Dramaturgery: Sleepy Hollow

Posted: October 18, 2013 in Braak, crotchety ranting, reviews
Tags: , ,

This fucking show.  Okay, so, let me be clear about one thing right at the front here:  I like all of the actors on this show.  Nicole Beharie, Clancy Brown, that Handsome Guy, John Cho.  Even Orlando Jones!  I didn’t think I’d like to see Orlando Jones, because I think of him as being kind of a silly guy, but no, Orlando Jones is great!  Everyone on this show is great, the diversity of the cast is great, I hope they have long and happy careers.  I even don’t have a problem with them having a long career on THIS show.  I don’t want Sleepy Hollow to get kicked off the air or anything, I am not petitioning for the DESTRUCTION of Sleepy Hollow.

I want Sleepy Hollow to be a better show, that’s all.  All those actors that I like, all that chemistry that’s so great, it deserves a better show behind it.

What’s Your Problem THIS TIME, Braak?

Okay, look.  In writing, in writing classes and at writing school (reminder: I have not been to writing school, and never got into writing classes, so I only know what my friends told me) they look at “restrictions” and “limitations” as a kind of opportunity.  Work tends to be STRONGER when it’s encumbered by arbitrary limitations, because those limitations encourage creative solutions.  When you base those limitations on actual, real-world phenomena, not only can those limitations prove fertile for creative solutions, but they lend a level of consistency to those solutions that just being able to make up anything you want forgoes (*cough*LOST*cough*).

Sleepy Hollow has this baffling tendency to ignore actual things in the real world — sometimes, they’re minor things, like the fact that “Abaddon” is a real word that doesn’t mean what Sleepy Hollow thinks it means (the actual word that does mean that is “Vlax”), or the fact that William Blake’s painting “The Flight of Moloch” is a different painting from “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun.”  Sometimes, they’re slightly more obvious, like the fact that The Lesser Key of Solomon is an actual book that you can buy on Amazon, or read for free on the internet if you were so inclined, and it’s therefore obvious that it’s not at all what you just said it was.

I know nobody cares about details, and that’s fine.  Who gives a shit if Paradise Lost was a poem, not a theological text, and Moloch’s most notable appearance in a theological text is THE BIBLE?  Nobody.  Noticing and caring about details is for assholes.

In fact, Sleepy Hollow ignores these details to no particular effect, anyway.  It would have zero bearing on the plot if all the William Blake paintings were named accurately, or if she’d been called Syrelda of Vlax instead of Syrelda of Abaddon, so why does it even matter?  The show feels like some weird alternate universe where everything is slightly, pointlessly different.  It’s not like they’re saying that ancient Sumerian gods were actually space vampires, or George Washington was a secret member of the Ordo Draconis.  It’s like Sleepy Hollow is a world in which Corvettes are all made by Fiat, and ham sandwiches are made with bologna.  I mean, it’s WEIRD, but it’s not like it MATTERS, right?

Well, let me posit this:  many of those details that Sleepy Hollow ignores were actually OPPORTUNITIES that the show wasted by not actually caring very much about the things that they talked about.

John Doe

So, Sleepy Hollow the town is in the Hudson River Valley, outside of New York City.  The Roanoke colony was on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Now, I’m not TOO clear on what happened — if the Roanoke colonists traveled to Sleepy Hollow and also through time, or if maybe there’s a time bubble or something that Ichabod and Abbie went through, or what.  They were all dead, yeah, but did they die IN Sleepy Hollow, or on the way?  Were they ghosts in a time bubble?  Was it just a death bubble? — but the colonists would have had to go the long way over land, which is about 533 miles.  Over land, incidentally, to nowhere — there were no English colonies in New York in 1587 (I mean, NOT nowhere, there were Native Americans all over the place, obviously, but certainly nowhere that a bunch of English colonists might have thought they’d be safe).

So, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but actually it DOES present a pretty good opportunity.  What if they had to go to Roanoke?  What if this episode was Sleepy Hollow:  Road Trip?  They have to get the kid back to the original Roanoke colony, so they drive down the highways, being pursued by one of the horsemen (Conquest, Pestilence, whatever, A GUY SAID A REASON).  Good opportunity to have Ichabod see more of the world, good opportunity to build an episode outside of the usual confines and restrictions of the series (it’s episode five, we can experiment a bit), good opportunity to give Orlando Jones a vacation if you want OR to have Abbie make a serious break with him, running off with the kid while he has to figure out how to hunt her down.

And, in fact, Roanoke, North Carolina IS a place on modern maps.  There’s a park there, and a big stage where they do a play about the Roanoke colony!  Actors dressed up as people from the 16th century!  So, there’s a bunch of opportunities here, too, to have Ichabod Crane, actual MAN OF HISTORY interacting with historical re-enactors!  (Doubly funny because they’re actually re-enacting a period of history that Crane was not personally familiar with; I think there is lots of room in this one for interesting stuff.)

Furthermore, if we’re going to talk about a plague, there’s maybe no mention of the fact that it the Native American population of the New World, shortly before the period of colonization began, was DEVASTATED by sweeping plagues?  I mean, I know that Sleepy Hollow is mostly interested in indigenous people as props, but what a great way to talk about how the English / Hessian (I guess, I feel a little bad for how much this show picks on Hessians) apocalypse-plot brought a literal apocalypse to the New World!

Hey, you know what else happened in Roanoke?  They left a message carved in a fence post:  “Croatan.”  No one’s completely sure what it means (but it was probably a reference to the nearby Croatan Island; maybe they moved there?  No one was able to look for them, though).  What an interesting mystery to preserve throughout the series!  Maybe Croatan was actually another demon, in service to Moloch!  Or some other supernatural power that could be prevailed upon to fight him!  A place that might provide safety from the apocalypse!  Or…well, no, never mind, no one cares.  Details.

(Incidentally, it’s not like the writers didn’t know about Croatan; the mark that Ichabod sees on the trees before he finds the time bubble [or death bubble, or whatever it was]?  That’s a Maltese Cross.  The Roanoke colonists were supposed to carve it on trees if they’d been forced to relocate, so the governor would know what had happened.)

Anyway, the writers of this episode solved the problem with…I dunno, time portal or something.  The ghost of Virginia Dare (?).

There’s actually also a bunch of other things in this episode that don’t make any sense.  Roanoke — as Ichabod Crane says in the episode — was established in 1587, long after people stopped speaking Middle English.  For a good example of what English sounded like in 1587, maybe you’d be interested in this obscure British author named William Shakespeare?  Who wrote thirty plays between 1589 and 1613?  Hilariously, a video was circulated around Facebook about a month ago, in which two guys demonstrated exactly what English sounded like in the 1580s:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s (go ahead and skip to 3:20)

So, there’s no excuse for this at all, is there?

The Lesser Key of Solomon

The Lesser Key of Solomon is an actual book, you can buy it on Amazon.  I have a copy of this book and let me tell you, much to my disappointment, it does NOT contain instructions for how to open a portal to Hell.  It does contain the Ars Goetia, though, (even though in the episode they acted like this was some other book; it’s not, it’s a chapter of the Lesser Key), which is a list of demons, of their signs, and of the ways in which they can be conjured.

Hahah, I know what you’re thinking!  It is basically the first thing that popped into your head, I’m sure:  what if they get the book back, but when they do, Ichabod is all, “According to legend, there are seventy-two devils described in the Lesser Key.  But this book only contains seventy-one.”  A page is missing!  WHO IS THE MISSING DEVIL?  What is the sign for him?  What powers compel him?  What is his rank in Hell, and his area of dominion?

That is an enduring mystery that could carry you through a fucking season.

Not only that, but the demons listed in the Lesser Key are almost all empowered to give people access to certain kinds of knowledge:  astronomy or where secret treasures are buried or finding things that are lost.  What if they had this book the whole time, and they had to resist (and sometimes failed to resist) the temptation to call in the devils listed therein in order to solve their problems?  I don’t mean LOOKING THEM UP, like in Grimm or Buffy or whatever, but actually conjuring a devil to, say, find a lost child.

