Warning: This post contains spoilers for Sleepy Hollow.
When Fox announced the development of Sleepy Hollow, a supernatural drama featuring Ichabod Crane waking up in modern day America and joining forces to fight the headless horseman and other magical villains, most reactions ranged from eye rolls to bemusement. It seemed destined to be a one season wonder cancelled after 5 or 6 episodes. That it became a critical hit and fan favourite spoke volumes to the creativity and passion of the cast and crew.
It had the perfect combination of elements to make for a fandom friendly show – handsome British lead paired with a kick-ass woman of colour detective, top notch chemistry between the two, a well-managed and consistent tone, self-aware yet no less dedicated to the story at hand, an inclusive ensemble and an intriguing narrative with fun procedural elements. Fans latched onto the series in its first season, and even cast member Orlando Jones joined in on the fun, actively engaging with the community, offering hilarious commentary and even asking for fanfiction recommendations. This highly appealing combination of content, fandom and show-viewer relations is a lightning in a bottle phenomenon, creating the kind of excitement and goodwill most shows can only dream of.
So of course they fucked it up.
Suddenly with season 2, the show shifted its focus from Abbie to Ichabod and his family issues, ostensibly forcing the lead of the show and the character the fans liked the most into a supporting role. Her role, and that of the people of colour in supporting positions, became increasingly marginalised as the season progressed. The undeniable chemistry between Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie, which on any other show would lead to a romantic subplot, was entirely ignored. Eventually, these tensions moved to the real world, with Beharie not even being invited to record the commentary for the series DVD. It seemed as if the expected network meddling combined with a new showrunner led to the complete squandering of a wonderful show.
The absolute cock-up that occurred from season 2 onwards – which led to Orlando Jones being asked to leave and having absolutely no chill about the ongoing developments – isn’t a new phenomenon with TV. The sophomore slump is almost a trademark of the business. Yet here it was particularly egregious because of the way race played a part.
The heroine of Sleepy Hollow is a dark skinned black woman who’s independent, sharp, determined and clearly the most qualified person in the room at any given time. The white male character proudly followed her lead, respected her authority and understood his boundaries, and their chemistry was palpable. This is a dynamic most showrunners would kill for, and I guarantee that if Nicole Beharie had been white, things would have gone down a very different route. As it was, what we ended up with was a stream of episodes focused on Ichabod’s wife, who was nowhere near as interesting or necessary to the show, but was white, while Abbie was left to do nothing.
Abbie and Ichabod’s relationship was equal parts Mulder & Scully and screwball comedy; a luminous pairing with sparks of chemistry that left fanfiction writers with fuel for many a story. Fans responded to the shafting of Abbie’s role with a Twitter campaign, #AbbieMillsDeservesBetter. How did the show react? By passive-aggressively including that very line in an episode, indicating that they did indeed know of fans’ frustrations, but didn’t really care enough to truly engage with them. Seeing an interracial romance on screen, one built on mutual trust and respect, would have been incredible, yet the showrunners seemed to go out of their way to avoid it, and it’s hard to look at the hoop jumping they engaged in without thinking there’s some element of racism behind it. You can almost hear the network notes screaming about the need for more white male viewers.
As you may now know, season 3 wrapped up with Abbie sacrificing herself for a greater cause. Nicole Beharie’s desire to leave the show is no surprise given the way she’s been treated, yet it still stings to see Abbie’s ending be yet another woman of colour throwing herself on the sword to further the white man’s narrative. Abbie Mills had moved from the lead to a sidekick long ago, but to see her fridged was truly salt on an already painful wound.
There’s no Sleepy Hollow without Lt. Abbie Mills. The heart and soul of the show was stripped out as part of some desperate attempt to appeal to an audience they didn’t need and who didn’t want to be there. Some demographics are more valuable than others to networks like Fox, and clearly young women, primarily women of colour, just weren’t good enough for them. It’s possible showrunners genuinely didn’t know what made season 1 so good, which is depressing in and of itself, but when one of the writers declares glibly that “sometimes minority characters die on shows because they’re characters, not because they’re minorities”, you really can’t ignore the possibility that they’re all too aware of what’s going on.
One can’t help but wonder what the show would have been like in the hands of Shonda Rhimes or Bryan Fuller, creatives who understand that fans aren’t an arbitrary concept they can create from thin air. It would have been wonderful to see a Sleepy Hollow where supernatural procedural mixed with screwball rom-com, where Abbie Mills was wooed and courted by the man who clearly adored her, and where her story got to be the story of the show. Alas, we’ll just get another ten shows about tortured straight white men fighting crime. Abbie wasn’t the only one who deserved better – audiences did too.