As FOX’s sophomore supernatural hit Sleepy Hollow breaks for midseason, it seems to have taken the “hollow” part of its moniker to heart. The show that surprised and charmed millions of viewers in the fall of 2013 with its combination of solid character work, whimsy and genuinely creepy lore — cinched by the chemistry of leads Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison — has lost its soul in its second year, becoming a rote, tiresome exploration of Crane family pathos.
Looking at an interview with TVLine, it appears that executive producer Mark Goffman may have no idea why that’s a problem. “One of the things I think we’ve looked at over the course of the season is what a really difficult position Katrina’s been in,” he says, going on to talk about how “this season is really about family, redemption and duty versus family.”
By “family” he must mean “the Cranes,” not the back-burnered Mills sisters and the harrowing history that was contained to one episode and then dropped. If he spent a lot of time thinking about Katrina’s position, he must’ve forgotten Abbie’s…thereby losing the series’ through-line. Because the foundation of season one Sleepy Hollow was a strong, female police lieutenant in a small town being thrust into an otherworldly situation and a partnership with a man from the past. Viewers saw that relationship from the very beginning, unlike the purported star-crossed love of Katrina and Ichabod, which largely played out before the first episode and is only parsed out in flashbacks over the course of a season and a half. Retroactive investment in a true love or a marriage is a lot harder to foster than the tangible thread of a friendship and mission we see from its inception. ABC’s Once Upon a Time in Wonderland made a similar mistake, packaging Alice and her genie lover as root-for before we even had a chance to care about who they were as individuals.
People tuned into Sleepy Hollow last year in for Abbie and Crane teaming up to fight demonic crime. Katrina and Crane’s epic reunion and the fate of their whack-a-doodle son were far lower on the list. Those issues were key, sure, but not worthy of taking over the entire canvas like they have this year. Certainly not at the expense of Abbie and Crane’s partnership, Abbie’s journey as a character and her relationships with her sister and her police captain. And definitely not to position Katrina as heroine in Abbie’s stead.
Katrina, formerly trapped in Purgatory and now trapped in a triangle of her own making, may be “interesting territory” for Goffman and his writing staff, but onscreen she tracks as helpless and listless…protecting the Headless Horseman and the season’s Big Bad, Henry Parrish, as a matter of plot device. She is more cipher than character, providing roadblocks for the mission the Witnesses, Crane and Abbie, must carry out. Need some angst for the week? Put Katrina in danger! Have a chance to off Henry or Headless this week? Katrina doesn’t want you to! Hinging an entire arc around a paper-thin archetype, a marriage that viewers aren’t actively rooting for, and a long-lost son who is unequivocally evil was a bad, bad idea.
And then of course there is the big, uncomfortable elephant in the room: the show’s handling of race. Sleepy Hollow was almost revelatory when it debuted – a network genre show where most of the characters were of color, and in particular the female lead. How freakin’ awesome. Move over Scandal’s Olivia Pope, and make room for Abbie Mills! But the glee and hope dissipated as Abbie’s Latino cop love interest vanished and John Cho’s Andy Brooks was written off as he pursued other work. By season two, as the Cranes became the focus, and walking MacGuffin smuggler Hawley joined the cast, the outlook became positively grim. Native Americans were again trotted out as mystical beings (the show seems to have forgotten the shaman from season one), Orientalism played a key role, airtime for Irving and Jenny dwindled, and Abbie basically became a supporting cast member. The multiracial ensemble romp that fans of diverse television flocked to had somehow turned into a pale and passionless slog. Talk about a bait-and-switch: Come for the people of color, stay for the new white guy.
And when you compare and contrast what’s happening onscreen to what’s happening in the United States right now…well, it only becomes more fraught. At a time where protestors and activists are trying to remind people that #BlackLivesMatter, this week’s Sleepy Hollow managed to telegraph that they don’t. As Crane struggled over whether to kill his son the murderous supervillain, Abbie reminded him that her mother sacrificed herself in the battle against Moloch. Crane may as well have said, “Meh, whatevs, no1curr” before going back to wringing his hands. Then, later, the death of Orlando Jones’ tragically underused and fan favorite Frank Irving served as a rally for Crane to head into his final confrontation. Crane couldn’t, wouldn’t, lose another friend to Moloch, damn it! Irving’s death was about his pain, his motivation, and the scene where Abbie reacted to the loss literally silenced her. That spoke volumes. Speech, by the way, was at a minimum for Abbie throughout the entire midseason finale, as she took a back seat to the Crane-Katrina-Henry show. It’s a quiet, cramped seat she’s occupied for months now.
Per a chat with Entertainment Weekly, Goffman claims to listen to fans and aim to a high bar. “I think when we get to the end of the season and you see how it all comes together, and what Abbie’s arc ends up being at the end, it’s really mind-blowing,” he insists. Unfortunately, the end of the season might just be too late for fans.
After all, we saw that Irving’s lack of a soul didn’t stop him from being killed. It stands to reason that Sleepy Hollow’s own soullessness will just hasten its demise.