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Sleepy Hollow’s Ex-Protagonist

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Sleepy Hollow has never understood its own appeal.

The first season was a fun, often-silly, sometimes spooky genre show, grounded in the relationship between pompous fish-out-of-water Ichabod Crane and kind and badass cop Abbie Mills. The second season suddenly took its mythos very seriously, and sidelined Abbie in favor of making Ichabod the hero, focussing on his relationship with his wife and his son. The third season… well, I don’t know what the third season’s done, because I quit watching around the mid-season break of season two.

Which is why this post is a weird one to write. I don’t, as a rule, write about things I haven’t personally watched or read. Second hand information is bad basis for analysis. But since I used to write about Sleepy Hollow on this blog, I thought I should at least acknowledge what happened in the show’s season finale. Because… well. Spoilers after the cut.

The show killed off Abbie Mills. And you don’t need to have seen the latest season to see that as a problem. Because this is Sleepy Hollow, not Game of Thrones. And shows like Sleepy Hollow don’t kill off their protagonists.

The opening of the show clearly framed Abbie as the lead, and the emotional heart of the show. We saw how she responded to Ichabod Crane’s sudden arrival in the pilot, and how he fit into her life. All the key relationships in the show were hers — her estranged relationship with her sister, her sense of loss with Corbin, her new boss and her ex-boyfriend in the police force. She was the one who had visions of Katrina. Ichabod grew to be joint lead, but we saw the world from Abbie’s perspective.

And the first season of the show also established this as a safe world, one where the heroes could face peril, but not death. They could be buried alive, and survive with little trauma. They could be sent to hell dimensions, and plot their way back. They might be told that one of them must die, but they would always find a loophole, because this was a show where good triumphed over evil. It’s a rare show that kills off one of its apparent protagonists; Game of Thrones is the one example I have, and that’s always been an ensemble show as well. When the show is a light-hearted horror adventure, it would only kill off its protagonist if the showrunner went deeply off the rails, binged on too much George RR Martin and decided they really wanted to be “gritty” too. Otherwise, it just doesn’t fit.

Abbie can’t have been killed if she was the show’s protagonist. So, either she didn’t really die, or she wasn’t really the protagonist.

And let’s be honest: it’s the second one. It’s not that she wasn’t the protagonist, in the beginning. It’s that the show slowly but surely wore away her protagonist-ness, until Ichabod was the focus, and she was the helper who could tragically die as part of his arc.

This might have been a conscious decision by the writers, or it may have been a gradual, unintentional process. Either way, it starts with the creators fundamentally misunderstanding why viewers enjoyed the show, a misunderstanding that was probably guided by subconscious sexist and racist assumptions.

I’d like to say that I doubt someone sat in a meeting room and said, “Well, Abbie’s black and female, and Ichabod’s white and male, so let’s downplay her role and it’ll bring bigger ratings,” but that’s probably naive. Still, the show began with Abbie as the lead, so let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt and say that didn’t happen. We can’t prove it either way. But somebody involved in the show saw its popularity and thought that it was all Ichabod. People wanted to see this attractive, funny, fish-out-of-water guy on more adventures. His history was the interesting part. So they focused on him more and more.

Or habit kicked in. The white guy is always the lead, so his role increased, bit by bit, as people went by what felt familiar, what felt right. Unconscious bias meant that things shifted. Ichabod’s plotlines got more attention, making him feel even more like the protagonist. They were both still Witnesses, but the show was about the time-traveller, and Abbie fell into the position of Secondary Witness, the one that could die without ruining that sense of Heroes Prevail.

People have noted that Nicole Beharie wanted to leave the show, and that was why Abbie was killed. How can you blame the show for killing off her character if the actress wanted to leave? Ignoring the fact that you can write a character out of a show without killing them, Nicole Beharie seemingly wanted to leave the show because she was unhappy with her role there. I remember an interview, back when the show started, where Nicole Beharie talked about how excited she was to be able to play the lead in a show like Sleepy Hollow. But since then, both she and her character have both been sidelined. There’s scraps of evidence online: her having to ask the official Sleepy Hollow twitter to follow her. A since-deleted Instagram post where she commented that she hadn’t been invited to do DVD commentary for season two. Abbie was no longer a protagonist, and her actress wasn’t being treated as a major player in the show. If Nicole Beharie wanted to leave and find another job, the show was responsible for that, and it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t at least in part because they assumed that the white man is the protagonist and the black woman is the sidekick.

So it’s possible to argue that Abbie was killed for the plot, or because of the actress choosing to leave, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also because of her race. She moved from the protagonist to a character at risk of dying, and race almost certainly played a subconscious role in that shift, even if it didn’t factor directly into the decision to kill her itself.

 

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

2 thoughts on “Sleepy Hollow’s Ex-Protagonist

  1. Well said. I’m so so disappointed in Sleepy Hollow. The first season was so wonderful. I don’t understand how you can muck up your own show like that just to keep to your own biases. Because I also believe that a combination of racism and sexism is at the base of this. I’m so sad for Nicole Beharie that something she thought was going to be so good for her was made so bitter instead. I hope she finds a good new project where she is appreciated, because I think she is wonderful.