Good use of demons, guys — is risking your immortal soul worth finding a kid who’s lost?  Worth averting the apocalypse?

Interestingly, of course, the REGULAR Key of Solomon (not called the Greater Key, because it was written two hundred years before the lesser key) is a book whose original text is long lost — all we have are various translations and copies, none of which precisely agrees with the other.  So, there’s something that you could talk about, I don’t think it even takes more lines than the ones they used:

Jenny Mills:  The Key of Solomon is a legendary grimoire, but all the copies of it are fakes or incomplete.  The original text is lost.

Ichabod:  The original text was believed to be lost.

BUM BUM BUM!  So, now not only can no smart-ass buy a copy of it on Amazon and start talking about how you guys don’t know what you’re talking about, but look at the opportunity this gives you!  Even if they get a copy of the book, how do they know this is an ORIGINAL?  How do they know it’s not a fake?  How can they trust any of the chapters?  Just because one invocation (the hell-portal, for instance) works doesn’t mean they’ll ALL work.  They could have this book for the whole season and Ichabod Crane could use his powers of BEING A HISTORY PROFESSOR to attempt to determine just how legitimate its different chapters are!

(It would be like The Ninth Gate, with a similarly-handsome main character.)

Anyway, if you saw the episode, you know the writers resolved the Lesser Key of Solomon issue by throwing it in a hole.

Syrelda of Abaddon

So, this is less of a specific detail of history, and more of a detail of modern culture, but I’ll put it in anyway.  Of course, as I’m sure everyone knows, “Abaddon” is an actual word in Hebrew, and it is not the word used for the dialect of Romani that is used by Romani people in Greece.  It means “Place of destruction” and was also interpreted as being the name of an angel (Apollyon in Greek).  You would think that a show interested in a climactic battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell would be interested in that — at the very least, you’d think they wouldn’t waste the names of demons by ascribing them to things that aren’t demons — but whatever.

There IS a word for the dialect of Romani used in Greece.  That word is “Vlax,” — Vlax Romani is the particular branch of Romani used in parts of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.  (Serious linguistic study of Romani language wasn’t really happening the 18th century, though, so I’m not sure why Ichabod would know it…oh, hey, what a great opportunity to reveal insight into Ichabod’s burning curiosity to understand other people, especially people who are unfairly maligned or oppres….oh, oh we’re just going to forget about that?  Never bring it up again?  Okay, cool.)

Whatever.  Let’s imagine for a second that there was a rule in TV writing, and that rule was that you had to have a diversity of characters on your show, but you couldn’t use the first or second most common stereotype about that character.  Like, if you have a Romani character, they can’t be 1) a thief, or 2) an evil witch.  I guess this rule only really applies when you’re talking about tangential, one-off characters — if you’re doing a deep investigation into a culture, obviously do whatever you want.  But if you’re just going to bring them in for a one-off, here one minute, exploded the next, you can’t use something that we’ve already seen ten thousand times before.

Like, what if the Romani characters were actually VICTIMS in this scenario?  What if they’d been hanged as witches (no one in America was ever burned at the stake for witchcraft)?  Or what if they’d been killed by angry townspeople who set their caravans on fire?  What if Syrelda had been a witch from the TOWN and was using one of the Romani characters to give herself immortality, and the accidental death of their family interrupted her spell, and so now she had to find his descendants in order to come back to life?

Look, THIS episode has both a WITCH, and a commentary on how accusations of witchcraft were, historically, ONE HUNDRED PERCENT OF THE TIME used as an excuse to murder strangers or people who were weird!

(Then you might ask, “Well, if she wasn’t a ROMANI WITCH, then where did she learn witchraft?” to which I might respond, “Well, if only the 18th century, between the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Hellfire Club, Rosicrucians, et al., had been COMPLETELY FUCKING LITTERED with occult secret societies!  If only George Washington had notably been a Freemason!  If only Adam Weishaupt had founded the Illuminati in some year that had historical significance for the American Revolution like, say, 1776.”  Sadly, history will never provide us such a bounty.)


