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.