Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sleepy Hollow: The Akeda

Well, we made it. Sleepy Hollow is on hiatus.

It's been a pretty rocky road, especially when compared to the smooth sailing of season one. It's easy to say that any first season of a new show has the advantages of innovation and novelty to recommend it (Once Upon a Time and Heroes spring to mind), but more often than not a show improves as it goes on, usually peaking in the third or fourth season (after which the writers run out of ideas).

So it's difficult to explain what's happened to Sleepy Hollow. All that seems to be agreed on was that something went wrong. Some mistakes are obvious: too much filler, an emphasis on the wrong characters, and a waning sense of the stakes. Too much of what's happened feels rote (cold openings in which Ichabod appears to be talking about something important when it's just trivia, Katrina's endless string of failures, boring MacGuffins being pulled out of thin air) or like it's occurring in a holding pen.

But I think a lot of what's changed – and not for the better – is the show's tone. It's difficult to pin down exactly, but there was just something about the atmosphere in season one that's been missing here. The very best ghost stories know that what you don't see is much more frightening than any ghoul or hag, and so the show was filled with headless horseman, veiled witches, faceless demons, and a Big Bad that only appeared briefly and murkily in mirrors and other reflections. One of the most dangerous villains was hiding in plain sight the whole time, his nondescript appearance making it all the more horrifying when he revealed his true colours.

There was also a great stylistic quality that (as I said at the time) reminded me of Pan's Labyrinth. Although the show was partly based on American history and Christian-based lore, there was also a sense of the macabre, of the grotesque, of the Gothic. It was in the curled horns and staggering walk of Moloch, the mists over Pocantico River, the spectral sight of the four white trees, the dark spaces of the police office and the psychiatric ward and the historical monuments, the sharpened teeth and synchronized voices of the Four Who Speak As One, the brief and disturbing glimpses of Purgatory...

There was a captivating aesthetic here that I think has been severely underestimated when considering the initial appeal of Sleepy Hollow, from the eerie forests and lakes surrounding the township, to the subversive detail of the colour white being an indicator of evil (the pale horse, the four white trees, the mouthless sandman – even the white dress of the little girl who lures Thomas out of Roanoke). Evil wasn't in-your-face, it was cunning and subtle and oddly beautiful – except when it was hilariously awesome like the Headless Horseman toting a machine gun or Andy Brooks getting changed into a giant bug.

And of course, the season's overarching plot. Most viewers know what a Myth Arc is, and they know to watch out for clues and foreshadowing strewn throughout the episodes in the lead-up to the finale. During The Sin Eater, for example, it was pretty obvious that some of the elements of Abbie's dream – the creepy doll, the veiled women – would have added significance later. And so they did. By the time the finale rolled around, we were all expecting some sort of massive revelation – and yet when it came, it was a genuine surprise. The writers knew all the tropes and tricks of the genre and spun them out expertly to make a slightly convoluted but mostly rewarding thirteen-episode story arc.

And then we come to season two.

The spooky atmosphere has been replaced with standard Monster of the Week stories, creatures which are usually defeated with random MacGuffins instead of teamwork and intelligence. As such, the show often feels like a half-baked action flick rather than a supernatural procedural with a focus on characterization and an underlying arc. Continuity now exists as a sort of pass-the-parcel game between episodes, as one plot-point arbitrarily slots into another (the bone flute is used to curse Corbin who is forced to hand over the poison which is used to impregnate Katrina). It's not bad, just uncreative.

And of course, much of the dialogue is painfully obtuse exposition. Example from this episode: "The binding ritual! He's going to make Katrina his bride!" Ouch.

So let's tackle this finale...

The Emo Apocalypse is in full swing, and a bolt of lightning stops Abbie's car, forcing the Witnesses to steal a motorbike from the local garage in a sequence that reminded me of The Great Muppet Caper when Miss Piggy is racing to the Mallory Gallery to stop the jewel thieves and a motorbike just falls out the back of a passing truck and she turns to break the fourth wall by chirping: "what a truly unbelievable coincidence!"

It's really not the connotation you want to be making when the End of Days is nigh.

They reach Fredericks Manor and because someone worked really hard on that diorama of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod and Abbie manage to make a pentagram over it with some red wool that tells them – something, something, it doesn't really matter.