  2. I stopped watching the show because it got boring, but from what I’ve heard, not only did they kill her off, they retconned her role on the show, implying that she was just Ichabod’s sidekick rather than his equal; apparently, the last episode tells us she was always meant to help Ichabod along, and another one of her line could take her place. Which underscores that, yes, they defaulted to the idea that it’s always the white male who’s the protagonist.

    About GoT/ASOAIF: I disagree. GRRM, and by extention GoT, never killed its protagonist. No fictional tale ever kills their protagonist until the end, or near the very end. Because, if they die halfway through, they never were the protagonist, just the “seeming protagonist”, as you said in another sentence. It was not their story, in spite of how it may have seemed. Either they never were meant to be one, like Ned Stark, or they are retconned to never have been one, as Abbie.

    There’s a strong case for Ned Stark being the protagonist of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series (and of season 1 of the show, back when it was still faithful to the source material). But what GRRM did was fool the readers into thinking that Ned would be the protagonist, the hero of the entire series. A part of that was structuring his story in KL as a detective novel where Ned was trying to solve the puzzle. However, Ned was always just one of the 8 POV characters (minus the Prologue) introduced in the first book. The other 7 were: his wife, their three children (two little girls aged 11 and 9, and a 7 year old boy who becomes disabled after being pushed from a tower, 100 pages in and can’t walk), his 14 year old “bastard son”, an adult male dwarf (another disabled character), and a 13 year old girl. Do you notice something there? Yes, Ned had 15 chapters in the first book, and was at the center of the story; but I don’t think that was the only reason why people thought he was the protagonist. (On the show, it was also because he was played by the biggest star, who was in all promo materials, but that doesn’t apply to the book.) They also thought he was the protagonist because he was the white, straight, able-bodied male, and a feudal lord with power in addition to that. In hindsight, however, Ned was, from the perspective of the series as a whole. clearly the father/mentor figure who needs to die early for the plot and the advancement of the storylines of his wife and especially his children – Bran, Arya and Sansa in particular, Jon Snow to a lesser extent (since he was already defined by being a member of NW). Martin subverted expectations by killing off the person who seemed poised to be the hero based on what people expect their heroes to be, because most of the real protagonists are women, children and disabled people (some of them fit more than one category). This is something that the current “Anyone Can Die! Let’s kill off characters randomly (but mostly the “expendable” ones, like LGBT people, women, POC” crowd of current writers completely misunderstood.

    With the Red Wedding, Martin pulled yet another subversion – Robb was clearly not one of the protagonists, he wasn’t even a POV, but people were expecting him to be successful as the Great White Hope of the Good Guys – the avenging son, young warrior hero. And this was maybe an even bigger subversion of storytelling tropes, because if the father dies, the avenging son is supposed to succeed (heck, that storyline should have played like that even going by Martin’s real life inspirations [Wars of the Roses, Richard, Duke of York and Edward IV) . And then everyone started declaring that all Starks were dead and they were ruined forever and Martin never wants good guys to win. Even though there are several still living Starks, and a basic analysis of the series shows clearly that it’s Bran, Arya and Sansa, in addition to Jon*, Dany and Tyrion, who are the real protagonists, and that the former two have parallels storylines and are being set to come to the center stage in the last part of the story – heck, even the 5 year gap was planned just to let them grow up, and when that didn’t work out, the kids didn’t have a lot of pagetime in books 4/5, but it’s clear it’s only because they are undergoing their training stage, being taught magic, assassination skills and political scheming, respectively, by their respective morally dubious mentors. But most people don’t expect little girls (especially the girly ones like Sansa) and little boys who can’t walk to be the heroes.

    * Who has clearly not been killed off and is going to be back one way or another. Even if it’s in the way Catelyn has been back (which I don’t think would be the case with Jon, but just for the sake of argument) – Cat’s story in the books is continuing; not only did Martin kill off the young warrior hero, but unlike the show, he made it his mother’s story and her tragedy primarily, and then he sort of “fridged” him to further his mother’s story.

    Another thing that the current “Anyone Can Die” writers don’t get is, it’s not about killing off characters randomly, with no rhyme or reason. You kill off a character when they have played their role and their arc, even if the end of their story is failure. Both Ned and Robb had played out their role and their respective arcs, and both of these deaths were set up and foreshadowed, and were consequences of their own actions and mistakes.

    By contrast, when GRRM tried to fool readers that Bran and Rickon were dead in ACOK, I never bought it, not for a moment. Why? Because it would have made no narrative sense for Bran to die at that point. That would have been terrible writing. Bran didn’t even start really playing out his role, his arc was at the beginning, and he was set up with huge narrative potential, as a disabled young boy (and GRRM clearly likes unconventional heroes) with incredible magic powers that he was just starting to explore. Killing him off would have been a waste and idiocy. (It’s also something the current GoT or The Walking Dead writers may do.)

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