It’s difficult to pin down an episode like “Awakening,” because it’s an episode that keeps thwarting expectations. It keeps setting itself up for twists and then abandoning those twists in favor of new ones, offers up some fun alt-history that it offsets with bad characterization, and provides even more evidence of Sleepy Hollow fumbling in the dark yet snagging brilliance in said fumbling. “Awakening” almost needs two reviews, one for what happens in the first three-quarters of the episode and one for what happens in the last ten minutes, because while the first part is bog standard season two Sleepy Hollow the second could potentially be the show’s most inspired move all season.
The overarching Sleepy Hollow narrative has been treading water since the events of “The Akeda,” the show unable to find a hook in the wake of Moloch’s death. For the past few episodes events have gone through a series of monsters of the week, the characters as adrift as the writers as they spend their time asking some fairly meta questions about what their place in the world is. It hasn’t been a bad stretch of episodes—in fact, on balance the show’s felt more entertaining than it did in the first half of the season—but a sense of direction has been keenly missed. “Spellcaster” takes steps to remedy that deficit, setting things in motion for the final trio of season two episodes.
“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.
At a time when Sleepy Hollow is running the risk of losing its vital energy thanks to an excess of plots and characters, it’s important to remember the things everyone loved about the show in the first place. It captured the attention of viewers thanks to the ludicrous concept of a Headless Horseman wielding automatic weapons, and delivered that early and often. It moved past initial absurdity by capitalizing on the chemistry between its two leads and building a dynamic that everyone wanted to root for. And it managed to remain a consistently solid supernatural drama, deploying well-executed monsters and suspense.
When Sleepy Hollow expanded from 13 to 18 episodes for its second season, it was simultaneously encouraging for everyone who wanted more of the show and discouraging for those who appreciated the condensed insanity of season one. One of the arguments frequently hurled at broadcast shows is that with a full season order writers have much more room to fill, and with rare exceptions—The Good Wife being an arguable example—it’s hard to maintain high-energy storytelling for 22 to 24 episodes. There’s been a few flickers of that in recent weeks, but “Heartless” is the first episode to feel entirely like a wash for the season. And more problematically, by producing a slower installment of the show it leaves more time to think about the series’ workings, a risky process on a show as driven by lunacy as this.
After a string of episodes where Sleepy Hollow has run the risk of feeling too formulaic, “Deliverance” is a welcome breath of fresh air for the season. The show has always done a better job than it needs to of balancing episodic concerns with the broader arc, but “Deliverance” is the first time since the premiere that it’s been able to cede the entire running time to character arcs over cool monster design. It’s a well-constructed hour of the show, one that hits a lot of emotional beats and even draws close to the idea that it might excise one of its main cast before the midpoint of the season.
In the last few weeks, Sleepy Hollow has settled into what appears to be a fairly comfortable episodic groove. There’s a monster of the week that benefits from some truly exceptional character design, exchanges that are at times witty and emotional between our two leads, a few bits of American history warped to serve the writers’ purpose, and everything comes to a head with a well-executed action climax and a closing scene of John Noble doing something cryptically menacing. It’s a solid enough formula for the show, and it’s yielded a series of entertaining episodes following the dramatic escapes of Ichabod and Abbie in the premiere.
After a couple of weeks’ hiatus, Sleepy Hollow returns and opens with Abbie (Nicole Beharie) and Crane (Tom Mison) enjoying a baseball game. Abbie says she loves baseball because of its tradition, teamwork, and because it doesn’t discriminate. This scene is the foundation for the themes that Thomas, Kurtzman, and Goffman choose to develop in this episode. They choose to focus on Crane’s past and give a glimpse of the man he was before he became George Washington’s spy and met Katrina (Katia Winter).