Four Conversations We Can Have About Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is, to use a technical term, "Bat Shit Crazy," and that's what makes it such a generative text for thinking about some of the discursive struggles in America today around race, nation, family and religion/mythology. Like most American television series, it is a grand example of improvization -- they are making a lot of this up as they go and it shows. As a consequence, it feels like Sleepy Hollow is emerging in conversation with its audience -- especially when you factor in the very active social media presence of Orlando Jones, who has actively engaged with the program's fans through many different means. Where race is concerned, there is some sense, especially this season, of one step forward and one step backwards and so there are no shortage of contradictions and compromises in the characters and storylines that emerge. So, there are moments when the minority characters seem to draw on older racial stereotypes, and then, the next moment they are challenging or shattering those stereotypes.

So, there are moments where Orlando Jones as Frank Irving starts to pop his eyes with fear like Stepin Fetchit in a haunted house ("feets do your stuff") and then the next moment, he's standing firm and strong, very much in control of the wild and crazy situations he is confronting. He is a black man struggling to hold onto his family; he is a black man in authority who commands the respect of his people and yet is ready to put all of that at risk to do what he thinks must be done; he is a skeptic who is struggling with issues of faith, all of which makes  him much more complicated than the remains of the stereotype might suggest.

How could it be otherwise? Keep in mind that Scandal made news just a few years back for offering us the first black woman in the lead of a drama series that survived more than a season in something like 30 years. Sleepy Hollow was the next step towards a more diverse kind of television drama: a series with a white man and a black woman, as non-romantically linked partners, in the lead. And the social media buzz and ratings success of these two series may have paved the way for more diverse casting in this year's television slate, although as even the network executives are acknowledging at this point, not nearly as much diversity as America deserves and seems ready to accept.

But, that history means that there has not been a diversity of different kinds of characters to draw upon: certainly there have been one or two minority cast members on a range of ensemble based dramas and reality television programs, but there has still been real limits to what kinds of characters, how complex their motives are, what kinds of story arcs they are allowed to explore, what kinds of relationships they are involved with, and so, we are now at a moment of transition in how television deals with America's evolving racial politics.

When everything is said and done, Sleepy Hollow will be seen as a key transitional text through which networks and audiences negotiated those changes, all the more important because it wraps itself up so fully in a particular conception of the American nation state and bridges so often between past and present, history and the speculative future. There were moments in the first season where, much as America would soon be, the majority of the cast were people of color, as the white protagonist was pushed to the sidelines of his own story. So far, this season, there has been a resurgence of white characters -- especially Katrina and the newly introduced Hawley -- which has resulted in less screen time for the Mills Sisters or Frank Irving and his family, but this could change at any moment.

I have been thinking about Sleepy Hollow a lot of late, since I was asked to be part of an extensive panel discussion of the show at the conference of the American Academy of Religion, held in San Diego last weekend. My fellow panelists were Sheila Briggs, University of Southern California; Diane Winston, University of Southern California; and Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania. Getting ready for the conference led me to watch all of the episodes to date with computer on hand to take detailed notes, and I thought I would share a few of my thoughts with you, knowing that I am far from the only Sleepy-Head who reads this blog. Please be warned that there should be Spoiler Warnings on everything that follows since I do flag many specific moments and episodes to illustrate my points.

I focused my presentation around four key themes:

Rewriting the American Revolution –

One of my fellow panelist was sharply critical of the series for reconstructing the idea of "manifest destiny" I can see where she is coming from -- this series aligns the American founding fathers with the forces of good and the Redcoats (and especially the Hessians) with the forces of evil. But, I would also argue that the show is making a specific set of interventions to question or challenge the ways that the American Revolution has been constructed in popular memory. The Revolution and its figures have been evoked in various ways through the years: as a force for progressive politics in the popular front (1930s) with the Jefferson and Lincoln Brigades or evoked by Abby Hoffman during the Chicago 7 Trial ("I was there when Paul Revere road his motorcyle up the hill, shouting 'the pigs were coming' -- paraphrased by me) and more recently as a reactionary force in relation to the Tea Party.

