This brilliant and beautiful analysis of Sleepy Hollow showed up in my feed again and I decided, if I didn’t want to lose it on my “Likes” page, I’d better save it here. It outlines why we cared so much about the future of this show, why we were so damn angry at what the showrunners chose to do with it, what went wrong, and includes links to other reviews and critiques of the show.
Everyone is saying that the show had great potential, and that they screwed it up. But I haven’t seen anyone articulate what that potential was. Why was so resonant in season one? At this particular time, and in this particular climate?
I read the phrase “the chemistry between the two leads” and frankly that’s not enough for me. It’s not enough to explain what I saw in the show and why I am so mad. I deeply believe that the value of the fantasy/horror genre is how it lets us symbolically consider big issues of morality in ways that are fun.
American, this beautiful mess of a country, has a ton of moral thinking to do about race and history. Sleepy Hollow more than any show in decades, was perfectly set up to play with, and around, and through that tension. That was it’s potential. That is what we lost.
I’ve read some great things on Sleepy Hollow, the finale, and the death of Abbie Mills. These articles have all been explicit that the choice to kill and sideline Abbie was typical, uncreative, racist (consciously or not), and BAD FOR THE SHOW. Here are my favs:
Now let’s talk about the big issues.
America has always been two things. A place for enlightened ideals about the equality of man, and the bloody driving heart of chattel slavery. Those are both huge. They are also utterly irreconcilable. Even as this country led the Age of Revolution that brought down kings throughout Europe, we built the North Atlantic Slave Trade. That deadly triangle put millions of people into bloodline based suffering that was harsher than any caste system in Europe at the time.
If you study American history at all, slavery is three quarters of it. The struggle for racial inclusion and equity is the rest. More than class, more than ideas, more than geography, race is the single focal point that encompasses all of American history. There is no part of this country that wasn’t molded, or counter-molded, without the presence of it. From the very beginning we argued about it. We didn’t stop arguing. We went to war over it. Then we had a second proxy cold war about it during the civil rights movement. We are still arguing about it today with Black Lives Matter.
This is the biggest question of Good vs. Evil in our country. It’s so big, and so devastating, that millions of Americans still have trouble fully admitting that slavery was evil. That it did not have any upside for the salves. There are also millions of people who see the sacrifice that ending racism demands, and flip the fuck out. They do not want to deal with that.
Doesn’t that sound like a kind of unending apocalypse? A biblical level moral threat? And historically a few people have always fought and given witness in order to redeem the rest of us from that evil we would rather ignore, or let fester, or maybe join/sell-out-too in order to maintain our privilege. The metaphor works for me.
I should probably take a moment to give my personal P.O.V. I’m white. I’m a lawyer. I am into the American mythology. I really, deeply, believe that a nation of laws is better than a nation of men. I have in actively carried around a pocket constitution, and a pocket declaration of independance. I have read the federalist papers. I have read more than one biography of John Adams. I am a patriot. I know enough about the history of patriots to understand that the best ones were all critics of their societies.
There was a moment in season one that was painfully familiar. Ichabod is singing the praises of Thomas Jefferson, and sneering at the political foe that accused him of sleeping with his slaves. That was me, in my younger and more innocent days. Irving and Abby give each other a good long side-eye and then enlighten him. That was also me. And Crane, bless him, learned better. I remember watching that scene and thinking “I can’t believe Fox, Fox!, is letting them get away with that.” See, I also live in the South. Where you still aren’t often allowed to talk about that stuff. Where discussing actually, provable, documented history, like it’s actual documented provable history, will get you hissed at. Then they’ll call you ungodly. (Look it just popped up again! http://www.vox.com/2016/4/8/11389556/thomas-jefferson-sally-hemings-book )
Is it any wonder that Sleepy Hollow was such a tempest in a teapot?
I haven’t talked about Abbie yet. Sorry. I needed to set the stage. I needed to be able to say that the chemistry that existed between Abbie and Ichabod existed because she was black and accomplished and he was white and ignorant. The desire to smoosh them together, to make them work as partners, was more than a desire to see an attractive man with an attractive woman, it was a desire to reconcile the entire American experiment.
Think back to the images in their first meeting. Ichabod, an 18th century man, locked in a cage because he cannot understand the modern world. He’s idealistic, he’s educated, he’s utterly incompetent at modern reality, he cannot understand why he’s not in charge, why all the cretins around him treat him like he’s crazy and refuse to follow his orders. I’m pretty sure I just restated the analysis of trump voters.
So there is Ichabod waiting in his cage, and then Abbie shows up. A black woman. Not in a cage. Her freedom specifically addressed when Ichabod said the word “emancipated.” She was someone he still saw in terms of slavery, but she was the one that literally held the keys to the modern world in her hand. (Of course, to screw with that, they shot it from his POV, so she looks like the one behind bars.)
