For a good part of its running time, I was thinking “The Sin Eater” was going to earn the show its first A. Or A-, anyway. Now, as I’m sure you well know, grades don’t exactly matter; they’re an impression, quantified, and as with all impressions, their value is only relevant within a larger context. I mention it here not to start an argument, but to indicate how impressed I was by a good portion of the episode. Watching the screener, I was struck by how much I’d missed this silly, spooky little show, and that undoubtedly influenced my reaction, but that wasn’t all. This is just a smart, well-paced hour, one that gives Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison a chance to show off their chops and also develops their world in some effective, sensible ways. It seems odd to apply the word “sensible” to Sleepy Hollow, but as unwieldy as the mythology can be, figuring out how Ichabod changed his allegiances and first met his wife Katrina has a gratifying causality to it. There are quite a few lengthy monologues of characters explaining things, but their explanations hold together nicely.
So why the B+, then? Two reasons. John Noble is a fantastic addition to a series like this, the kind of character actor who brings a deep sense of history and depth to any role he plays. And the idea of his role here—Henry Parrish, a Sin Eater who once traveled the world, visiting Death Row inmates and consuming the darkness within them—is fantastic, rife with potential for the sort of tragedy and kindness that Noble does so well. The problem isn’t the actor; it’s that the show once again demonstrates an inability to give any element that isn’t Ichabod or Abbie enough screentime for them to develop. This is, to an extent, understandable. Ichy and Abbie are, after all, the two leads, and together, they remain Sleepy Hollow’s greatest strength. But in order for the stories they live in to work, those stories need depth. The episode is called “The Sin Eater,” but Parrish only appears in two scenes; he’s important to the plot, but apart from his reservations about his work, we know next to nothing about him. Which is frustrating. The script does a good job of building to his first appearance, but then it relies on Noble’s talent to do the rest of the heavy lifting. He gets a quick speech about losing pieces of himself, and the idea is fascinating, but there isn’t enough time to really sell it; there’s such a lot going on, between Ichabod’s kidnapping, the introduction of Mr. Rutledge (James Frain, i.e. Chess from The Cape), and extensive flashbacks to Ichabod’s past, that Henry is almost crowded out completely.
This could be rectified in future episodes, thankfully. Henry survives his efforts to save Ichabod’s life and separate our hero’s blood ties with the Headless Horseman, so hopefully, he’ll be appearing again soon. But the lack of development means that his appearance at the story’s climax, arriving moments after Ichabod decides to swallow poison and end his and the Horseman’s resurrected existence, is more confusing than thrilling. Which leads into the episode’s other big problem: the resolution. There was little question that Parrish would help Ichabod, just as there was little doubt that Ichabod would survive the latest crisis. But when a show puts its hero in a situation where killing himself would effectively stave off the apocalypse, and it has its hero openly acknowledge the moral rightness of such a choice, you need to come up with a better reason for him not to follow through with it than, “Oh, never mind.”
The scene between Ichabod and Abbie when Ichabod resolves to swallow poison and he and Abbie have to say goodbye shouldn’t work as well as it does. These two haven’t been together all that long, and anyone in the audience with any sense knows that this isn’t a real farewell. But it does work, which is a tribute to the script and the performances—the reality of the situation matters less than the emotions it calls up. That makes it all the more disappointing when the script whiffs the conclusion. Ichabod explains why he’s killing himself, he downs the bottle, things get hazy, and then Parrish shows up and goes into his sin-eating routine, which is somehow capable of removing Ichabod’s “sin” (his assumption of responsibility in another man’s death) and the poison. It’s a lazy way to close things out, because we don’t see a choice from either of the characters involved. Parrish’s decision to arrive happens off-screen, robbing us of a chance to see what made him change his mind. Ichabod doesn’t even appear to make a decision at all. Nothing has changed between his conversation with Abbie and Parrish’s arrival (apart from the poison drinking), and yet he fully embraces a chance to save himself at the cost of leaving the Horseman alive. After spending so much time explaining why he needs to kill himself, the fact that he goes along with not dying so easily is a cheap storytelling move. It lays bare the obvious restrictions inherent in the narrative. No, Ichabod’s not going to die yet (if ever). But can we at least pretend that he might?
Apart from those concerns, “The Sin Eater” was quite good. The opening scene between Abbie and Ichabod in which Abbie explains why she loves baseball, and why it’s important to yell at umpires, was the kind of effective, adorable banter these two characters do so well, and the plot—which has Ichabod kidnapped by Freemasons who demand he prove his identity—unfolds well, giving both an opportunity for Abbie to work with her sister again, and for Ichabod to indulge in retelling his past. The flashbacks are both ridiculous and utterly earnest, which means they fit the show perfectly: Ichabod meets a man named Arthur Barent, interrogates him under orders from his Redcoat superior, but discovers, through Arthur’s urging and Katrina’s pleas, that all is not what it appears to be. It’s a neat, tidy little bit of back-story that helps clarify just how long this struggle has been going on and gives us a better understanding of where Ichabod is coming from. Now if the writers can just figure out a way to do the same for their guest stars, they’ll be set.
- The sound mix on this was terrible; Noble is so quiet, and the score so loud, that I had to strain to understand him. Hopefully that was just a screener problem, though.
- With Ichabod kidnapped, Katrina has to contact Abbie to offer her typically cryptic advice. Maybe next time wait until the lady isn’t driving a car?
- Ichabod apparently studied under Sherlock Holmes at some point, if his lengthy deductions about Rutledge are any indication.
- “If I didn’t stop, I would’ve disappeared completely.” I would like more about this, please. And more John Noble. (Given that he’s now the one with the connection to the Headless Horseman, I expect he’ll be showing up again.)