Fresh Baked Sin-Bread! Sleepy Hollow: “The Sin-Eater”

“Every culture has them—the sin eater reaches into you, and swallows your sin.” –Jenny Mills, Freedom Fighter

“Destiny isn’t a matter of chance, but of choice.” –Katrina van Tassel, Quaker Witch

Well, it’s nice to see what this show can do, after the slightly shaky “John Doe” and a couple weeks’ hiatus. I think “The Sin-Eater” was their strongest yet. It all built around a couple of strong, clear themes, and came down to a few moments that were actually beautiful. Plus, Ichatrina origin story!

So to start—sin-eaters are a real thing. The last known sin-eater in the UK died in 1906, and was recently given a nicer gravesite. Sin eaters practiced a specific ritual designed to keep the dead in their graves, so they didn’t come back in a more ghostly form looking for absolution, and the ritual depicted in this episode is pretty close to the historical record. Generally sin eaters were poor, and often occupied a fringe role in society, as the practice was not exactly okay with most churches. If you want to see a modern take on the practice, try this Margaret Atwood story. Obligatory “The More You Know” mental rainbow swoosh…

Sleepy Hollow Sin Eater

We begin at a baseball game, with Abbie explaining America’s pastime to Ichabod. They’re relaxed, happy even. When Ichabod says that he still feels out of place, Abbie is quick to reassure him that this is his home now. Seemingly listening to her, he decides to walk back to the cabin, to get to know the modern town better. As soon as she’s driven off, though, he heads to the cemetery. He’s not actually settling in, and the baseball game was certainly not a date. He sits in front of Katrina’s grave, brushes the leaves off of it, and gazes at it like he wishes the tombstone could share a milkshake with him. It looks like the show is finally going to give Ichabod (and us) a moment to talk to Katrina, and take stock of what’s happened. But no! Ichabod takes a dart to the neck!

Abbie has an almost simultaneous vision: it’s the moment many of us have been waiting for. Katrina and Abbie meet! Katrina brings Abbie to the spirit world version of the home she shared with Ichabod. Abbie hears a baby crying, but when she looks into the nursery, what she sees is some sort of grotesque potato doll with button eyes. Katrina tells Abbie that Ichabod has been taken, but, surprise, doesn’t give much useful detail. (Why is every conversation with this woman like trying to talk on a phone with bad reception?) So now Abbie has to find a “sin eater” to spiritually disentangle him from the Horseman, so that the quest doesn’t fail.

Abbie wakes up just in time to avoid crashing into a truck—maybe someone should tell Katrina to be more careful when she decides to grant people visions? Or maybe she’s trying to scare Abbie so there are no more baseball game non-dates? And actually—if Katrina has access to her old house, why doesn’t she stay there instead of purgatory? How much power does she have?

From this point the show cuts back and forth between two threads as it did in “John Doe,” but because both of the plots work toward each other, and play along the two basic themes of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, it works far better here. Abbie searches for Ichabod while Ichabod tells his origin story to James Frain and the Masons! Frain is playing Rutledge, the descendent of the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence, whom Ichabod knew well. Ichabod is a brother Mason, and they need him to verify his story so they know it’s really him. But…how did they get his story in the first place?

Meanwhile, Abbie has convinced Irving after a long and detailed argument completely supported by investigative work that he should let Jenny out to help search for Crane. Nah, just kidding! Abbie tells hardened, battle-weary cop Irving the whole crazy story, he seems completely unsurprised, and he immediately agrees to release Jenny to help, with no questions asked, and no psychiatric evals ordered. WHAT IS HE HIDING??? He also says something weird about how the two things everyone should try to hold onto as long as possible are “virginity and skepticism.” He makes a point of telling Abbie that it’s too late for the first one. What? What does this have to do with anything? And why is he specifically praising skepticism when last episode was all about Abbie allowing herself to have faith in the quest she and Ichabod are on? Or is this just how Capt. Irving asks someone out on a date?