Again and again, we see Sleepy Hollow engage with the encrusted meaning of the revolution, often through the way Ichabod’s memories contrasted with today’s beliefs. See, for example, his challenging of the docent who tries to explain Paul Revere in “The Midnight Ride” and his commentary on the Revolutionary War re-enactors he encounters in “Bad Blood” (though by second season he seems to himself have made a nostalgic return and sought friendship amongst those same re-enactors).  Much has been made of Crane's fish out of water responses to the modern age, which might involve his struggles with child proof tops or his confusion over the proliferation of Starbucks across the land. But often, the show uses Crane's confused questioning to depict the revolution in more progressive and diverse terms than the Tea Party version: so we see references to the alliance between revolutionaries and the Mohawks and Crane’s outrage over the genocide against Native Americans in “For the Triumph of Evil”, his concern over the rights of women in “Necromancer”, we see him question the obsession with the right to bear arms in “The Vessel” or his acknowledgement that Jefferson and other founding fathers were questioning of basic Christian beliefs in “The Indispensible Man”, We see him more open to issues of homosexuality than we might have anticipated in “Root of All Evil." Beyond this, I would point us towards several scenes where the African-American characters question Crane about the inequalities of his time: Abby and Irving challenge him about Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and his affair with Sally Hemming in “The Midnight Ride” and this season, we also saw Abby challenge who had the franchise in early America as Crane sputters over not being allowed to vote because he could not produce a proper ID, itself a reference to current voter suppression efforts, in "Deliverance."

And as the casting of people of color in the present day timeline has increased, there has also been an acknowledgement of the role of black freemen in the historical flashbacks. Keep in mind that the first question Crane asks Abbie is whether she has been "emancipated," though he seems more than prepared to adapt to a world where she has police authority. We meet the black revolutionary and martyr Arthur Bernard in "The Sin Eater," the man who helps to convert Crane from a red coat to a revolutionary spy, and we see the construction of a haven for black freemen in "Sanctuary," which also introduces us to Grace Dixon, Abbie's ancestor, the midwife who delivers Ichabod and Katrina's child. All of this, however, can be questioned in terms of the ways that the black characters are often depicted in roles where they are seeking to protect the white characters, often at the cost of their own lives – a classic trope in contemporary popular fictions.



This brings us to the second key point I might want to make about the series – the role that Sleepy Hollow is playing as television is negotiating a slow, overdue transition towards greater diversity in casting.  Throughout the first season,  we saw the cast’s composition shift towards characters of color, who play central roles in the narrative. If we apply the Bechdel test, we see many examples of scenes that feature women (the sisters) talking with each other about topics other than the men in their lives and we see similarly powerful moments where the black characters (especially in relation to Irving and his family or his priest) are talking with each other about issues important in their lives. This would seem to be a modest step forward in terms of representations of race, but it is remarkable how few shows meet this criteria. As much as I love that series, ask yourself how many scenes we seen on Scandal, say, when Olivia Pope has had a meaningful conversation with another black woman.  Here, We get full character arcs centering around these relationships, as well as the kind of close (non-romantic) friendship that exists between Abbie and Ichabod.  We might throw in the roles played by John Cho’s Andy Brooks, by Abbie’s ex Detective Luke Morales, and by Leena Reyes, the officer introduced this season. Several times now, we've seen glimpses into contemporary and historical Native American cultures, suggesting each time that there is much more that we can learn.

All of this has been brought to focus to me by Orlando Jones’ engagement via social media with the fan community which is being held up as a model example of a performer who creates a new relationship with his fan base. These interactions create a reading formation that sees the Irving character as more central to the series than he might be otherwise. The series does not always call attention to the race of its protagonists but does consistently cast many roles with minority actors that  in other contexts would most likely have been cast white. As Hollywood likes to put it, the characters "happen to be black."

Season two has been somewhat less commendable in this regard: the expansion of Katrina's role, the introduction of Nick Hawley, the marginalization of Frank Irving and his family, and the stronger focus on Henry Parish and Abraham Van Brunt in their human incarnations, has resulted in a stronger focus on white characters, though we could argue that the central focus here has been on the ways that these characters may be less than fully reliable and in some cases, represent the monstrous side of whiteness (see especially Joe Corbin in ""And the Abyss Gazes Back" for example). This same season, though, has seen a strong emphasis on strengthening the bonds between Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills, suggesting the complex ways that the history of White and African-America have been intertwined, and the ways we can come to see those connections as a source of strength. (See Maureen Ryan's smart critique of the Second Season at the Huffington Post).