Moloch is a pretty famous character, he was a deity mentioned in the Bible to whom the Phoenicians and the Canaanites were obliged to sacrifice their firstborn sons to.  (Probably this didn’t happen on the scale described in the Bible, but there is SOME sketchy evidence in Carthiginian gravesites that some kind of child sacrifice MAY have occurred.)  So, the Bible is a pretty important theological text.  Paradise Lost, obviously, is not a theological text at all, it’s a poem by John Milton, written in the 17th century — that’s not real far from Ichabod Crane’s time period; John Milton : Ichabod Crane :: Walt Whitman : You.  Anyway, whatever, it’s a cool name, who doesn’t like to hear about Moloch?  Remember when he was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a demon of the Internet and then they put him in a robot body, and for some reason it never occurred to the writers to bring back the robot head of the demon Moloch?

(Mythologically-speaking, severed heads are often magical oracles, which makes me wonder why the Headless Horseman isn’t TAKING the heads he cuts off, making the murders harder to identify, and lending a sense of mysterious dread to the whole thing; also, what if he then used the heads as oracles?  Rad.)

Back to Moloch, though:  if you’re going to use a poem and pretend it’s theology, why not just go all the way?  Another famous poem that features Moloch is “Howl”, by Alan Ginsberg.  Here’s how he describes Moloch:

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!

Again, you’re probably way ahead of me on this one, because the opportunity is pretty obvious:  what if Ichabod Crane woke up 250 years later, and the apocalypse had already happened?  What if we’d lost, and we were living now in the Final Dispensation?  What if Moloch wasn’t a naked guy in the woods, but was the towering smokestacks and blind windows and oppressive urbanization of New York City?  What if Moloch was terrifying because he was inescapable?

I mean, fighting in a war only to find out 250 years later that you’d lost, discovering that the pretext of civilization was a lie, that the world you’d been trying to build was actually your enemy, these are pretty interesting things I think.  The Horsemen could easily play into all of this (actually giving Conquest a pretty good spot — as Imperialism — in a way that doesn’t require someone to say, “Uh, yeah, uh, Conquest is also Pestilence”), all the ghosts could play into this.  Are Ichabod and Abby FIGHTING the spectres of long-ago ages, or is modernity itself the enemy?

Of course, for the writers of Sleepy Hollow, Moloch is a naked guy in the woods with horns.  He killed John Cho, I guess?  Will rise or something.  I dunno.

Dude, It’s About the Characters

Yeah, yeah, I know.  That’s why this show would be exactly the same if it were an hour-long dramedy about an Outlander– style romance between a police lieutenant and a dude who woke up in a cave 250 years later.  This show was ORIGINALLY called Rip Van Winkle and didn’t have monsters in it at all.  The demons and conspiracies and stuff were just a bunch of garbage thrown in that no one cares about and that don’t matter, they’re just there to fill space.

Honestly, I wish they HAD made that show.  Rip Van Winkle would have been a good show, it could be about a guy who fought in the American Revolution and now had to come to terms with what America was, with what America had become.  Did he like it?  Did he regret it?  Etc.  Good character study, fun show.

And you know, I could point out that a lot of the character stuff doesn’t make a lot of sense either.  Why does Orlando Jones sometimes believe weird things and sometimes not?  Why does he believe that a person who commits a murder must commit murders exactly the same way, every time?  Why is it that Abbie, who spent so much time convincing herself that what she saw in the woods wasn’t real, doesn’t think she’s having a nervous breakdown when Ichabod shows up?  Why doesn’t she try and escape him and disassociate from him, if she thinks that she might be going crazy?  Why isn’t she petrified of ending up like her sister?

Importantly, now that Abbie has accepted the supernatural, why isn’t SHE the really credulous one?  She doesn’t have any standard for what kind of stuff might be true; now that she knows everything she knew was wrong, she’s got every reason to believe whatever weird thing happens next.  Ichabod, on the other hand, has been chasing supernatural monsters for a while — surely he must have run into a thousand dead ends, right?  He should actually be the skeptical one.  Here, look, watch:

Ichabod:  Just because one extraordinary thing is true, leftenant, does not mean that all extraordinary things are true.

