In episode five of the first season of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, “John Doe,” a boy who can only speak Middle English is discovered in the woods with an unknown disease. We learn over the course of the episode that the boy was from a 16th century Roanoke colony and that he was pushed out into contemporary times by the Horseman, Pestilence, in order to spread the disease into the 21st century. It was largely self-contained episode that felt mysterious and urgent, and the stakes were high — a 16th century disease was spreading quickly through Sleepy Hollow and threatened to go full-on Contagion. The episode worked as a stand-alone and it helped to serve the overall storyline (as much as any episode of Sleepy Hollow serves the overall storyline).
I haven’t really enjoyed Sleepy Hollow since that episode, although it is a show that I badly want to like. All the ingredients for an entertaining and engaging show exist for it to work, but somewhere along the way, the writers of Sleepy Hollow got lost in their own mythology, and now they can’t seem to find their way out.
Essentially, they have Moffat-ed the entire premise: Each week, they conjure up a new MacGuffin, write themselves into a new corner, and then create new rules in order to get themselves out of those corners. It has so many characters that the audience loves that the writers refuse to kill anyone off, which has completely ruined the stakes in the series. Like every season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, we no longer trust that when a character dies, he or she will stay dead. August Corbin (Clancy Brown) is the recurring character who has died so far (in the pilot episode), and even he comes back in flashbacks (and who knows; the writers may end up breaking more rules in order to bring him back from the dead permanently).
Without stakes to drive the show, the writers fall back on the mythology, and while it’s fun to mix colonial American figures with Washington Irving’s characters, the novelty of it is beginning to wear off, especially combined with National Treasure-like MacGuffins. There’s always a map, or a key, or a golem that must be tracked down in order to save mankind, but the series never really seems to advance the plot forward. It finally completely jumped the rails when it took a Sin Eater, Henry (John Noble), and revealed him to be the son of Ichabod Crane and Katrina. Oh, and by the way, he’s also the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse.
It’s too much. It’s both too simple and very confusing. There’s no internal logic to the series. It bounces along from one confrontation with the Headless Horseman to another, while the characters deliver foreboding warnings, deliver incantations, and save the world in the last five minutes.
The catch, of course, is that Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie are absolutely amazing together, and when they are given an opportunity to banter, the show soars. Unfortunately, those moments only seem to come near the beginning and end of each episode, while everything else is plodding, contemplative expository dialogue and running.
It’s enough to make me wish that Sleepy Hollow were a Castle-like procedural that shed its mythological trappings and simply investigated a murder of the week by combining modern methods with those of colonial America. If they just let Beharie and Mison be themselves and riff with one another (as they seem to do in the image above), Sleepy Hollow could be an amazingly fun show to watch. While that show might ultimately prove frivolous, at least it wouldn’t get bogged down under its own pointless mythology.