“Mama” should’ve been a slamdunk. The premise offers something the show has been teasing for a long time: a glimpse into Abbie and Jenny’s childhood together, and a chance to get to know their mother, a mentally disturbed woman whose disturbance, it turns out, was demon-based. And there are scenes throughout the hour that pay off on this promise. The chance to see Abbie and Jenny doing scenes together, supporting each other and finding strength in their shared experiences, is powerful stuff. Both Nicole Beharie and Lyndie Greenwood do top-notch work. And it’s cool to watch three African American characters (Abbie, Jenny, and Irving, or Abbie, Jenny, and Laurie) discussing their options without the scene playing out like tokenism or a rare treat; the diversity on Sleepy Hollow continues to be ones of its best assets, and while Hawley and Ichabod are lurking at periphery, there’s a very real sense of them being secondary characters in someone else’s story. The focus is shared, and that matters.

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It doesn’t, however, matter enough to make this episode great; neither does all that other wonderful stuff I just mentioned. “Mama” is better than we’ve seen in weeks, but it still struggles to hold together, its efforts to inject a theme of real, serious pathos falling short of the mark. Whatever promise the main story has is held back by subplots that have been plaguing the show for most of the season, distracting (and largely pointless) reminders that serve mostly to undercut and break whatever hold Jenny and Abbie’s past has over us.

Katrina’s storyline continues to be a major disappointment. Here, she manages to break the hold Baby Moloch has over her, which is great, except for the fact that the hold should never have been there in the first place. The idea that Katrina would fall so easily for an unknown infant, to the point where she wouldn’t question Henry’s motives until after that infant started leaving dark marks on her skin, is bizarre. There’s a troubling sense that Katrina is having to bear the weight of every cliched notion of “womanhood” that the writers can think of, and her apparent vulnerability to maternal instincts is neither convincing nor dramatically effective. (Even Henry is starting to wear thin. His jealousy as Katrina holds Baby Moloch in her arms was just absurd.) The end of the episode reveals that the infant is now a young boy, which at least means we’ll be shifting to a different kind of irritating storyline. Maybe this one will be better.

Hawley is still around. He’s mostly annoying because it’s painfully obvious that he’s being forced on us for creative reasons that escape me. The show didn’t need another handsome white dude. We have Ichabod, and Ichabod is all we need, because Ichabod is awesome. (He’s relegated to the sidelines for most of this episode, which is another odd choice; I guess it gives more focus to Abbie and Jenny, but given how close Ichabod and Abbie have become, I’d much rather seeing him running support than Mr. Blonde.) It’s not that the character is awful; it’s just that the mechanism behind him is so clear that he disrupts the show’s world with each fresh unnecessary appearance.

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As for the main story itself, it’s good, but disappointing. The attempt to deal with the fallout of growing up with an abusive parent (Laurie Mills isn’t physically abusive that we see, but psychologically? Oh my yes) while still staying true to the show’s roots in supernatural horror makes for an uneasy mixture of pulpy dramatics and deeply unsettling real-world concerns. The pair of flashbacks that give us a glimpse of Abbie and Jenny’s childhood are more disturbing than any grotesque monster or demonic threat, and the attempt to essentially retcon that past into less troubling terms never quite sits as comfortably as it should.

It doesn’t help that Mama herself never really comes into focus. The case of the week structure means that she has to share time with a crazy dead nurse who likes to trick mental patients into committing suicide. The nurse is creepy, but apart from giving yet another justification for Mama’s behavior (Laurie didn’t commit suicide over her own violation, the ghost trapped her), the plot mostly just eats up running time that should’ve been spent delving deeper into the Mills family, and trying to find a better balance between “Mama was crazy” and “Mama was trying to protect us from the demons.” As is, we never see what an actual sane Laurie Mills would look like (at least not until the end, when Jenny summons her ghost), and the whole tragedy of her life is lost. There’s pathos here, but there’s also a hard to shake sense of how how ill-equipped this show is deal with this kind of pain and strangeness. “Mama” could’ve been a chance to step up everyone’s game. Instead, the holding pattern continues, with only a few glimpses of hope to sustain us.

Stray observations:

  • Modern Things Of Which Ichabod Doth Not Approve This Week: Over-the-counter cold cures; child-proof bottle caps; being drugged by Hawley. (Although he does hold hands with Hawley at the end, so I assume all is forgiven.)
  • Irving has escaped from Tarrytown Psychiatric! That’s—I guess that’s good? No, it’s good. Sure. Probably.
  • Aunjanue Ellis, the actress playing Laurie, wasn’t great. She didn’t get a lot of time to build a character, though, so it’s hard to blame her.

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