Just then Katrina's cries for help (what else?) break the complete and total silence of the place, and the two rush out to find she's about to get her head cut off. Seriously? Abraham managed to drag her outside and tie her up with chains and light a fire and prepare his axe – without a sound?

Yeah, I know it feels like nitpicking, but this is the sort of thing that leeches the integrity of the story. It doesn't feel like something that would have happened in the first season, and it defies belief that Ichabod and Abbie wouldn't have heard a ruckus outside.

What makes this fight amusing is that by the show's timeline
they were doing this no more than half an hour ago.

It's then they learn that the Sword of Methusalah has a catch – no one can use it to take a life without it taking their life and soul in return. Yeah, it's the usual "everything has a price" deal that appears in folklore all across the world, but at this point it just feels like an annoying stumbling block. I mean geez, the forces of goodness and the assorted tools that are meant to be helping our two Witnesses are mostly just a pain in the ass, right?

Luckily Jenny comes up with a potential loophole. If using the sword costs the wielder their soul, then all they need is to is find someone without a soul.

Obviously, they need to track down the Kindred. It doesn't have a soul, it's totally loyal to the Witnesses, and it hasn't been seen since episode two, making it a perfect example of a Chekhov's Gunman.

Oh wait – she's actually talking about Irving. Sure, let's go with that.

And as ever, we bring all proceedings to a halt for Katrina-related drama. The sad thing is that the audience is so used to watching her fail that even when she is effective, it still doesn't feel like that big a deal. Here she secured Abraham's chains, enchanted the weaponry, used magic to halt an undead soldier, and disguised the sword, but the fact that she couldn't staunch the blood from Irving's wound is what she'll be remembered for.

The even sadder thing is that Katrina actually HAS done a lot of interesting things ... off-screen. She preserved Ichabod's life despite the Freemasons and her coven demanding that she let him die in order to prevent the Headless Horseman from rising. She was a witch/nurse/spy/Quaker during the Revolution and apparently knew a lot about Ichabod's unfolding destiny well before he did, raising questions about where she came from and how she got involved in this conflict. While in Purgatory, she communicated with the Witnesses by sneaking into Moloch's cave and using his own mirror to contact the outside world.

But the show continues to focus on banal things like "is she playing Abraham or is she genuine about her feelings for him?" By this point, I just don't care.

Also residing in my "don't care" pile is Hawley, who thankfully gets a limited role in this episode: he provides the ammunition and babysits Headless. Whew, that was relatively painless.

So now we get to the big fight, which is really just a handful of extras cosplaying as zombies while the good guys run in and out of a church that is just kind of there. Highlights include Abbie getting shot almost immediately, Katrina carrying a katana and never using it, Jenny getting to fire a single bullet that does nothing, and Henry and Irving skirting around the edges of a Monty Python skit (you know the one).

And why the hell didn't these guys raid police headquarters for some bullet proof vests?

Irving takes out the Horseman of War in a pretty awesome sequence that ends with Henry oozing lava out of his suit of armour, only for Irving to succumb to his wounds.

Fandom is currently infuriated and outraged, but I'm not going to panic just yet. I find it difficult to believe that the writers are that moronic as to kill off Orlando Jones, and there are Moloch's words to Henry to consider: "there were Horsemen before you, there'll be Horsemen after." If Frank's soul belongs to Moloch and he's in need of a new Horseman of War, then I'm betting Frank will fit the bill.

But in the meantime, Henry gets sent after the Scoobies at the church, where they pull off a reasonably cool ambush (distractions, disguises, stirring speeches) before they're all dragged to the white trees for sacrifice.

And just as with last season, Henry serves as the pivot on which the final seconds of the episode turns. For the entirety of this episode, Moloch has just been setting fire to the trees and bad-mouthing his most loyal Horseman, which is about as heavy an anvil as you can get for what's to follow.

As it happens, various characters throughout this episode have been referencing the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, arguing for or against the relevance of the analogy as it pertains to Ichabod and Henry. Abbie is in the nay camp, pointing out that Isaac was an innocent child, Ichabod in the yay camp, telling Henry that they can use Moloch as "a ram" to allow him to live out a normal life.

They're both wrong. Brace yourself for Bible nerdery.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most misunderstood stories in the Old Testament. Contrary to most depictions of Isaac, he was NOT a young boy. He was a grown man, one who could have overpowered his extremely old father at any time.

