From the beginning, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow was going to have to prove itself: How could a show about Ichabod Crane, 18th-century professor resurrected in the 21st century to combat the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse — alongside Orlando Jones and Harold from Harold and Kumar — actually be any good? The answer turned out to be, through relentless myth-building, and, from the very beginning of last night’s Season 2 premiere, “This Is War,” the show jumped right back into it.
It’s not really worth explaining the intricacies of the plot other than this: In the first season’s finale, Crane (Tom Mison) was buried alive by his much older son (John Noble), and Crane’s crime-fighting partner, Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), was trapped in purgatory. The sequence of events that lead to this point is basically impossible to summarize, which is why, in a brilliant move, “This Is War” begins with what we’re led to believe is a flash-forward. From there, the show works backward (and then, ultimately, forward again), using brief flashbacks and sharply focused dialogue to explain to newcomers what the hell is happening.
Like the best episodes of this series, “This Is War” grounds its ludicrous plot with bizarre historical revisionism (Benjamin Franklin didn’t fly a kite to study electricity — he was trying to destroy the key to purgatory!) and giddy chemistry between Mison and Beharie (a post-beheading fist bump! Trading snark about Franklin!). So, yes, “This Is War” is a little chock-full of crazy: a major twist within the first ten minutes; a magic two-way mirror; more secret society talk; and a woman — Crane’s wife — held captive by a disconcertingly buff, half-naked headless horseman. But it works.
By the end of the episode, Crane and Mills have solved most of the problems set up in last season’s finale, with only Katrina remaining in peril. And then, in the final moments, a major plot advancement: Crane’s son is named as War, the second Horseman of the Apocalypse. Whether this will be the thrust of the second season is yet to be seen, but you probably shouldn’t bet on it: whereas other shows will milk villains for all they’re worth, Sleepy Hollow will introduce and solve half a dozen seemingly major plot points in a single hour of television.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between this episode and any that came before it is the marked improvement in the production values. Whereas before the show seemed just slightly off — maybe in the same way that The Walking Dead‘s grime looks a bit underdone — this year’s Sleepy Hollow is buried beneath layers of much-needed atmospherics. This is a welcome improvement in one of the most promising new shows of the past few years. It’s a rare thing for a series to be both incredibly agile at science fiction world-building and also willing to poke fun at itself. I guess when a show centers on a biblical war that involves the founding fathers of the US, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, and a ponytailed man who looks to have been plucked from a renaissance faire, it’s pretty much doomed unless it comes out with its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Happily, it’s still there.