The Gehenna Key that serves as much of the focus for “This Is War,” the first episode of the second season of Sleepy Hollow, is a classic MacGuffin. A narratively useful device that our heroes learn about at the precise moment when they need it the most, the key is introduced as an item with a history, despite our never having heard of it before; and that history includes Ichabod Crane’s apprenticeship with Benjamin Franklin, which also (although I could be wrong here) has never been mentioned before. The key opens a door to Purgatory and lets a soul leave without needing another soul to stay behind as an exchange. Since Abbie starts the episode stuck in Purgatory (after serving as the exchange person at the end of last season for Katrina), it’s pretty convenient for her and Ichabod to stumble across a new exit strategy. And really, they don’t “stumble across” anything. Moloch and Henry Parrish (a.k.a. The Horseman Of War, also Ichabod’s son, also John Noble in full Walternate mode), who need the key for their own fell purposes, lead them right to it. Ichabod needs a way to get Abbie out, the key presents itself, Ichabod uses the key, and then the key (which had earlier been described as indestructible) crumbles to dust, removing itself from the equation forever.
If that summary sounds like a criticism, it’s not. In another show, this brazen “Oh, we’re just making this shit up as we go” quality might be a detriment. Here, it is not. Watching “This Is War,” I found myself occasionally noting narrative leaps or contrived conveniences, but always with admiration. Sleepy Hollow has seen your plot nitpick videos, your “10 Things [TITLE] Gets Wrong About [WHO CARES]” articles, your IMDB goofs page, and it does not give a damn. The series serves as an excellent example of how cohesion is a relative term. If the narrative can make sense on its own terms—if events follow a recognizable logic, however, twisted or fever dream that logic might be—it can succeed. All it needs is momentum, a few clever ideas, and characters we care about.
All of those are in fine form in this episode, which picks up pretty much where last season’s finale left off. Ichabod has just been buried alive by his son, Katrina has been abducted by the Headless Horseman, Abbie is still stuck in Purgatory trying to stay away from Moloch, Jenny was in a car crash, and Frank Irving has been arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. As befits a good cliffhanger, none of our heroes were in a particularly good spot, and while three of those storylines are resolved in “This Is War,” things haven’t improved all that much. Katrina is still being held captive by the demonic figure of a man who once loved her, and Frank, well, who knows where the hell Frank is.
It’s a smart way to start a season: controlled and chaotic all at once. The biggest surprise is, at least so far, how much this all still feels a part of season one. We don’t meet any new villains, and only one new hero. If you dig a little, it’s possible to see the show’s familiar structure in place: A new week means a new mythological thingy to track down, a vitally important thingy which just so happens to have some connection to Ichabod’s Revolutionary War-era past. An immediate, clear goal is established: Track down the thingy to stop the forces of evil from getting it first, and use it to save someone before it’s gone forever. It’s a smart way to do serialization—the larger story (Moloch and Henry) remains unresolved, but there’s a sense of satisfaction at seeing more immediate problems taken care of. The fact that Ichabod is able to rescue Abbie with the key both closes off her storyline from last season and makes us feel like this episode wasn’t just a lot of stalling; plus, the fact that Moloch was planning to use the key to release an army of demons into Sleepy Hollow means that saving Abbie wasn’t the only immediate crisis.
As ever, though, it’s the smaller touches that make this show such a pleasure to watch. Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison’s buddy chemistry remains top notch, and even knowing there was no way this hour would end with them separated, it was still delightful to see them reunited once more. The discovery that Benjamin Franklin (Timothy Busfield) hid the Gehenna Key was a great chance for Ichabod to throw shade at a historical figure, and the few flashbacks are the usual blend of snark and National Treasure-style exposition. And the show still looks great: The effects of traveling to Purgatory are gorgeous, Moloch is creepy as hell, and that suit of armor pulled out of the wall at the end… well. It’s keen, is what I’m getting at here.
Even beyond this, the script is that blend of goofy (let’s make up some more random mythological shit to throw in!) and sharp that I’m coming to think of as the series’ greatest creative strength. (Well, in addition to Beharie and Mison.) Early in the hour, I noted how happy I was to hear Ichabod saying “Leftenant” again—a character trait which, it also turned out, ended up being an important plot point when a demon later tried to trick Abbie by taking Ichabod’s form. And even as I was making a note that there was maybe a little too much triumphant hugging, it turned out that this was setting up for one big duplicitous hug—again, from that demon that took on Ichabod’s form. These are small notes, but they’re impressive because they demonstrate a creative team that’s aware of itself enough to use its own tropes without needing to deconstruct them or parody them.
If “This Is War” has a flaw, it’s that it’s more like throat-clearing than a jump into a new storyline. This isn’t a concern; in fact, it’s impressive how deftly the episode manages to get everything back up to speed. Sleepy Hollow’s first season was such an unexpected mix of foolishness and craft that it’s only sensible to be concerned that season two will be able to maintain that balance. So far, at least, there is absolutely no cause for concern.
- The “wait, did we jump time or is this a hallucination” trick is old hat for genre shows by now, but I’d say this episode handles it well; well enough, anyway, that I spent five minutes or so being disoriented and wondering if I’d started the wrong screener first.
- Modern Things Of Which Ichabod Does Not Approve This Week: “Celebrating terror with dessert,” the short battery life of smart phones. (“And none of that recorded, beautiful.”)
- A little shirtless Headless Horseman action for anyone with a very creepy fetish out there.
- Ichabod on Ichabod fight!
- And we got a fist bump. Very happy to have this show back on my TV.