It’s hard to regard Sleepy Hollow’s second season as anything other than a disappointment. While it never crossed the threshold into being a bad show, what was once the most loopy and good-humored offering on broadcast television transformed into something that was frequently a chore to watch. There was no major single flaw in the series, but multiple bad decisions that were allowed to fester and detract from the things the show did well. Irving’s constantly wavering allegiances and relevance, the introduction of a character no one particularly liked in Hawley, a Moloch plan that lacked the complexity of earlier efforts, and pushing Katrina down a flight of misguided plots—all of these gave the feeling that Sleepy Hollow no longer had a steady hand behind the wheel, and raised doubts that it could be what it was.
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.
It’s interesting that “Kali Yuga” is an episode that centers so heavily on Nick Hawley and Frank Irving, because those two characters are indicative of the attention deficit disorder Sleepy Hollow has with its supporting cast. Hawley, brought in to add roguish flair and romantic interest to the show, has since drifted to the point that even the showrunner admitted they threw out their original conception of the character. And Irving, after going from an implied villain in the pilot, has been shuffled from ally to asylum to afterlife so much that it’s become wearing when the show has to give him screen time. “Kali Yuga” tries hard to give both of these characters a bit of shading, but unfortunately the fact that it tries to do both means the thinness continues to persist.
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.”
“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.
For months now, Sleepy Hollow has struggled to regain the magic of its first season. Episodes throughout season two have been entertaining, but they’ve lacked the punch of the best of season one. The series has been too focused on Abraham, the potential redemption of Jeremy, and Hawley (the Manufactured Mills Sister Love Triangle Instigator), and moved away from what it worked so hard to establish in season one, the bond (platonic or otherwise) between Abbie and Ichabod and the recovering relationship of Abbie and Jenny. Moving Ichabod and Katrina’s marriage from epic fairy tale romance to occasionally struggling, realistic partnership has worked well, but keeping Jenny MIA and trying to force a connection between Abbie and poorly written Han Solo knockoff Hawley has not.
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.
One of the most interesting choices the Sleepy Hollow creative team made early in the show’s life was to make Ichabod Crane a faithfully married man. While lesser shows would keep him single for the purposes of unresolved sexual tension, Ichabod is entirely devoted to his wife Katrina and wouldn’t even consider looking at another woman. It was a decision that paid dividends early on, both in convincing the audience how principled of a man he was and allowing the partnership between him and Abbie to take on deeper meaning. (True, the Ichabbie hordes continue to grow, but their partnership remains interesting enough to transcend basic shipping.)
After the events of “The Midnight Ride” where Ichabod (Tom Mison), Abbie (Nicole Beharie), and Captain Irving (Orlando Jones) capture and neutralize the Headless Horseman, it seems his threat is over for a while. This isn’t the case as the Horseman’s probing reveal Ichabod’s deepest fears and yet another dark secret from his past. “Necromancer” also explores the idea of free will vs. destiny using the undead cop Andy Brooks (John Cho) and Ichabod’s wife Katrina (Katia Winter) as case studies. Writers Mark Hoffman and Phillip Iscove use both Ichabod and the Horseman’s past to create conflict in this episode while also giving it real thematic resonance. There is also a nice B-plot involving Jenny Mills (Lyndie Greenwood) and Irving as they work together to prevent the Hessians from rescuing the Headless Horseman. Even though it isn’t as humorous as previous episodes, “Necromancer” has a tight plot with only one possible hole in it near the end as well as strong character and thematic development.
Sleepy Hollow’s biggest strength as a show is taking risks, and it takes some pretty big ones in this episode which change the outlook of the show from here on out. “The Midnight Ride” has a fast moving plot that weaves in elements from both the past and present to create a compelling clash between Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and the Horseman of Death (Richard Cetrone). At times, the characters feel like ciphers in the workings of the story, but Heather Regnier injects plenty of humor into Ichabod’s dialogue and starts to make Sleepy Hollow policemen Frank Irving (Orlando Jones) and Luke Morales (Nicholas Gonzalez) more three dimensional presences on the show. This character growth and the chemistry between Ichabod and Abbie (Nicole Beharie) along with their shared struggles adds humanity to an episode that can sometimes resemble the television equivalent of an object retrieval quest.
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).