Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sleepy Hollow: Mama

I said last week that I'd review this episode for the sake of the Mills girls, but given that the promo for next week announced it as the fall finale, I guess I'll hang in there for that one as well. This show has been skating on thin ice for a while now, but Mama helped raise the calibre a tad.

It's the long-awaited Mama Mills episode, in which light is finally shone on Abbie and Jenny's mysterious mother. It's been established in a previous episode that she committed suicide, but as far back as season one the audience knew that there was something pertinent to be discovered concerning Lori Mills's fate.

Horror and madness have always been bedfellows, no doubt born out of several thousand years of undiagnosed mental illnesses being interpreted as demonic possession. Gothic literature rests on the thin line between insanity and unexplained phenomena, and the Bedlam House is a staple part of any long-running supernaturally-themed TV show. Heck, I'm currently re-watching Penny Dreadful and an entire episode is devoted to a character's stint in a madhouse as she struggles with her very real brush with the demonic.

One thing is for certain: there is no such thing as mental illness in the horror genre. It is always the work of demons. That crazy lady whispering about monsters and dangers and ensuing death? BELIEVE HER.

So it's no surprise that Tarrytown Psychiatric has been a recurring location in Sleepy Hollow, and in this episode Sheriff Reyes puts Abbie in charge of an investigation into a string of suicides at the facility.

Abbie enlists Jenny, which is great. After all, her sister spent several years there. Unfortunately, Ichabod is put on comic-relief duty by wandering in and out of frame with a terrible head-cold. Which means that instead of replacing Jenny, you-know-who is called in to replace Ichabod. Why make Hawley a witness (no pun intended) to the sisters' trauma instead of the co-lead that has deeply established ties with both of them? No idea. Hawley is like fetch. Stop trying to make fetch happen, writers.

As it happens, Lori Mills killed herself in this hospital, and it doesn't take too much digging for the sisters to discover her presence on one of the security videos, apparently goading one a patient into hanging himself.

So the question that lies at the heart of this episode is: what's really going on here? Jenny is considerably more unsettled by the reappearance of their mother's spirit than Abbie is, and flashbacks soon demonstrate why. Growing up with her was a fraught experience in which the girls were ordered to repeat a mantra: "eyes open, head up, trust no one," which in turn explains so much about their current-day attitudes. Abbie took her mother's words to heart and lied about the incident in the woods; Jenny reached out for help by telling the truth and got thrown in Tarrytown Psychiatric as a result.  

Ironically, the fact that Abbie fully believed her mother's words about not trusting anyone means that she later got to be pleasantly surprised by the presence of people in her life that she can trust. On the other hand, Jenny got burned by trusting, and has a much more standoffish personality as a result.

Furthermore, Abbie grew up honestly believing that her mother was suffering from a mental illness and living in terror that she too would be thrown in the psychiatric ward. Jenny believed that her mother was being tormented by very-real demons and tried to share that truth with others. And all this informs their behaviour when Lori's spirit reappears: Abbie is eager and curious; Jenny is point-blank terrified.

Of course, we also learn that the last time Jenny saw her mother she was being dragged away by orderlies and that she's got a suppressed memory of Lori trying to kill them both in the car. So between Abbie's commitment to the greater good and Jenny's awareness of a side to Lori that even Abbie isn't fully cognisant of, both sisters quickly come to the conclusion that if Lori is behind these suicides, she needs to be stopped.

Taking notes, Ichabod?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she isn't responsible for the deaths, but is in fact trying to help. Instead the Villain of the Week is a fairly superficial and obviously red-flagged nurse who hovers conspicuously on the edges of the story before being identified as a long-dead "angel of death" who would goad her patients into killing themselves out of a misguided sense of mercy. Lori Mills appears to guide her daughters toward yet another MacGuffin that will banish the ghost/spirit/demon/whatever. In this case it's a journal of spells that's been passed down from generation to generation – you know the drill.

Jenny reads the incantation and Nurse Lambert is duly destroyed just before she completes her usual methods of persuasion on Abbie. It's...rather perfunctory. Honestly, was hoping that this would end up being a pivotal episode in regards to the show's underlying mythology, and though I'm happy that the Mills sisters' got some long-overdue focus, it still feels like a standalone episode.

Questions remain about how much Lori actually knew about Abbie's role as a Witness and what exactly the demons were attempting to make her do (the scene with her and Jenny in the car was perhaps the most harrowing sequence of the episode – but how much was that Lori's plan and how much was it the demons whispering in her ear?)