More pertinently, God did not tell Abraham to kill Isaac as a test of his devotion (ie, "prove that you love God more than you love your son") as He had already told Abraham that Isaac would father a dynasty to carry on Abraham's bloodline.

By then asking Abraham to kill Isaac, God was testing Abraham to see if he had enough faith in the truth of His word that he was willing to do something that would seemingly make His promise impossible to fulfil.

So when Abraham prepared Isaac for sacrifice, it was in the belief that God would resurrect Isaac immediately afterwards. The test of faith was Abraham banking on a miracle, NOT God just messing with Abraham for kicks-and-giggles.

So it doesn't really fit the scenario that's going on here, and after all Ichabod and Katrina's talk about redeeming their son, it's Henry's anger at Moloch for throwing him under the bus rather than any residual love he might have for his parents that causes him to turn on Moloch and drive the sword through his stomach.

I love the look on Moloch's face here.

And then...that's it. Roll credits.

So what would I have done differently? The show needed to play to its strengths (the characters) without being afraid to shake things up in regards to the plot. I feel that the premiere should have been a two-parter that made Abbie's escape from Purgatory a real challenge (we still don't know how she got out of that giant doll house) and resulted in a real shift in the dynamics regarding dark forces seeping into the township of Sleepy Hollow.

See, the first season of Sleepy Hollow was – to a certain degree – about Sleepy Hollow. We saw the people that lived there and how they were affected by a sudden surge in the supernatural. It was grounded in a sense of the real world and of normal life continuing in the background of Ichabod and Abbie's adventures – why not stir the pot by having normal citizens start to wake up and take notice of the weirdness that was going on around them. We already met a doomsday cult in Vessel, why not elaborate on that?

What happened to Cynthia and Macey? Poor forgotten Luke Morales? The Hessians were conspicuously absent throughout all of this, as was the fourth Horseman of Famine and the "evil coven" that we heard about all the way back in episode two of the show but who have yet to turn up. With the exception of Sheriff Reyes (who only clocked in about three episodes) there was no real input from the police force when it came to dealing with the forces of hell encroaching on their community.

Season one sowed a lot of seeds that could have been harvested here, but which were generally ignored in favour of marital drama, one-shot monsters, and an apocalypse that seemed oddly humdrum.

Miscellaneous Observations:

"As Purgatory merges with the real world my power weakens." I groaned out loud.

Bless Nicole Beharie. She knew exactly what she was doing when she emphasized "first" in her line: "it'll be me [to wield the sword] FIRST."

For some reason Henry takes offense at Abraham not getting Katrina as he was promised. Since when has Henry cared about honour? Or about Abraham?

And also – where are the good guys in all of this? I mean, there are demons running amuck but where are the angelic forces to help even the score? I'm pretty sure Revelation had things to say about them, but so far the only the influence the Big Guy has had in this story is sending Abbie to the forest when she was a child to witness Henry's rising from the ground; something that she promptly forgot for the next ten years.

Oh, and remember what I said earlier about how I enjoyed the colour scheme of season one in which evilness was usually heralded by white? Well, consider this - in the first season Moloch was white:

Now he's...well, definitely not:


  1. You may have been thinking of The Muppets when watching this, but I was thinking of Good Omens (yes, I re-read it in time for the radio play) where the Four Horsemen were done SO much better.
    I'm about ready to jump off the good ship SH (I don't mean that kind of "ship" either) season one was fast, fun and it all worked wonderfully. It made good use of myths, did wonderful things with casting and the characters and their backstories where interesting
    Season Two? what a mess
    After reading the Huffington Post interview with the Executive Producers (if thats what he was - I can't remember now) I"m getting Capps and Murphy vibes, as in, What! No! This season was great, just look at Gwen, I mean Katrina, and all the awesome stuff she gets to do.
    It seems they know the audience reaction, but just don't care.

    1. I've no idea what the plan is for the broadcasting of the next few episodes, but I suspect I'll watch and not review. Which is a shame, the first season was great fun to dissect and write about.

      Gah. I hate it when this happens.

  2. "Gah. I hate it when this happens."
    Yes, I agree, and I meant to add, that it's made me quite worried that the second season of The Musketeers doesn't suffer the same fate.
    Be interesting to see what happens with the rest of the season, just browsing through Tumblr and some reviews there isn't a whole of support for the way the season has been.