“Sleepy Hollow” Review: “Heartless” and season two as a whole

Last year, I put “Sleepy Hollow” on my year-end Best Of 2013 list.  And I stand by it. (Mostly because such arbitrary lists are snapshots in time and therefore immune to retroactive analysis, but still!) It was a bonkers show in the best way, owning up to its own silliness but also giving us two central characters in Ichabod Crane/Abbie Mills with such charm and chemistry that they sold the entire endeavor. A combination of monster-of-the-week procedural, alternate history hypotheses, and a disarming amount of humor, “Sleepy Hollow” was the best surprise of last year’s crop of shows.

The show aired its final season one episodes soon after that list went up, and then went silent for nearly ten months. The thirteen-episode inaugural season put the pedal to the narrative medal, and while that’s a commendable choice, it’s not one that necessarily guarantees actual success. But all the pieces fell into place, especially with its final reveal that John Noble’s sin-eater was in fact the son of Ichabod and Ichabod’s purgatory-inhabiting wife Katrina. It made no sense, but it gave the show another much-needed dose of emotional realism. Rather than make this apocalyptic tale about the end of the world, this choice made “Sleepy Hollow” a tale about a fractured family trying to put the pieces back together under enormously strained circumstances. Perfect. All the elements were there for the show to take The Leap in season two.

So why has season two been such a slog?

Part of the problem possibly stems from the series’ extended episode order from 13 to 18. When initially announced, I worried that might dilute the product (an offensive way to talk about something as creative as television, but apt all the same). There’s no inherent mathematical formula that states “quality of television is proportional to number of episodes,” but the sheer mechanism of episodic television dictates that there will always be more filler when there are more episodes to fill. I wrote about this a few years ago, and it’s not just me that agrees with this assessment: Those creating television agree as well. The need for new content will always clash with the creative individuals making that content. That’s not to suggest that commerce always smothers art. But something like “The Good Wife” is the exception that proves the rule: When you have to make more episodes, it’s more likely that a number of episodes will suck.

208sh_ep208heartlessscn37_6050_f_hires2.jpgBut I’m not convinced my initial fear is THE reason “Sleepy Hollow” has suffered this season. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which the established season two narrative pattern (Henry creates an obstacle for Ichabod/Abbie/Katrina to vanquish, only to reveal that victory instead enabled the next part of Moloch’s plan to unfold) would be any different at 13 episodes versus 18. But that premise, while a plot generator, isn’t necessarily a story generator. As such, the show spends a LOT of time this season with characters repeating the plot to one another and reiterating the emotional stakes at play. Episodes are no longer self-contained pieces of entertainment but rather a rung on the season-long ladder to get to an established endpoint. To be fair, one can look back at season one and see them building up the Henry Parrish reveal in retrospect. But few were looking towards the end at the time since the present was so damn entertaining. This season, most of the eight episodes to date have felt like stalling techniques rather than stories that needed to be told.

With all that said, tonight’s episode “Heartless” did feel like something akin to a season one episode for the first time in weeks. The succubus monster isn’t original, and yes she was part of step 456 of Moloch’s Magnificently Convoluted Plan, but at least this creature was tied into the Ichabod/Abbie/Katrina dynamic that I’m sure has frustrated more than a few Crane/Mills ‘shippers. While I agree that Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie have more chemistry than Mison and Katia Winter, I would also argue that putting Crane and Mills together would be a mistake. Much like Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson, Ichabod and Abbie have a deep, but platonic, love for one another. So I have no inherent problem with Katrina’s presence, except insomuch as it’s simply far more fun to watch Ichabod and Abbie banter than Ichabod and Katrina moon over the other.

That will apparently no longer be a problem, as Katrina is now back at Casa Evil with Henry, Abraham, and Baby Demon Moloch. But the most important thing “Heartless” did was have Ichabod admit in-show that he’s basically spent most of this season mansplaining things to his wife rather than trust her judgment and courage. That turns Katrina from the passive, demon-incubating wimp from last week into a more proactive figure for whom we can root. It’s entirely possible that seeing her “baby” will strip out that newly-acquired aspect, and if so, shame on me for praising this turnaround now. But rather than having their separation be something that will constantly weigh on Ichabod, it can now be something that’s narratively connected even while the characters are in separate worlds.

Honestly? “Sleepy Hollow” has been perfectly fine for the most part this season. But simply being “fine” isn’t nearly enough for a show that aims for the insanity it purports to put out into the television world. On the surface, all the basic elements are still intact, and you could make the case its weaker elements have always been present. The new character Nick Hawley is something of a drip, but he’s not a show-killer. It makes all the intellectual sense in the world to introduce a character like Nick into the mix as both a foil for Ichabod and potential love-interest for Abbie. But onscreen, it just seems like a device to keep two characters apart rather than a natural evolution of this show’s world. But Nick is symptomatic of all shows trying to mine more ideas after blowing through all the best ones in season one: Rather than go deeper, “Sleepy Hollow” has gone broader.

That sounds like I’m condemning shows that don’t hold back narrative only to preemptively empty the tank. That would indeed be incredibly hypocritical of me. But shows that sprint out of the starting gates need not necessarily run out of gas halfway through the race. Nick Hawley wasn’t an inevitability. He was the improper solution to a problem the show felt it had to solve. That problem? The surprising desire for a large portion of its audience to dismiss the “acceptable” romantic pairing of Ichabod/Katrina in favor of Ichabod/Abbie. To be sure, I call it “surprising” from the point of view of those creating the show, since it seems to have caught them completely off-guard. By baking in this eternal, dimension-spanning romance between Ichabod and Katrina, “Sleepy Hollow” essentially put all its eggs in one basket before a single episode even aired. Much in the way Clark Kent could never get with Chloe Sullivan on “Smallville,” there’s essentially NO WAY for Ichabod and Abbie to get together aside from a dream sequence or a love spell of some sort.

Again: I don’t want/need these two to hook up! And if you do, I totally understand. But the show could diffuse those crying out for this romantic pairing by having the duo own up to their platonic love rather than throwing Katrina, Nick, and others in their path. Those are unconvincing obstacles to a problem that doesn’t even exist in the first place. The idea that on one side there is love and on another, unrelated side is friendship is bonkers, and not in the way season one was. Exposing that false binary through two beloved characters feels like an opportunity, not a burden, for this show. It was easier to do when Katrina was in purgatory. But now that she’s present in Sleepy Hollow, those in-show and those at home are weighing in on who should pair off rather than the value these individuals bring to the collective. By putting everything through the prism of romance, “Sleepy Hollow” does its characters and its audience a disservice. Connection is more important than pairing off, and the sooner the show gets back to making those connections rather than trying to sever them, the sooner the show will get back to its season one heights.