Ichabod has to listen to her, he has to defer, before things start getting better for him. What is more real than that? Ichabod might have been the every-man (for a certain type of every-man) but Abbie was the arbiter, the judge, the leader. She was the character that decides what part of all that 18th century knowledge still matters, and what parts need to be chucked, like yesterday. And in season one at least, she judged from a place that was informed by her own personal morality and experiences. She was not all good and self-sacrificing. The unfairness she had experienced as a child, affected her. The central question was if she was going to reject Ichabod, and through him, symbolically at least, this whole American experiment.
Does any of that description make you uncomfortable? I hope so. Because that discomfort is what made the show so tense and riveting. Good horror works on our unconscious taboos. It materializes them, makes them literal, and once they are literal we are confronted with their grotesquerie. America, as a society, has rejected and oppressed black people from the beginning. The three fifths compromise is still in all those pocket constitutions. But America, as a society, is also slowly, painfully, waking up to the fact that rejecting black people is unsustainable. It locks us out of the future. It ties us to evil. A not so secret demon that demands constant blood sacrifices. (Literally. Tamir Rice, Eric Harris,Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and Freddie Gray.) And whose hunger for destruction spills over and threatens everyone.
That’s what Sleepy Hollow had to work with. That’s what they stumbled into, and frankly I don’t think they could handle it. As a writer, I know that you can land in something topical accidentally. And I think that first round of folks just wrote what they thought was scary, a white man who is forced into depending on black people because he doesn’t understand the modern world. I don’t think they examined, in themselves, why those particular dynamics were so scary.
If you are white, like most of the Sleepy Hollow production team, and unconscious about that shit, you will inevitable try and move yourself to a more comfortable place. The process even has a name. It’s called white fragility.
So, when Sleepy Hollow did well, and production got crunched and probably even more unconscious, the production team moved themselves into stories that were more comfortable. Abbie’s power as arbiter and judge was sidelined. She was relied upon as a character who rejected nothing, who only sacrificed. What little discussion of the founding fathers flaws there had been was dropped. After that first episode, nothing was said about the civil war. Nothing was said about the bulk of American history. Almost nothing was said about slavery even when Abbie went back in time.
And things could have been said. During the run of Sleepy Hollow we’ve had 12 Years a Slave, and Hamilton, and the new Birth of a Nation, and Underground. This isn’t just social justice plotting, it’s a thriving market. It’s also rich in all the tropes of horror. It’s everything you could need for a million different horror movies. Imagine how differently Season 2 could have played if Abraham or Henry approached Abbie at any point with this kind of offer:
Moloch is here, in America, in the 21st century because slavery brought him here. Ichabod’s great friends couldn’t fight him, because their sins were his fuel. So you could keep trying to help your partner’s romantic life, or you could let the whole thing burn. Let this America end. It’s cardinal sin is irredeemable. Let something new take its place. Join us, and you can even build it to your tastes.
Isn’t that tempting? If your white, isn’t that terrifying? Isn’t it real, despite all the layers of monsters and demons? And isn’t it fun? And kampy, and hopeful too? Because nobody wants to listen to a lecture about this stuff head on. We want to all get together and slay the demon that lives on racism, and then make the improbable couple kiss. We want to love all of it. We want it to work out, history and the present to reconcile and make each other better.
Instead, we got monsters from Sumeria and ancient Greece.
Now with Abbie Mills dead, the chance for reconciliation is gone. That’s the potential that we lost. Even when the show was at it’s worst, the mere presence of her dark skin was an indictment, a tension, a placeholder for the failings of the founding fathers. They got it wrong about her, about black people, so maybe none of their magical advice would work. At the very least it would all have to be updated. Abbie Mills as a black witness wasn’t just important because there aren’t enough women of color on TV. She was important because with this particular plot scenario information from the past must be both always necessary and always dubious. Abbie Mills, merely by existing in the frame with Ichabod crane, telegraphed that the founding fathers could have some major, and important, blind-spots.
It seems even that was intolerable.
So, History won. It didn’t compromise, it didn’t change. It didn’t admit it’s faults. It didn’t fall in love with Now. Ichabod did not offer up a part of his immortal soul to satisfy Pandora’s Box. He didn’t share the burden with Abbie. Then, to add insult, that cowardice was explained away as destiny. That’s not fun. That’s not challenging or exciting. It’s just bleak. It reduces rather than expands the story. The only thing I want to see now is Jenny Mills engaged in the long form assassination of Ichabod Crane.
And while this is just about character’s in a story, we all know, that it’s also something real. White people preferring to see black people lose everything then give up anything of themselves. That it’s something real that happens all the time. That it happened behind the scenes to Orlando Jones and then Nicole Baheri, when they were stripped of air-time and meaningful on screen stories and work.
Some of us might still be able to learn from the mistakes of history, but not Sleepy Hollow. It’s doomed.