Anyway, Abbie and Jenny work together shockingly well. Jenny’s obviously making a big effort to play nice, and Abbie occasionally makes reference to her own failure—when Jenny says that she lost track of a potential sin eater, Abbie says it was because she didn’t have help, and they both acknowledge it without getting too sappy. Abbie’s the one who figures out the sin-eater’s story, and they go looking for him. It’s a great set-up—the sin-eater has traveled from death row to death row, impersonating dead men to infiltrate each location. They track him to Hartford (and I’m pretty sure that was an aerial shot of Hartford, and not a stand-in city) and for a few minutes things are tense and feel almost like a typical cop show, with Abbie banging on the door and threatening the sin-eater with a non-existent warrant. But then he simply unlocks the door, and when Abbie cautiously pokes her head in, she finds sweet John Noble in a sweater vest, spritzing his fire escape garden.

Sleepy Hollow Sin Eater

His real name is Henry Parrish. He has traveled around the world eating sins, and he doesn’t seem too surprised that they know who he is. There’s no mention of how a person without a psychic witch connection contracts his services, and they don’t even get into a discussion of payment, because he tells them he’s through with sin eating. Seeing into the hidden secrets of other people is making him forget who he is, and he just doesn’t have it in him anymore. Sin eating is a young man’s game! He does, however give Abbie just enough clues to find Ichabod.

Back to Ichabod Origin Storytelling Hour! When he was still with the British Army, he “interrogated” a freed slave named Arthur Bernard for several days, trying to force him to reveal the identity of “Cicero,” a pseudonymous pamphleteer who was urging rebellion against the crown. The nurse who tends to his wounds happens to be a lovely young Quaker named Katrina Van Tassel. She urges Ichabod to listen to his conscience and free the man. When Bernard tells Ichabod that the world is full of demons, Ichabod thinks pain has driven him mad, but what’s Ichabod’s excuse when his own commander’s face begins to contort? His attempt to free Bernard ends in the man’s death, but not before he tells Ichabod to go to Katrina and say, “Order from Chaos.” This will prove to her that he’s seen the light. And then the British Commander really does turn into a demon and beats the crap out of Ichabod. So, is this his first supernatural encounter? I’m still inclined to doubt it. I think there’s more to his past than we’ve seen even now.

And so there it is, Ichabod’s darkest secret: if he’d freed Bernard earlier, he may have lived to see the Revolution. The Masons are satisfied that he is the One True Ichabod, and while they’re honored to be in his presence, they must regretfully request that he suicide now, so that his and the Horseman’s mingled blood will be stopped forever. It seems that when Katrina bound them together and buried them, she did so in defiance of the Masons, and now only his death will guarantee the safety of the world.

Sleepy Hollow Sin Eater

Abbie and Jenny confront the Freemasons, the show once again steps deftly around cliché. The Masons politely show her in, and then back out of the room so she can have a moment alone with Ichabod. In my mind, this is where they’re pouring some overly-taxed tea for Jenny in the other tunnel, with the overstuffed chair and the small, but excellently curated, reading library.

The following 20 minutes are the culmination of everything the show has set up so far. Abbie and Ichabod sit across the table from each other. Ichabod is regarding the box in front of him, and explains to Abbie that he needs to drink the poison in the box. That will break the connection between him and the Horseman, and Death will never be able to make his ride.

Abbie isn’t having it. “There’s always another way,” she insists, but he shakes her off, and tells her that he took an oath to protect people’s freedom, and that this is what he’s willing to do. And then… he calls her Abbie.

When she realizes what that means her face collapses. Abbie Mills, who has been tough, brave, and uncompromising in the face of demons, realizes that she’s about to lose another friend. Naturally, her first instinct is to yell at Ichabod. “How can you be so calm about this?”

And he replies, “I’m terrified.”

And then obviously, because these two characters are what they are, he insists that she leave to try to protect her, and she reaches across the table and holds his hand—if he’s going to go through with this, she’s staying with him. So he says the best possible thing: “Through these centuries, against the impossibilities that we would find each other…we did. And I am most grateful for it.” And then he drinks the poison.

It’s in this scene that Sleepy Hollow finally meets its potential. Tom Mison, who is always good, manages to go a few steps past good to show Ichabod’s relief when he realizes he gets to see his friend one more time, and that he doesn’t have to die alone, perfectly balanced with pain at having to explain his decision to her. And Nicole Beharie is just extraordinary. She finds every nuance in the situation, and turns a moment that could have been histrionic and maudlin into something honestly moving. So, that’s my convoluted way of saying SO MUCH EMOTION GAAAAH.

