Sleepy Hollow, Ep. 2.13, “Pittura Infamante” paints a far more encouraging picture

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Sleepy Hollow, Season 2, Episode 13, “Pittura Infamante”
Written by Melissa Blake
Directed by John Leonetti
Airs Mondays at 9pm (ET) on Fox

Last weekend during the Fox executive session at the Television Critics Association press tour, Fox chairman and CEO Dana Waldron talked at length about their plans for the spring, which included thoughts on the direction of Sleepy Hollow. Waldron held off on announcing a season three renewal (even after handing them out to Empire, Gotham, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), but said they were “hopeful” and there were ongoing conversations with the creative team. Citing a “high level of difficulty” in balancing the show’s characterization and mythology, she said that the show was “a little overly serialized” and promised that there would be a shift to “something that feels a bit more episodic in nature… it’s all about calibrating the show, not making dramatic changes.”

It’s easy to be skeptical about these comments—and there were high levels of skepticism on Twitter following that announcement, given that the direction of the serialized narrative was more problematic than the fact that a narrative exists—but “Pittura Infamante” is a sign that it’s not time to give up all hope on the show. Easily one of the most memorable Sleepy Hollow episodes in recent history, it’s an episode that also deploys some smart character development and reinjects some of the Revolutionary War fanfic energy that has been lost in the apocalyptic doldrums of prior episodes. While it backpedals on some of the overarching narrative, it doesn’t abandon it either, and is an encouraging sign that whatever calibration is going on may not kill the show off just yet.

The biggest reason why “Pittura Infamante” is a success is that after some anemic episodes, the narrative has a sense of purpose. When Ichabod and Katrina decide to have a date night at the historical society in hopes of rediscovering their feelings for each other, the event turns into a murder mystery when an art restorer is found hanging from a chandelier with his throat cut. Melissa Blake’s script has a solid closed-door mystery vibe, made even more engaging by watching Ichabod and Katrina try to piece together the events, using tarot cards and study of anatomy to locate the historical parallels. The action feels less cluttered, a problem that’s plagued the show off and on this season.

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And their discovery of who’s behind the murder, evinced by the figure in a portrait turning his head to face the two, is just the beginning of the best horror deployment Sleepy Hollow has experienced in ages. Director John Leonetti keeps things paced somewhere between slasher film and psychological horror, alternating between such moments as the portrait gradually taking on a more sanguine aesthetic or the artist within stalking through the historical society halls blade in hand. The painting itself is deeply unsettling in its shifts—evoking “the frozen moment of a nightmare” Rod Serling spoke of in the introduction to Night Gallery—and its use as a portal between worlds is masterfully animated, be it either sucking people in or shifting to the hellscape of the artist’s mind.

More encouragingly, this is the best episode for Katrina in recent memory. Turns out that when she’s not pining after headless boyfriends or trying to save her demonically possessed son, she’s not a lost cause of a character. Katia Winter is much better with material where Katrina is either happily remembering her friendship with Abigail Adams back in colonial times, and subsequently uncertain bordering on afraid when she realizes that she can never go back to those times. It mirrors Ichabod’s own uncertainty back in “Paradise Lost,” and works similarly well to add additional shading to a character who hasn’t had much reason or excuse to engage with the world of the show.

Much as Katrina can be saved, so too it seems that after a few pessimistic episodes the Crane marriage may not be beyond salvation. Although Abbie comes in to save the day—and does so in excellent fashion, guns blazing with sanctified platinum bullets—there’s no question that Ichabod and Katrina were the keys to solving the mystery, and they managed to do so without reopening a series of old wounds even when memories of their time were all around them. There’s a bit of awkwardness as Ichabod stumbles around his experiences with Betsy Ross and a bit of sexual chemistry as Katrina deploys makeouts as a distraction, and it’s a relationship that’s not painful to spend time with, as it has been in recent weeks.

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More uncertain is the return of Frank Irving, now reappearing in the middle of the Sleepy Hollow police station to the shock of all, Abbie in particular. There’s a fair amount of clunkiness to this side narrative—particularly when Irving’s wife appears and they fast-forward through just how much Abbie has disclosed to him—and everyone feels determined to emphasize that this new version of Irving can’t be trusted. (While at the same time emphasizing how much of a good man Irving was, in the episode’s worst dialogue.) Again, after the show spent half the season not knowing what to do with the character, it feels as if keeping him dead for a few weeks wasn’t the worst idea.

The reveal at the end of the episode that new evidence has come up to exonerate Irving is another worringly abrupt twist, but hopefully it’s one that the show won’t spend too much time on before getting to the next dark plot. Sleepy Hollow’s categorization as enjoyably insane—and sadly deserved reputation for narrative aimlessness this year—can obscure the fact that the show can be scary as hell when it wants to be, and “Pittura Infamante” is a welcome reminder of that fact.

Other thoughts:

    • This Week In Ominous John Noble Arts And Crafts: Still no sign of Henry this week, but the painting is unsettling enough that it makes up the difference.
    • This Week In Ichabod Hates Ben Franklin: Ichabod is forbidden from “name-dropping the Founding Fathers” at the party, but it’s a safe bet he’d have some things to say about Franklin’s taste in art if Abbie hadn’t placed a moratorium.
    • Fittingly for a plot where the killer opens his victims’ throats to drain them of blood, Sleepy Hollow welcomed its first Buffy The Vampire Slayer alum this week with Michelle Trachtenberg playing Abigail Adams. It’s a fairly low-key debut, but given the connection Katrina and Abigail share there’s hope for future installments to give her more to do. (And any mention of Trachtenberg is a good excuse to link to this excellent column from This Was Television, written by Sabienna Bowman in defense of Dawn Summers.)
    • Jenny has a fun scene where she has to dig up a demon corpse and retrieve the sanctified bullets, all the while describing the gross process to her sister via cell phone. “Hawley said the bulles were buried with the guy, not in him!”
    • Between Mr. Hollister here and Caroline from “The Weeping Lady,” being a friend to Ichabod Crane is starting to seem like a dangerous proposition.
    • Ichabod’s knowledge of the tarot takes Katrina by surprise, and his answer is excellent. “Someone left a deck in our parlor one summer. I assumed it was for recreation.”
    • “How can one be both business and casual?”
    • “If we have to put a dead man back in the grave, that’s what we do.”
    • “You better text me next time you decide to jump into a painting.”
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