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Sleepy Hollow, Ep. 2.11, “The Akeda” spills the blood of man and demon

Sleepy Hollow, Ep. 2.11, “The Akeda” spills the blood of man and demon

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Sleepy Hollow, Season 2, Episode 11, “The Akeda”
Written by Mark Goffman
Directed by Dwight Little
Airs Mondays at 9 pm (ET) on Fox

“The Akeda,” Sleepy Hollow’s midseason finale, is a prime example of how much of an up-and-down affair the show has been in its sophomore season. It’s full of things to love (apocalyptic images like red lightning and bloody hail, a good vs. evil fight rife with triumph and tragedy) and things to hate (the umpteenth short-sighted decision made by Katrina). It gives a character one last moment of glory, albeit one tainted by how it’s the most relevant thing they’ve done in recent memory. And while it builds excitement for the show’s return in 2015, that excitement is largely grounded in the degree to which the finale burns down the structure that’s dictated much of the season to date.

Given how unfocused much of the season has felt, it’s unsurprising that the successes of “The Akeda” are largely due to the increased focus that Moloch’s ascendance provides. There’s no case to investigate or monster to track down, this is Ichabod and Abbie preparing to fulfill their duty as Witnesses and dealing with the reality that one or both of them may not survive this battle. With various augurs of the apocalypse sweeping the city—ones that make you wonder just what the local weather reports look like in Sleepy Hollow—energy levels and passions are on high alert. It’s rewarding to see Ichabod and Abbie approach hostility as they argue who has the right to wield the sword, and it’s even more rewarding to see Ichabod finally voice his dormant frustrations to Katrina: “Sometimes I question the idea of our marriage!” While the buildup has faltered at times, in the moment, everything feels appropriate.

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That same buildup serves the episode well as the team musters, calling all its members to the field of battle. (Hawley is kept back as support, much better deployed by the show as a supplier of outlandish weapons like Blackbeard’s leviathan-slaying flintlocks and a samurai soul-storing katana.) One of this season’s greatest flaws has been the fracturing of the cast and tendency to forget certain members for weeks on end, so seeing them all assembled to take on Moloch’s historical-reenactment-meets-zombie-walk army is a delight. Heads are blown off, Katrina deploys useful magic for once, and an episode that previously felt like characters moving between enclosed sets takes on a sense of scale.

However, any weapons supplied by Hawley are secondary to the Sword of Methuselah from “Magnum Opus,” and the unexpected circumstances of its use. The writers finally find a way to use Irving’s claimed soul to their benefit by adding a fatal twist to the blade, meaning he’s the only one who can safely wield it. This move transforms the character in the best possible way, taking all the emotional torture heaped on him in 10 episodes and converting him into a warrior in the service of the light. His sneering confrontation with Abraham sees Orlando Jones at his most animated to date, and watching him hack limbs off the War avatar (All together now: “It’s just a flesh wound!”) is a wonderfully proactive action one would never have expected from the Make 7 Up Yours guy.

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And the enjoyment of the scene also makes its fatal outcome, a wound too deep for even Katrina’s magic to mend, all the more poignant. As mentioned in prior reviews, Irving is a character the show never knew what to do with, so killing him off here doesn’t fracture the narrative structure too badly. Indeed, he feels more valuable to the writers dead than alive, coaxing some beautiful emotional moments from the cast. Ichabod tearfully pays respect to a fallen comrade (“You’re a captain. You fight”), Abbie emits a wordless scream into the night, and the loss forces the survivors through five stages of grief in less than five minutes. Given that Clancy Brown and John Cho have proven death is never final on Sleepy Hollow, it’s highly likely Irving will return in some new form, but for the show to prove itself willing to kill one of its main characters is a vital step in its evolution.

It’s a good thing the battle with the War avatar is so well-executed, because the rest of the Horsemen falter early and often. A couple of weeks ago Salon’s Sonia Saraiya argued that one of the reasons Sleepy Hollow has experienced a sophomore slump is its apparent desire to humanize its villains, a tendency on full display here in “The Akeda.” While Ichabod’s early axe-shattering victory over Death is a thrilling change of pace, all of the Abraham stuff is a slog that further sabotages Katrina as a character—she begs for his life repeatedly on the basis of intelligence and then creates the exact wrong moment for Ichabod to walk in when she professes to still care for him. Characterizing the Headless Horseman as more than Death has paid off at certain points (particularly last week when Ichabod and Abraham sparred), but by this point it has worn out its welcome and serves only to force a wedge between the Cranes.

