So much for my Sleepy Hollow drinking game. I had one all schemed out for tonight’s episode, the show’s first after a three-week mini-hiatus, my whiskey at the ready because I thought something brown would pair nicely with both the sepia-tinged aesthetic of the show and, let’s face it, its distinct layer of cheese.
Rule No. 1, for example, was to pound a shot every time Ichabod Crane went all Bill & Ted’s over a modern-day convenience like power-operated windows or a remote control. These bits of comic relief, which sprouted out of Crane often being relegated to the role of sidekick, roughly averaged out to two shots per episode — the perfect cruising altitude for gliding over, through, and across big- and small-screen genres with the sort of cheeky, low-key panache Sleepy Hollow seemed content to achieve. But having just watched “The Sin Eater,” I’m as bone-dry as a 232-year-old corpse. The closest Crane came to a Back to the Future 2 moment was during the opening scene, when he took a crack at chewing out a baseball umpire, hurling insults so tart that I now plan to buy expensive seats near the Mets’ dugout next season just so I, too, can call a real-life ump “Basket Face.”
So let me now get right to the point: This was easily Sleepy Hollow’s best episode to date. Cheese was taken off the menu, replaced by a juicy hunk of TV sirloin filled with high-stakes conflict and poignant character arcs. After a number of monster-of-the-week-type episodes that distracted our protagonists from the Headless Horseman–ushered end of days — a sandman here, a high priestess there — “The Sin Eater” felt like a big, fat origin story.
After Crane is mysteriously kidnapped, Abbie is summoned into a kinda-sorta dreamscape by his dead-witch wife Katrina, who informs her that the apocalypse is on the horizon and that Crane needs to be visited by a “sin eater” before sundown to “sanctify” him, undoing the blood ties that bind his spirit to the Headless Horseman’s. Abbie, in turn, relays Katrina’s instructions to Captain Irving (Orlando Jones! Still can’t mention this nifty bit of casting without lapsing into exclamation. Orlando Jones!), prefacing her matter-of-fact recounting by acknowledging it’s “grounds to commit me.” Therein lies what’s loveliest about Lieutenant Mills: her straightforwardness in the face of the supernatural and how much she’s come to accept her demons, be they internal (the lies she’s told about the creature she and her sister Jenny saw in the woods) or external (see aforementioned monsters of the week). Sarcastically skeptic Irving sees her matter-of-factness and raises her a perfectly pursed lip, but easily agrees to what she’s asking for: a 24-hour furlough for the institutionalized Jenny so they can work together to track down an elusive sin eater.
Crane, meanwhile, has been taken by his abductors to a place that, judging by the set design, is a subterranean South Williamsburg cocktail lounge known for its housemade cherry-bark tinctures. His subsequent interrogation triggers a flashback (according to Rule No. 2, everybody drink) to the Revolutionary War era, when he was made to interrogate a freed slave named Arthur Bernard for possible treason. Heretofore, I’ve usually found not much worth getting into during flashback sequences, but what a doozy this one turns out to be. It provides the meet-cute moment between Crane and Katrina, a onetime Quaker nurse wanting only that a man’s conscience find its highest calling, and sets up a moral three-way pitting Crane’s military obligations against his immediate love for Katrina and his guilt over torturing Bernard. Many aphorisms worthy of being embroidered into samplers are said — “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority agrees"; “the love of power is the demon of all men” — which is more than fine, because if there’s one thing Sleepy Hollow pulls off with aplomb, it’s getting away with dialogue that would normally grind the action to a halt.
Crane’s flashback heads to a dark place as three other suspected insurgents are hanged on his watch, while Abbie and Jenny head to Hartford, Connecticut (a pretty dark place in its own right), where they believe a retired sin eater (played by Fringe’s John Noble) now resides. Katrina tells Crane, “I’m afraid the interrogation has ruined your grasp of humanity,” which easily could have been said about Abbie a couple episodes back when she sent her sister up the river and into a loony bin after refusing to corroborate her story about the creature in the woods. Everyone’s paths cross again in the present day when Abbie and Jenny, working off a premonition from the sin eater, find their way to the underground lair where Crane’s being held. They’re initially met by a pair of guns-drawn Freemasons (oh, Crane’s been kidnapped by members of his own brethren, the Freemasons; this’ll play out in future episodes, it’s made quite clear), prompting an equally armed Abbie to state plainly, “That’s not how this is going to work.” I wish Abbie could handle my monthly calls to my awful mortgage company for me.
Crane realizes that the most efficient way to thwart the Headless Horseman and prevent the apocalypse is to drink some poison and off himself, setting up a tearjerker scene worthy of The Notebook. Crane says he’s ending his life “so people can choose their own destinies just as I choose mine.” Abbie remarks that it’s in this conversation that Crane calls her “Abbie,” not “Mills,” for the first time; she also asks, “How can you be so calm about this?” Which is just the most deliciously practical-also-romantic thing Abbie could say, and when Crane replies shakily, “I’m terrified” — well, somebody pass me a hemp-woven, Colonial-era hankie.
Because this show is about forgiveness (I’ve just decided, after this episode), the sin eater arrives and unburdens Crane of his sins and/or poison just before he’s due to expire, dipping a little nibble of sponge cake or balled-up paper towel (I couldn’t determine what exactly I was looking at) into the bad Headless Horseman blood that he extracts from Crane’s hand via dagger. Crane gets to live on, and not inconsequentially, so does Sleepy Hollow, as the episode’s resolution results in its only unlikely plot point: Why didn’t Crane just go through with his own suicide, knowing that doing so while keeping his bloodline linked to the Headless Horseman’s would bring about his adversary’s demise, hence preventing the apocalypse?
Perhaps it’s so Sleepy Hollow can carry out its own bit of shipping, because the episode ends with Abbie and Crane reciting some Archie-and-Edith, Ross-and-Rachel kinda dialogue, all “Listen to me, OK?” nagging, and “I can’t go through that again” plaintiveness. Kids, get a tomb, already!
P.S. Many of you reading have asked for Vulture to recap this show. So, what do you think of the latest episode? Do you agree that it marks a turning point in the series? Other rules of the Sleepy Hollow drinking game you’d like to lobby for? Let me know!