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Monday, November 11, 2013

Guilt and Monsters -- Review of Sleepy Hollow Episode 6 "The Sin Eater"

Half the fun of a show based around a monster is the anticipation of its arrival. Indeed, most horror movies and TV shows go right down hill once the monster actually shows up.

So the writers and producers of "Sleepy Hollow" have played it smart in letting the Headless Horseman -- whose presence is conjured up by the title "Sleepy Hollow" -- keep a relatively low profile. Beyond a feature role in the pilot episode, the Horseman has been seen only in dream sequences and one brief teaser at the end of an episode, which concluded with him strolling out of a river (maybe he needed a bath). This has frustrated a few fans, but overall allowed the series to establish one clear fact: this show is NOT about the Headless Horseman. He's the villain and he's not going to show up every episode.

"I'm just dying to get some new puns."

This is vitally important because familiarity is a poison that kills any sense of tension. Just ask any horror franchise villain, like Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees or Mike Myers. The more you see them, the less scary they get. Keeping the Horseman away has let viewers anxiously anticipate his arrival in a way they never would if he popped up all the time.

Since the finale of Episode 5, the writers have been teasing us, however, with the Horseman's return. In Episode 6, "The Sin Eater," we are told again and again that the Horseman will return "tonight," but aside from a brief appearance in Abbie Mills' dream, we never actually see him. Yet his presence hovers over the entire episode, letting it build an extremely satisfying narrative tension.

Perhaps just as important, "The Sin Eater" breaks with the rest of the series by forgoing the usual monster-of-the-week in favor of a more internal struggle. Technically, there's a new monster in the form of Ichabod Crane's British commander, but he's not the point of the episode. Instead, it focuses on Ichabod's guilt over the death of a freed slave when he still lived in the 18th Century. Ordered to torture Arthur Bernard until he reveals the name of the treasonous "Cicero," who is writing tracts calling for the Colonies to rebel, Crane reluctantly obeys before finally setting him free. What he doesn't count on, however, are the forces that are hunting both Ichabod and Bernard.

For a show normally about evil in an external form, like a witch or a Native American demon, it was an interesting twist for it to instead delve into the evil that lies in a man's heart. Ichabod's fate turned not on whether he could defeat an external force, but rather forgive himself for the choices he made.

This is Ichabod's really hot wife.
"The Sin Eater" was also notable, in addition to the appearance of Fringe's John Noble as a recurring character, for its spectacular acting. Simply put, this episode couldn't have worked without some forceful performances from Tom Mison (Ichabod) and Nicole Beharie as Abbie Mills. Abbie's efforts to save Ichabod, as well as convince him not to sacrifice himself to stop the Horseman, were incredibly moving. Technically, the characters have only known each other for a few weeks, so a scene like this could have been less than credible, but its due to the strength of Beharie and Mison that it works. Katia Winter also turns in a terrific performance as Katrina Van Tassel. My only wish is that the writers give her more scenes to appear in as when she does, she is electrifying.

Overall, despite the fact that the Horseman didn't show up yet, this was an excellent episode that ably showed off the writers and cast's ability to make us care about the characters even when they aren't fighting the Headless Horseman or other monsters. Or, more precisely, the show makes us care when they are fighting the demons inside us all.

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