'Sleepy Hollow' at midseason: Gonzo gothic fun, served with a guilty conscience

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Image Credit: Brownie Harris/Fox

Last week’s episode of Sleepy Hollow began with Abbie Mills extolling the virtues of baseball for Ichabod Crane. Of course, Sleepy Hollow being Sleepy Hollow, where subtext is as conspicuous as a catcher flashing signs, Abbie wasn’t only talking about the American Pastime. She was talking about America, too. Or America as it should be. “For me, baseball is about three things,” she told the 18th-century Rip Van Winkle, recently awakened from a 232-year-long dirt nap. “First, tradition. Rules never change. You can always count on the grass to be green, the lines to be white. No matter how crazy the world gets, it makes you feel safe, like everything is going to be okay. Second, it’s about teamwork. Players have to have faith in each other and watch each other’s backs. Because without that the team won’t work. But what I love is that this sport does not discriminate. You can be a short long reliever or long shortstop, black, white, Hispanic — now that is the American dream.”

Crane’s eyes flashed with enlightenment. Abbie was speaking his language: Logical if fancifully articulated idealism. Like Thomas Paine applying Common Sense to sports. “So baseball represents the spirit of democracy?”

“It is what you guys were fighting for, right?” By “it,” Abbie meant “freedom.” Specifically the freedom the criticize authority, be they leaders of state or arbiters of sporting matches. And so Ichabod exercised the right he and his fellow old-school revolutionaries bled for by rising up and chewing out the umpire. “You! Basket face! I thought only horses slept standing up!”

All this, from a show that re-imagines Washington Irving’s classic 1820 short story as a cheeky-creepy buddy cop apocalypse pop, in which The Headless Horseman is not a twisted joke gone awry but Death, the Pale Rider of Revelations. Yet Sleepy Hollow, now entering the second half of its 13-episode rookie season, seems insistent on being something slightly more interesting than mere escapism; it seems to want to be a kind of light beer alternative to American Horror Story, serving less prickly/tastes great gonzo goth hoppy with mildly subversive subtext. Where AHS is fixated with sex, gender, and race, Sleepy Hollow sweats this “spirit of democracy” business. Are you the kind of American who believes our basic freedoms are currently imperiled? That subversive foreign agents are plotting against us or conspiracies of powerful men are the real movers and shakers of civilization? That the “official version” of anything is a cover-up for something sinister? Then Sleepy Hollow is your man in the stands, exercising his conscience and raging against basket-face authority.

But Sleepy Hollow also speaks for an even wider swath of aggrieved citizenry, including those for whom “country pride” is a more complicated, conflicted notion. In fact, the unifying theme of the season so far isn’t paranoia, but guilt. The irony of Abbie’s Field of Dreams speechifying is that it came from a show that also loves to remind us that we Americans stand on the shoulders of many great men, and many more used, abused, oppressed, and slaughtered demonized Others. Each episode has gone out of its way to reference or incorporate some murky or shameful passage of American history into its storytelling. The enslavement of Africans. The conquest of Native Americans. That awful business in Salem with those free-thinkin’ witchy women. Moreover, Sleepy Hollow‘s opening arc has been about Abbie and Ichabod atoning for the past in order to become worthy heroes in the present. Abbie had to seek forgiveness — and forgive herself — for bearing false witness against her sister (Lyndie Greenwood) by denying the hell-spawn they both saw in the woods that strange day long ago. Ichabod had to seek forgiveness — and forgive himself — for failing to save an 18th-century black man, a freed slave, from torture and assassination by Crane’s corrupt British commander, a demon in disguise. Sleepy Hollow is truly, and literally, a guilty pleasure.

Sleepy Hollow has used the tropes of the horror genre to make some points about our relationship to the historical fallout of Manifest Destiny nation building. The season’s least successful episode so far — because of a confusing plot and clumsy attempt at duplicating the faith/reason tensions of The X-Files, Lost, and Fringe – hit this idea very hard on the nose with a very provocative allegory: It told the story of a boy from the 16th century “lost colony” of Roanoke who got lost in the woods, then was transported via black-magic conspiracy to 21st-century Sleepy Hollow, where he promptly began infecting residents with a lethal disease. We learned that the boy wasn’t a time traveler at all, but a rabid spirit from the past, sicced upon the present by devious forces, and the plague he carried wiped out all of the Roanoke colony, thanks to another Horseman of the Apocalypse, known as Pestilence, a.k.a. Conquest. You could decode him as a kind of dirty bomb — or as a pox blanket. You could look at this as terrorism — or as poetic justice. Given Sleepy Hollow‘s ironic nature, both could be true. To save themselves and their town, Ichabod and Abbie took charge of the kid and returned this embodiment toxic history back to his ghost town in the forest. I think. Like I said: Confusing.