Normality and Monstrosity

I have always valued Robin Wood’s analysis of the horror film genre, which starts with the formulation, “normality is threatened by the monstrous,” and attempts to define each of these terms in relation to the others. The tendency, Wood tells us, is to focus on the monstrous, which is where the most exotic elements are, but it is really helpful to start with normality. So, strip away the monsters for a moment and we see again and again the ways that acts of violence disrupt families, the ways we betray those we love, and often the violation of the innocence of children. We have Abbie and Jenny’s encounter with a stranger in the woods and the refusal of the legal establishment to believe Jenny's account of what happened to them: without monsters, this becomes a representation of child predators and the failure of the law to take accounts of child victims seriously. We see Abbie break with her sister denying what she experienced where-as Jenny speaks the truth and ends up in and out of mental institutions. We learn something along the way about how the two girls have been treated by foster homes (“For the Triumph of Evil”) and also as the second season continues, about their mother’s mental breakdown and suicide. We also learn about the collapse of Irving’s marriage following the accident that cripples his daughter as a key motivation for his actions across the series. When he attempts to act to protect her, he also finds himself in  the prison-mental health –industrial complex. And then we have Henry’s story – the way he must be put up for adoption by his mother and how this leaves him vulnerable to darker forces. We might also mention Joe Corbin's jealousy over the relationships his father has with the Mills Sisters or we might think about the ways that Crane's father disinherits him when he sides with the revolutionaries. So, in each case, what is "normal" here are children at risk, with their problems amplified by the supernatural forces.

Often, in many of the best episodes, the monster of the week plot is also linked to this theme of children at risk within the system, such as “John Doe”, “The Golem”, and especially “Go Where I Send Thee." In this last case, a mother is ready to sacrifice her young daughter to Moloch in fulfillment of a family curse and to save the rest of her family.  As Diane Winston noted during the panel discussion, one of the ways that Moloch was worshipped historically was through child sacrifice, making him an apt embodiment of the disrupted family.

At the same time, we see the series embrace the idea of families of choice -- that is groups of people who forge family-like units for their self-protection -- as occurs when Sheriff Corbin "adopts" both Abbie and Jenny at different times as the beneficiaries of his mentorship or the ways that all of these characters come together, learn to trust and care for each other, across the series as a whole. The series takes literally the idea that we struggle with "demons" in our personal lives, perhaps most powerfully in "Mama," which aired last week, where we learn that Abbie and Jenny's mother made all kinds of self-sacrifice to try to protect her daughters from the dark forces swirling around them.

Acts of Faith

There’s so much to discuss in terms of the depictions of religion in the series. There’s plenty here about Bibles and encrypted information, about prophecy and revelation, about purgatory as a space between worlds, about the place of rituals in contemporary society. I am perhaps most interested in the ways that the rationalist characters must negotiate a space in their lives where they can consider spiritual questions and take action based on faith. So, there is the moment of redemption that occurs when Abbie first meets Corbin in “Blood Moon” – the whole scene around the hot pie a la mode – or the moment where Irving talks about the two things you try to protect as long as you can because once they are lost, they do not come back (virginity and skepticism) in “The Sin Eater”. I am perhaps most interested in two church-based scenes in the first season – the one in “John Doe” where Abbie goes to the hospital chapel and searches for a sign of the way forward and experiences something she takes as a miracle and then the one in “The Golem” where Irving goes to talk to the priest and describes his own crisis of faith and questions whose interests are being served by "God's plan" for him.

This series cobbles together a mythology from many different sources -- fairy tales from old Europe, including the Jewish concept of the Golem; bits of Native American mythology; Freemasons and Quakers; Wiccan practices and other forms of esoteric knowledge; a dab of Catholicism, and much much more. And the protagonists, especially those who are called to be "witnesses" or "apostles," are at best seekers, more often skeptics, who struggle to reconcile their experience of the divine and the demonic with their understanding of the modern world. People have talked about contemporary romantic comedies as "nervous romances" since, in an age of frequent divorce,  they have to rework the genre to satisfy the skepticism of viewers about "a happily ever after" resolution. We might see Sleepy Hollow as a "nervous mythological saga" because it tries to reconcile premodern beliefs with a very contemporary style of rationalism and skepticism. In that sense, we need to read Abbie and Ichabod's relationship alongside Scully and Mulder in The X-Files: neither is simply a believer or a skeptic but both struggle to reconcile conflicting pulls on their beliefs.

There's so much more to say. I haven't tried to reproduce the insights of the other panelists here, each of whom had their own frames to make sense of a series which I started this post describing as "bat shit crazy." My point, though, is that Sleepy Hollow is exemplary in the ways it is negotiating with the contradictions of our current social attitudes towards the nation state and its history, racial and ethnic diversity, the state of the family, and the nature of faith in a rationalist society.