Henry Parrish gets there, just barely in time, because they’re only halfway through Season 1. After all of his earlier “I’m getting too old for this sin-eating shit” protestations, he seems almost happy to be there. He tells Ichabod that for years “I wasn’t sure if I was an angel or a demon,” but now he’s found the reason for what he’s been given. Apparently he’s a particularly badass sin eater, because he can draw both the actual and metaphorical poison out of Ichabod, if he’s given a chance. Ichabod agrees, so Parrish stigmatically stabs Ichabod’s hand. Rather than relating the full story of sin again, Parrish gets the Cliffs Notes on Arthur Bernard, who then appears. He says that his murder is not on Ichabod’s soul, rather that it led Ichabod to salvation, because he saw the truth and join Katrina’s cause.

Sleepy Hollow Sin Eater

This led to a bit of a discussion on Twitter—why are we sacrificing a noble black man again? And why is he granting the white guy absolution? I actually think the show is doing this pointedly. Bernard is a freed slave who puts his life in jeopardy to write about the value of freedom. He takes the name Cicero, who was revered by the Founding Fathers for his political thought. The show’s writers also make a point of Katrina being a vocal Quaker at a time when that was a half-step away from witchcraft in mainstream Protestant society. I think the show is trying to double down on the idea of sacrifice and point out that people who are the most oppressed by a society are the ones showing the most bravery in trying to change it. Flash forward 250 years and we get a racially diverse cast, with a variety of skillsets, beliefs, and opinions, ranged across the good/evil/wtf is their deal spectrum. But…I don’t know. It was unsettling to me, and I would love it if people want to weigh in in the comments.

Ichabod recites an incantation with John Noble, “I purge the wicked from my blood/Our spirits severed/My soul sanctified Death, leave me now I command you!” and then Parrish dips a piece of bread in the blood and eats it. He seems pretty pleased with himself. Abbie runs around and hugs Ichabod.

Allow me to repeat: She hugs Ichabod.

And then there’s some end matter where the Horseman is rising again and all the Masons are going to band together with Ichabod and the Mills sisters to fight him, and I guess Parrish is going to help? But really, who cares, Ichabod and Abbie hugged. Here, look:

Sleepy Hollow Sin Eater

So Ichabod is learning to love modern America, and seeing some of what was made possible by the Revolution. We see the choices he made as a young man that led him to his life now, and we see him facing up to a sin in his past, just as Abbie is coming to terms with her own sin—the betrayal of her sister. Abbie and Ichabod will have to be the sin-eaters for the modern world, though, and sacrifice their own lives and plans to stop the Four Horsemen.

Notes, Questions, Errata:

As I said, sin eaters are real, and I’m pretty sure the show got this aspect completely right. At least in Ireland and the UK, it was common for the sin eater’s ritual to involve eating bread and drinking ale in the deceased’s home. It was also common to recite certain words of forgiveness at the graveside of the one whose sins were being eaten, so in this case, Ichabod was alive enough to recite his own incantation.

This episode needed more Jenny! She and Abbie have a great, prickly chemistry already, but she seemed to go along with everything much too easily.

Henry Parrish’s eyes turned black during the ritual, Willow-style!

I seriously want a spin-off of the adventure of Henry Parrish going from death row to death row, eating the sins of the condemned. Holy crap.

I assume the potato baby was either Ichatrina’s lost child, or possibly symbolized Katrina’s choice not to have children, and put the Revolution first? (I’m assuming here that she had access to reliable magical birth control…) Surely there was a reason for her to bring Abbie to the nursery particularly.

When Ichabod starts to lose consciousness, his memories are tangled up between Katrina’s voice and Abbie’s. It was really nicely done, the way the show balanced every sweet Abbie moment with an equal one for Katrina.

He called her Abbie!!! And they hugged!!!

Dammit Capt. Irving, what is your deal? In the Book of Revelation, it suggests that virginity is a prerequisite for being one of the 144,000, and yet you explicitly state that you are no longer pure as driven snow. Is this another one of those seemingly throaway Irving lines that actually mean everything?

The youngest person to sign the Declaration of Independence was Edward Rutledge. He was 26 years old when he signed! He’s related to Goldie Hawn!

So, what did I miss? Was there any significance to the Celtic Triangle on the wall of the Freemason’s Underground Clubhouse? Is the potato baby a specific symbol? Are we going to get to see John Noble take out the Horseman with a machine gun?

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