Sleepy Hollow, then, is a fantasy about a very relevant contemporary concern: Atoning for old Manifest Destiny injustices we had no hand in creating, yet the legacies of which bedevil us still. Last week’s episode introduced a new member of the American Dream Redemption Team, with a superpower uniquely suited for the thematic/metaphorical task at hand: Henry Parrish (John Noble), a so-called “sin eater,” capable of purging from us that which damns us by converting our iniquity into edible symbols. Look for the coming episode where Parrish bakes all of America’s wretchedness into an apple pie the size of Mount Rushmore and spends seven seasons noshing on it.

Fantasies like Sleepy Hollow often hinge on a Chosen One executing some grand action that saves the day/saves the world. But so far, Sleepy Hollow favors a more relatable kind of heroism. Ichabod and Abbie uphold the genre trope by being “special”; they are “Witnesses.” Their gift is the ability to see the demonic influence that permeates their world that others can’t. This may not sound too impressive as far as superpowers go, but it’s a pretty extraordinary talent in a world where people are blind to sinister forces, or find the notion of “sinister forces” too incredible to believe, or too scared or uncertain to act. In Sleepy Hollow, the hero is simply anyone who recognizes that things aren’t what they should be and chooses to try to do something about it. This is true for those who bear witness to wickedness as it happens, and for those centuries later, who behold and are beholden to the complicated, unresolved consequences. As Ichabod’s stuck-in-purgatory true love Katrina has said to him, quoting Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Then again, she’s a witch, so what does she know?

Sleepy Hollow suggests that corrective change must be a group effort, not the work of One Great Man, let alone a Great White Man. Last week’s episode, the season’s sixth, set up a scenario that positioned Ichabod as a messianic hero, if only for the purpose of telling a story that was all about rejecting that archetype. Ichabod was told by a conspiracy of do-gooders — Freemasons — that he could destroy The Headless Horseman, sin incarnate, by killing himself by drinking poison, since their souls are conjoined by magic. The logic was compelling, and if Sleepy Hollow was a flop, I suspect the producers would have ended the series here, with Ichabod making this sacrifice. Instead, we live in a world where Sleepy Hollow is a hit, and the writers concocted a provocative reason for Ichabod to quit with the WWJD all-about-me: It denied everyone else the dignity — and responsibility — of participating in achieving victory. The rationalization was tortured, but interesting. By allowing exhausted, lost-in-life Parrish to eat his sins and sever his connection to the Horseman, Ichabod was giving him fulfillment that he wouldn’t have had if Ichabod had killed himself. Moreover, had Ichabod not allowed Parrish to fulfill his function, he would have made meaningless the heroic work of Abbie and her sister Jenny of finding Parrish in hopes of saving Ichabod’s life. Ichabod’s choice to give up on the quick and easy win creates an opportunity for a better kind of triumph, one that makes bringing order to chaos a collective project of individuals.

I called Sleepy Hollow “political,” but I only meant political in a generic sense. If the show pledges allegiance to any ideology, then it’s the ideas of a politically minded egghead name-checked by the drama last week: Cicero, the B.C. Roman whose advocacy of democracy and reason influenced the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the American and French Revolutions. We saw his name on a pamphlet published by Arthur Bernard, that aforementioned freed slave that Ichabod could not save, a pamphlet meant to evoke the aforementioned Common Sense by Thomas Paine, an admirer of Cicero. In a cornball line that felt totally appropriate for a show that digs ripe flourishes, Bernard told Ichabod, “We are all Cicero.” Sleepy Hollow seems to think our current state of affairs would be greatly improved not by looking to our founding fathers, but to the simple, common sense ideas of those who inspired them. Social harmony. Interdependence. Conscience, and the freedom to express it, and more importantly, bravely live it out.

It will be interesting to see where Sleepy Hollow goes from here with its impish reflections on “the spirit democracy” or the business of converting American history into Gothic mythology, or if it can take any of it much further at all without becoming ponderous and preachy. But to be honest, I think less might be more: I like Sleepy Hollow more for its preposterous pop than its ponderousness. The show finds its best grounding not in history or big ideas, but in the relationship of its charming leads and the promising group dynamics of the team they are building; please, more Parrish, Jenny, and Orlando Jones’ “skeptical” Captain Frank. (Skepticism is a silly value for any character on this show to possess — which, of course, makes me wonder if Captain Frank knows much, much more than he’s telling.) As the season moves into its second half, I hope Sleepy Hollow keeps fleshing out Abbie’s character (which is to say, continue feeding the actress, Nicole Beharie, who is every bit a reason to watch as Tom Mison’s Ichabod), keeps the exquisitely designed corpse-creatures coming (The Sandman was eye-candy nightmare), well-designed creatures coming, and keeps the mythology intriguing yet manageable: It’s only a matter of time before the Revolutionary period runs out of incidents and ideas and the show is forced to start mythology-mining other periods of American history.

And which of our human characters is secretly a Horseman hiding in plain sight? Because you know Sleepy Hollow has to play that card. I’m going with…

John Noble’s Parrish. Because how delicious would it be to learn that the guy who eats sin is actually… the spirit of Famine?

Sleepy Hollow at midseason: What do you like? What could be better? Where should it go? The message board is yours.

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