So it's best to focus on what Mama reveals about Abbie and Jenny; their strengths and weaknesses, and their give and take with each other. Jenny for example, can barely bring herself to watch the recording of her mother's session, and yet in other ways she's the stronger of the two. I suspect that Nurse Lambert targeted Abbie as her victim was because Jenny has already faced down so many demons that she would be impervious to persuasion.

After all, Abbie coped in her adult life because she didn't believe in the supernatural. All this is still new to her, which in turn makes her more vulnerable.

But of course, the sisters come out on top, with a bonus séance to say goodbye to their mother properly. The scene in which they tear down the wall together (symbolism!) to reveal the pictures their mother had drawn of them was beautiful, and I'm glad the director devoted so much time to it.


Meanwhile, over in OH WHO CARES ville, Henry introduces Katrina to a newborn baby that he apparently just ... found ... somewhere? Seriously, he pretty much says: "What, this baby? Oh, I just found him and brought him here. For reasons." Super-spy Katrina is tricked into holding him, and he chows down on her shoulder (???) which later tips her off as to its demonic nature. She comes up with a potion of some kind (I thought Fredericks Manor was spelled to prevent her from doing magic) only to find that the newborn is now a seven year old.

In theory, there's plenty of potential to be mined in a story involving a mother attempting to draw her twisted adult son back to the side of good, but everything to do with Henry/Katrina isn't a plot born out of the characters, but a plot that involves the characters doing whatever's required of them.

And then, in what I'm going to pretend was the final scene because it was so much better than what was actually the final scene, Irving literally busts himself out of his terrible subplot (and the woods) to stash himself in the boot of Abbie's car. It's awesome.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Despite the subject matter, there were still a few glitches here and there. The cold opening, which ends with Abbie and Jenny seeing their mother's image on the security tape, felt too casual and quick. They needed more than a jump-cut to the opening credits to really absorb that moment.

The fact that Abbie has been dreaming of Purgatory for a week, wandering around some ruins and being confronted by her mother, makes me wish for the umpteenth time that the season premiere had paced itself and allowed for more of Abbie's experiences in Purgatory. If this interaction with Lori Mills had happened in "real time", there would have been more of a satisfying build-up to this episode.  

This show used to be quite good at adding bits of realism to weigh down the supernatural hijinks – and so it was all the more grating that there appeared to be no added security measures taken at the hospital after a string of suicides. Come on!

Anyone else find it odd that in a story involving a villain forcing her victims to swallow psychotropic drugs, there was a joke based on Hawley spiking Ichabod's food to make him sleep? I'm not sure how self-aware this was, or what we're meant to take from it.


Odd that Jenny didn't recognise – or rather, not recognise – Nurse Lambert. Perhaps she just assumed she was a new staff member.

A nice bit of continuity concerning Katrina still being a point of contention between the two Witnesses. Ichabod immediately got shirty when Abbie questioned her.

It was a shame that the set designers didn't think to put that old doll house in the flashback with the Mills sisters as little girls. I was actually peering over their shoulders, looking for it.
In all, a pretty good episode, though it doesn't feel as integral as I had hoped it would be. There was a lot of dark stuff here (suicide, drug abuse, the ambiguous relationship between medication and demonic forces), but also plenty of juicy backstory to unpack in regards to Jenny's devotion to the truth and Abbie's until-recent emotional walls. There was also a subtle commentary on the difference between giving up and fighting on – that is, one does not necessarily negate the other.  


  1. I think that this is the most pro-active we've ever seen Katrina, even if when she went to use the potion the baby had aged! Perhaps she is better off when left to her own devices.
    I do agree that this episode should have more important than it ended up being, we've known that Lori was tormented by demons for a long time, and that the daughters encounter with Moloch had something to do with it.
    I can't help but feel that perhaps there is pressure from the executive producers, or studio execs to change the direction, introduce new characters and make them important (Hawley felt really shoe-horned in this episode, he really didn't do much) and make more of Katrina, less of Jenny and Irving - and just try to drag things out for as long as possible.
    I wondered how many mental institutions across the world as old wings full of equipment AND personal possessions just hanging around - scary but unlikely

    1. I definitely think that there's some meddling going on behind the scenes. I'm pretty sure I've read that there are some new writers involved, which may explain why Hawley is suddenly all over this show for no good reason, and why all the worst tropes are being utilized.