One of the pleasant surprises of Sleepy Hollow’s first season was how often the show managed to be legitimately scary. Not terrifying, not “wake up screaming in the middle of the night” freaky, but spooky, creepy fun, with a bit more teeth than one might have expected of a series with such a blatantly ridiculous premise. The first season is a long way away, though, and I think maybe a minute or so of “Incident At Stone Manor” was actually freaky. The show still regularly uses horror imagery in its storytelling, but the weight that gave that imagery greater meaning is largely gone.

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To put it another way, where the first season was a horror show with fantasy elements, the third season has become a fantasy series that dabbles in the occasional eerie moment. There’s an undeniable loss that comes with this transition—in its earlier incarnation, the series felt strikingly original even in its most derivative moments, whereas now, events slot more or less into familiar places. That’s not really Sleepy Hollow’s fault; it’s hard to maintain the same level of surprise and fear over multiple seasons, and it’s entirely possible that, had the writers somehow managed to hold onto the alchemy that initially powered their work, the freshness which made those initial episodes so unexpectedly delightful would still be gone. But inevitable or not, it’s still unfortunate, and requires a readjustment of expectations.

The question, then, is: if this is now a fantasy series, is it any good? And based off tonight’s hour, I’d be willing to give a tentative yes. The visuals are a bit cheaper then they used to be (the shot of the Hidden One moving his and Pandora’s house sure was something), but the storytelling is competent, and the acting is more or less on point. The intention behind each narrative decision is clear, and events move at a good clip without passing too quickly. The show feels under control, and while that means it’s not quite as thrilling, it’s still a step up from “hot mess.”

“Stone Manor” had two major stories: in the first, we finally find out what Abbie’s been up to in the past month or so, as Ichabod reaches out to her in spirit; and in the second. Foster, Jenny, and Joe team up to fight a gargoyle monster. The former plotline is important for more obvious reasons. Abbie’s absence wasn’t something that needed to last more than an episode or two, and while having her figure her way back so quickly means sacrificing some of the impact of her return, it’s still a relief to have her home again. More, it’s a wonderful reminder of just how good she is at taking care of herself. As the show goes out of its way to remind us, this isn’t her first time at this particular rodeo, and while it’s good she has Crane for moral support, she doesn’t need anyone to save her. (In fact, she ends up saving him.)

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Abbie’s story also gave us some time with Pandora and the Hidden One; old HO is still struggling to get his mojo back, and Pandora decides to bargain with Abbie for the Eye that will return her lover to his former glory. This goes poorly for her because Abbie is awesome, and the end result has Pandora offering the power the Hidden One gave her. It’s not bad, but neither of these characters if particularly interesting, or imposing, or threatening. There’s no real sense of danger from either from either of them, which means their scenes, and the fight against them, is never going to be a major reason to watch.

Foster, Jenny, and Joe fair a bit better. This is clearly a “B Squad makes good!” plot, to ensure that Ichabod and Abbie won’t have to do all the heavy lifting, and in that respect, it’s somewhat endearing. Jenny and Joe make a cute couple, although that cuteness is somewhat undermined by her apparent willingness to discuss her deep psychological issues at a drop of a hat, and Foster is perfectly fine. There’s something nice about the way this show has such a large cast of female characters without that ever being a big deal. It’s treated as a simple matter of fact, and most people probably don’t even notice it unless they’re looking hard. (Okay, most men probably don’t notice it.)

I do miss the show that was, as imperfect as it so often could be. There’s something a little bland about the way Sleepy Hollow is now, a little safe and by the numbers. But Abbie and Ichabod remain a terrific pair, and I was surprised at how moving their ultimate reunion was at the end of tonight’s episode. Abbie’s cave freak-out was forced, but her and Crane talking in Sleepy Hollow felt exactly right. It’s good to have her back.

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Stray observations

  • Modern Things Of Which Ichabod Doth Not Approve Of This Week: Since he spent most of his time in a trance, he didn’t have time to disapprove of much of anything.
  • I could’ve done with spending more time watching Abbie wander through wherever the hell she was. Really, doing the hour from her perspective would’ve gone a long way towards making her eventual return more meaningful. As is, the whole sojourn (which apparently ate up ten months of her life) doesn’t have much weight.
  • With Joe’s help, Jenny briefly breaks into her father’s house. It’s a scene I’m sure will matter more now that Abbie’s back.
  • While trapped in Wherever, Abbie passes some her time playing chess against “Crane.”
  • Our heroes defeat the gargoyle with some of the fastest drying wet cement I’ve ever seen. (Oh, and there’s another Betsy Ross flashback. It was largely pointless, aside from a joke about it ending abruptly since Crane wasn’t there to fill in the details.)
  • “it’s not English. It’s a failed sneeze.” -Joe on the word “syzgy.”

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