There are a lot of different flavors that make up Sleepy Hollow—character-based drama, supernatural procedural, wry interpretation on modern culture through colonial eyes—and one of the flavors that makes the show most lively is that it’s alternative history fan fiction. The writers of Sleepy Hollow treat the various conspiracies and theories surrounding the birth of our nation as not only plausible but as not going far enough, saying that men like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin had their hands in every occult pie and built this nation with the intent of creating a bulwark against the darkness. As the show’s progressed though, these details have become secondary to the events of present day, more concerned with a nasty monster of the week than what answers were scrawled in Washington’s Bible.
All of which is to say that once Steven Weber appeared as a witchcraft-powered hologram of Thomas Jefferson presiding over a vault of mysterious secrets, I giggled and clapped with almost childlike excitement. It’s a ridiculous development of the sort I feared Sleepy Hollow had grown out of, a hybrid of sci-fi and sorcery that may be the most delightfully imaginative thing the writers have churned out in months. And the fact that the writers are able to tie this ridiculous idea into strong character moments for Ichabod and Abbie is even more reassuring, and helps to cement “What Lies Beneath” as one of the better installments of the season.
“What Lies Beneath” is a return to form for several reasons, most notably by stemming the recent outpouring of Purgatory’s most wanted in favor of hunting buried treasure. A construction crew explores the catacombs below Sleepy Hollow and decides that the mysterious gold door with eldritch runes on it should be opened right away, leading them to get dragged into the dark by mysterious forces. It’s fun to see the Witnesses researching a location rather than a monster of the week for a change, and even more fun to see them launching into combat with a legion of discardable baddies that can be dispatched en masse. Said baddies are well-designed troglodytes known as Reavers, Washington-trained agents stationed at a vault who’ve degenerated after two centuries. (Alternate theory, given the name: someone pumped the Pax into the tunnels and they looked into the darkness, forgetting how to be men in the process.)
Of course, all of this is just the appetizer to the introduction of the Fenestella vault, and its eternal guardian in the form of a Jefferson simulacrum. Weber’s Jefferson lacks the charismatic swagger of Timothy Busfield’s Franklin, but he conveys a patrician sense of superiority mixed with benign wisdom very much in line with a nigh immortal third president. (“It seems we’ve both outlived our expectations. And Adams!”) His character also draws a lot out of Tom Mison, whose Ichabod is possessed of the same sensibility and often feels like he’s starving for a true peer to converse with. It’s a connection that’s further buoyed by the establishment of prior ties between the two, a sense of unfinished business and unanswered questions that makes this erstwhile reunion all the more compelling.
Similarly compelling is the promise of the Fenestella, the concept of a repository containing one-of-a-kind information central to the mission of the Witnesses. Since the death of Moloch Sleepy Hollow has lacked for a collective purpose, a search made almost meta at times with how often Ichabod and Abbie raise the question of what they’re supposed to do with their lives going forward. Reestablishing the idea that their duty goes beyond one demon lord would be a welcome building block for whatever future the show is striving towards, and also adds more to the show’s mythology than a grab bag of fiends and warlocks. The show doesn’t need to introduce another Big Bad right away, but it does need to feel like it’s building toward something, the idea that they’re fighting a larger war rather than just a series of random skirmishes.
If there’s a problem with the events of “What Lies Beneath,” it’s that the decision to destroy the Fensetella rings… well, hollow. It’s entirely reasonable that Ichabod and Abbie would consider the risk of damaging the power source a fair trade in saving the lives of the two remaining workers, but the decision to go back and level it rather than sealing it off is an overly extreme reaction. You’d think they’d be willing to risk fighting off the Reavers—particularly given their team’s firepower both contemporary and occult—for the chance to answer all their unanswered questions. Instead, all we get is the idea that there are still questions to answer, which is a good stepping stone but one that travels a frustratingly short distance. (All that being said, the final conversation between Ichabod and “Jefferson” is a poignant one, particularly when the latter gives Ichabod a true moment of recognition and says he deserves to be counted as a Founding Father.)
A more immediate consequence of Ichabod and Abbie’s actions comes with Calvin Riggs, brother of one of the missing construction workers and a foreign correspondent with a lot of questions about what’s going on. It’s easy to judge the introduction of another supporting character so soon after the show finally said goodbye to Hawley, but Calvin comes across as a more welcome addition to the Sleepy Hollow environment. His level-headed inquisitive nature stands in contrast to other people stumbling through the odd occurrences of the town, as does his choice to threaten them with Pulitzer-backed influence rather than brute force. Similarly, the conversation he has with Abbie about the importance of managing this information is a topic the show doesn’t always look at, and it doesn’t treat either side as completely right or idiotic. Hopefully if he’s going to be sticking around, he’s got more to him than the blatant “Potential Abbie Love Interest” sign floating over his head in bright red letters.
Certainly Calvin’s presence and motivations make more sense than whatever is going on with Irving. Remember how he was (gasp) evil last week? Not exactly true, because it turns out that there’s two Irvings warring for possession of the same body, which Katrina didn’t see when she read his aura back in “Kali Yuga” because of a rune that he pulled from one of Henry’s books, and the good Irving is trying to get his family money before the bad Irving takes over for good… I think. While the show hasn’t known what to do with Irving in a long time, this convoluted approach is turning into a kitchen sink of character development, making him all things in all circumstances to the point that he ironically has no character at all. He’s an eternal work in progress for the show, and the added layers of confusion are finally building to the point where it no longer feels worth the effort.
And then there’s still the inscrutable motives of Henry behind him, given form in a dream-sequence-except-not-really closing scene where he tells Katrina that it’s time for them to begin their work. Hopefully this is more of a move towards the Dark Katrina aspect which was introduced last week, because while that might not be ideal I don’t think either the Katrina character nor the show can survive a return to her whining about how he’s still her son all the time. It’s a sadly sour moment after what’s one of the stronger latter-day episodes of Sleepy Hollow: “What Lies Beneath” has a lot of hopeful signs for the show’s future, here’s hoping the bad spots don’t drag that hope back out of sight.
- Modern Things Of Which Ichabod Doth Not Approve Of This Week: The “instant gram” makes Ichabod despair for the youths of today, who only know how to post their lives rather than truly experiencing them. He’s also a bit pouty when Abbie uses the excuse of freedom of the press to keep Calvin in the loop: “We did not predict the 24-hour news cycle!”
- Fantastic bit of non-verbal communication between Ichabod and Abbie as Jefferson explains he considers the survivors regrettable casualties of war, and the two share a long look. As swayed as Ichabod seems by the wealth of knowledge available, the commitment the two share to doing the right thing has moved these issues past the point of debate.
- Ichabod’s formal bow to Jefferson never gets old.
- “I’m kind of sick of heading down small, dark spaces.” “I was the one buried alive.”
- “To use common vernacular, Jefferson unfriended me.”
- “We just blew up the author of the Declaration of Independence.” “Truth be told, he assisted.”
- “As you so aptly put it before: I got this.”
- Thanks to Zack for letting me fill in! He or his witchcraft-powered hologram will be back next week.