Irving talks to his former priest, and finds out that the “two witnesses” foretold in the Bible are doomed to be martyred at the end of their time together. Later, in Irving’s final scene of the hour, he and his daughter are spending time together, giving the bad guys a chance to threaten Irving in a way that will surely become important later. In between these scenes, we get Irving apologizing to his wife about being a bad husband, which hopefully means we never have to deal with that storyline again. Every time the episode cut to Irving, the momentum came to a screeching halt. Even the tenuous connection between Irving’s struggles as a parent and Ichabod’s guilt doesn’t really spark into anything. Those three scenes could’ve been lifted out of the hour without changing anything around them, and that’s not a good sign; it speaks of a creative team that still doesn’t quite know how to keep all the plates spinning without letting us see them sweat.
Thankfully, the main story was good enough to make these diversions more irritating than episode-killing. Other than Irving, the biggest flaw to the hour was the sheer volume of exposition the characters needed to burn through in order to get to that climactic scene in the carnival. Not only did we have to cover the fate of Ichabod and Katrina’s son; it was also necessary to establish why Katrina gave up the child, determine who was responsible for throwing Katrina into Purgatory, and explain how a harmless (if somewhat hideous) doll was transformed into a giant killing machine. It’s a lot of information to get through.
On the plus side, Noble is an old hand at explaining things in ways that make them sound both incredibly fascinating and horrifyingly dangerous (just his little chuckle after Ichabod told him, “I understand the risks” was terrific), and the writers have found ways to deliver bucketloads of info by keeping the pace snappy, and filling the time with plentiful flashbacks and nifty visuals. But so much was covered over the course of “The Golem” that the strain started to show, especially in establishing a sketched-in biography of Jeremy Crane.
First he’s handed over to Grace Dickinson; then he develops the power to start fires with his mind and burns the family to death; then he gets sent to an orphanage where an abusive priest inspires him to inadvertently turn the doll Katrina gave him into the titular killing machine; then Jeremy and the golem roam the countryside, murdering folks (well, the golem does the murdering); then Katrina’s coven catch up with them both, throw the golem into Purgatory, and stop Jeremy’s heart. There are half a dozen potential full-length episodes that get burned through over the course of roughly 20 minutes. It makes those scenes with Irving stand out all the more, because that was time that could’ve been used to give us any sense of Jeremy beyond "victim." Sleepy Hollow’s commitment to powering through its delightfully ludicrous mythology often works in its favor, creating the kind of rush that only usually comes from a post-Halloween sugar high, but every so often, it pushes too hard, and opportunities are wasted.
Thankfully, the show can still come through where it counts. Ichabod’s regret over the son he never had a chance to know could’ve come across as forced (in that he’s caring about a character we have no investment in) or trite, but Mison gives it soul, and the script’s commitment to seeing the beat through to the end helps it rise about cliche. John Noble proves useful here as well. Fans of Fringe already know of the lengths Noble’s Walter Bishop went to in order to protect his own offspring, with disastrous consequences, but even if you’ve never seen that show, Noble and Mison’s conversations about regret are affecting and sincere.
It all builds to a final confrontation with the golem that takes a turn for the unexpectedly moving, as Ichabod first attempts to reason with the creature, and then holds its hand and comforts it while it dies. As frenetic as the episode so often was, it managed to drive home a crucial point, and one that will surely remain relevant to the character for as long as the show remains on the air: Ichabod has been royally screwed by fate, whether he believes in it or not, and fighting the darkness that threatens the world means finding some way to make peace with all that he’s lost. It’s not the most upbeat Christmas message to close the year out on, but it’s an honest one, at least.
- The script makes some effort to flesh out Parrish’s character—he’s very particular about train schedules, has a dad in a nursing home, loves crossword puzzles. It’s all very self-conscious at this point, but Noble sells it well enough, and the idea that he’ll be visiting Ichabod and Abbie in the future for more adventures is just delightful.
- The coven was cool! And now they are all dead.
- Things Of Which Ichabod Does Not Approve This Week: Not a fan of Christmas trees; isn’t big on funhouse mirrors. (“When did irony become a national pastime?”)
- “Cancer. Such a perfect word for it.” - Parrish
- So Jeremy had magic fire powers, but that never came up again? You don’t just through a fire-starter out there and then forget about it.
- Maybe the most perfect summation of this show I can think of: The final scene has Abbie giving Ichabod a stocking with his name on it for Christmas (“You embroidered my name on some oversize hosiery. How odd.”), then Ichabod has a chat with Moloch and learns Moloch has designs on Abbie’s soul—and Ichabod is going to bring her to him. Basically, it’s heartwarming followed immediately by soul-chilling, and there is no tonal whiplash at all. January can’t come soon enough.