Similarly, Henry continues to suffer from the show’s efforts to force the familial bond between him and his parental unit. There’s a lot of time devoted to discussion of whether or not Ichabod or Katrina has the spine to kill Henry—Abbie continuing to serve as the audience’s voice of reason reminding us he’s a damn Horseman—all of which are irritatingly invalidated by the fact that Ichabod can’t and everyone’s taken prisoner over a discussion of Biblical legends. Once again, much of the material is redeemed only by the fact that Henry is played by John Noble, who can sneer and bark with the best of them yet still also sell moments like the look of betrayal on his face when Moloch sends him off as a delaying tactic.

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The latter development makes the final twist of the episode, Henry taking up his father’s sword and driving it through Moloch, all the easier to bear. What defines Henry as a character is not grief but spite, plain and simple: he resents Ichabod and Katrina for what he perceives as his abandonment and praises Moloch as his new father for rescuing him from same. For Moloch to cast him away and admit that Horsemen are replaceable is just another level of abandonment for Henry, a moment that creates a fresher wound than perceived betrayal on the part of his parents. Writer Mark Goffman smartly steers away from a moment of redemption where a father’s love wins out, allowing Sleepy Hollow to both avoid a hackneyed twist and keep Noble with one foot in the villain camp.

Once again, Sleepy Hollow leaves viewers on a cliffhanger, as “The Akeda” cuts to title screen on the red wash of hellfire energy coursing out of the impaled Moloch. With our heroes bound to the white trees and the walls between Earth and Purgatory melting away, they could find themselves back in the circumstances as bad as “Bad Blood”, or even worse. And that level of uncertainty is only a good thing for the show. Sleepy Hollow has still been more good than bad in its second season, but the propulsion that distinguished the first season has begun to stutter warningly. Hopefully when the show returns for its last seven episodes next year, it’ll learn its lesson and reconfigure back into the leaner, energetic lunacy viewers fell in love with in the first place.

Other thoughts:

  • This Week In Ominous John Noble Arts And Crafts: Ichabod expresses admiration for the detail of Henry’s model city, right before the horrifying (albeit painfully obvious) revelation of the pentagram map.
  • This Week In Ichabod Hates Ben Franklin: Sadly, Franklin is not represented in Hawley’s collection of weapons. One can only imagine Ichabod’s disbelieving reaction to a Franklin-designed lightning rod quarterstaff capable of Tesla-style electric blasts.
  • It is worth noting how good the visual effects continue to be for the show. While Moloch 2.0 doesn’t have the imposing bearing of the original version (and in fact looks more like the first draft of a Hannibal wendigo), effects from Henry’s vines to the immolation of the War shell to the hail of blood continue to grab the attention. The show very seldom looks cheap, which goes a long way to making it stand out.
  • Most disappointingly, the episode doesn’t produce a Marvel-style post-credits teaser of Hawley nonchalantly playing cards with Death for 15 seconds. That image alone would justify every minute spent on Hawley’s presence.
  • Moloch’s reveal that the title of Horseman is a mantle awarded to many adds a new and potentially exciting dimension to the show. Might another episode introduce a recurring baddie to take on the mantle? Might Irving’s vision in “Go Where I Send Thee…” augur his claimed soul’s own ascendance to the role of War? Could Conquest and Famine be far away? It’s an idea that could go a long way to addressing the thinning of villainous talent.
  • Ichabod’s true joy at being on a motorcycle (“I want one of these!”) is infectious. And also the germ of an idea for the oddest Sons Of Anarchy crossover fanfic ever.
  • “If ever there were justification to commandeer a vehicle, the apocalypse would be it.”
  • “I have been on borrowed time for far too long. I awoke in this strange time for no reason other than this moment. It ends now, with purpose.”
  • “War is hell. Or more accurately, we sent War back to hell.”

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