Abbie: I think we’ve both seen a lot more than one extraordinary thing.

Her sister could be skeptical, too, for the same reasons .  That’s kind of interesting to me, actually, if Abbie is the believer in the middle of a circle of people (Orlando Jones, Ichabod, Jenny) who all, for one reason or another, disbelieve a lot of what they see.

Speaking of her sister — I mean, actually, first,  speaking of “what they saw in the woods”: are we meant to believe that two girls came back to town and said, “We saw four trees and something that might have been an animal in the woods” and the townspeople were all, “Witch!  Madwomen!  Get thee to an attic!” — but speaking of her sister.  Why didn’t she see something like a guy taking his face off in the woods, and so become paranoid that she’s constantly surrounded by doppelgangers? OHHH, what if actually a lot MORE had happened, and Abbie doesn’t remember it because she repressed the memory but Jenny does!  And also, why isn’t she ACTUALLY schizophrenic, so that she, and we, can’t tell which hallucinations are genuinely supernatural, and which are delusions on her part?  How did she spend a lifetime nursing the betrayal by her sister, only to forgive her after a trite speech in an interrogation room?

Remember that episode where the Ghost of Clancy Brown appears, and explains to Abby (and us) exactly what her character is like?

Also:  when do we get an episode in which Ichabod can’t fucking stop talking about how great flushing toilets are?  AT LEAST give us an episode where Abby takes him to the New York Public library and he just faints.  Come on, we deserve that.

I submit that what people actually like about this show is not the characters at all, but the chemistry between the actors.

Anyway, whatever.  My feeling is that there are no excuses for this kind of nonsense.  I get that the characters are important.  So are the monsters.  All the parts are important.  You can put whatever you want in your show, but you have to MEAN IT, guys.

Tom Mison, Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones, John Cho, Katia Winter, Nicholas Gonzalez, Lyndie Greenwood, and Clancy Brown — ESPECIALLY CLANCY BROWN — deserve a show written by people who care about ALL of the details, not just the obvious ones.

  1. John Jackson says:

    Everyone I’ve encountered who watches it says they like the chemistry. I just really didn’t like that first episode.

  2. I like a ‘fish out of water’ narrative, especially when it involves time-travel, of sorts, and especially when it’s a character from the past coming into our time.

    So this show kind of hit all of my buttons in the first episode, and I was able to deploy the Handwave-ometer which I use when I love the theme/topic/actors so much I want to ignore the problem areas.

    But now, I don’t know. First of all, I want all of that ‘flush toilets’ amazement with Ichabod, and it’s like he’s getting used to all this crazy futuristic stuff much too soon. I mean, when I bought my first pc, in 1988, it had 1MB RAM. And a forty MB hard-drive. And that was cutting edge for a home pc. If you’d have told me that in 2013 I’d have had more than than on my phone, which would also take pictures and video for me, it would have blown my mind. And that was just 25 years ago (now I’ve made myself feel old). I loved the montage in episode 2 with all the post-it notes, and his amazement at guns with more than one bullet in them, but is that all? That’s all we’re going to get?

    So I’m feeling a bit grumpy, a bit short-changed, and then we get to the episode which hits each teacher of the works of Shakespeare where it hurts (the iambic pentameter, apparently). I’m so glad that Sleepy Hollow has made NO splash amongst the teenagers of my country (thank god for the Salvatore brothers) because it’s hard enough persuading them that what they’re reading is in no way or form ‘Old English’ without some fucked up writers making it even harder.

    Also, I suspect the great chemistry between Beharie and Mison is a happy accident, and Ichabod + Katrina = endgame, and Katrina is as dull as proverbial ditch-water. Whenever she appears with her exposition (recorded in real time!), the show grinds to a creaking halt, and I catch up on my email.

    The Handwave-ometer is losin’ power! She cannae take much more, captain! Ahem.

  3. braak says:

    I don’t mind waving my hand over some stuff, but I would like it to not have to do it for stuff that is directly integral to the plot, and not have to do it in every single episode.

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