Recap: Sleepy Hollow, “Spellcaster” (2×15)

Wait, did Sleepy Hollow just strike the appropriate balance between serialization and stand-alone episode? Did it make Katrina’s personality and background relevant to the story, and make a late-in-the-game, ret-conning effort (insufficient but well-intentioned) to define the parameters of magic? Unless I’m mistaken, “Spellcaster” attempted all three of these things. How’d it do? Not all that badly.

Moloch’s death – and the subsequent crack in Purgatory allowing doomed souls to weasel their way back into the world – has turned Sleepy Hollow into an East Coast version of the Hellmouth, which allows for a variety of monster-of-the-week characters with tangential connections to Revolutionary War history. This is a style that suits Sleepy Hollow, since it permits space for both the Witnesses wise-cracking chemistry and innovative, impactful monster effects, both of the show’s key strengths. This week, that monster is a Puritan warlock named Solomon Kent, late of Salem, Massachusetts, and apparently the one dude that all witches fear. (Because of his power, not the patriarchy. I guess.)

“Spellcaster” introduces Kent (a particularly creepy Johnathon Schaech in an excellent bit of guest casting) in a rapid-fire sequence that sees him stealing a spellbook, using his boiling blood to murder two people, and then being identified by Abbie, Ichabod, and Katrina. The spellbook turns out to be half of the Grand Grimoire, created by John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s occultist-cum-advisor, and the key to…something in Kent’s past. The gang is unsure for what precisely he wants the book. At first, they assume he wants open the gates to the underworld to resurrect the love of his life, Sarah Osborne, who spurned his advances in 1692. When undead hordes fail to materialize, Ichabod and Abbie deduce from clues – some ancient Aramaic and Grace Dixon’s journal – that Kent’s intentions are much worse. He wants to travel to the past himself, which could possibly change the course of human history to the point where they wouldn’t even exist.

Because the magical witch community is apparently the size of a small Alaskan village, of course Katrina’s ancestry is tied up in Kent’s Salem roots. In fact, Kent was responsible for the death of Katrina’s grandmother, after he started the witch hysteria to cover up his murder of Sarah. I could have done without Katrina’s biological connection to Salem. I imagine witches in the 1780s would remember the traumatic event much as Bostonians haven’t forgot the sale of Babe Ruth – events that devastate a community linger. In fact, I’d argue that Kent perceiving the darkness within Katrina would have been more potent without him seeing the connection to her grandmother.

Katrina uses up all her energy on the group’s initial confrontation with Kent, leaving her a magically desiccated husk while she recovers. Abbie and Ichabod are initially reticent about facing down Kent without magic like they did with every single supernatural being in season one. Fortunately, our Witnesses eventually come around to the same conclusion, and with the help of Frank and modern technology, they manage to replicate and magnify the effect of Katrina’s elemental magic.

Just in time, of course, for Frank Irving the double agent to snatch the Grimoire for a reinvigorated, emotionally liberated Henry.

It’s sounding an awful lot like I didn’t like the episode. That’s not true; I enjoyed it a lot, even if the logistics of the main villain were a bit silly. Schaech menaced well, and his grimy exterior and scarred torso gave exactly the right amount of information of what 400-ish years in Purgatory must have been like. Best of all, it got all of our characters pondering the ways they (and each other) were similar and different to Kent. Abbie points out that Ichabod and Kent are superficially alike, but Ichabod’s choices set him apart. Never before has Ichabod been so acclimated to his environment: he’s house hunting, even working out real estate doublespeak like “cozy,” “rustic,” and “original condition” with a little help from Abbie. In his final confrontation with Kent, Ichabod is fired up by the need to prove his righteousness to himself, and when he delivers the jolt of electricity to disarm Kent, he declares “In the 21st century, we make our own electricity!” Ichabod has committed to modernity; he’s made the choice to move on.

In a similar way, Katrina and Henry are forced to face their circumstance. Katrina continues to struggle with being a part of the modern world and the loss of her son, and Kent’s reminder that she has never independently figured out the reach of her powers rings true. Witches have covens to amplify their powers, yes, but also to hold them accountable to a set of community standards and restrain them as necessary – as the Salem coven did with Kent. Katrina has no such check, no community, and in her current state of despair, power seems mighty attractive.

Henry, meanwhile, has been mourning Moloch while holed up in a seedy motel run by some aw-shucks nice folks. Naturally, some central-casting standard thugs are threatening said folks. At first, Henry’s choice seems clear: be seduced by the good, and stand up for kindness and decency, or be tempted back towards evil. To the show’s credit, Henry resists the easy dichotomy, and picks his own path: he’s a wolf, so he can’t be with sheep, but he can still kill other wolves, which John Noble does with the casual ease of swatting away a fly. Henry is in charge of his own destiny for the first time, where good and evil aren’t that simple, and he likes it. I’m optimistic about it too.

At this point in the season, we’ve been taunted by the threat of everyone but Ichabod switching sides: Henry tempted by simple goodness, Katrina by the power in the darkness, and Abby by the pure pragmatism and mission-focused rigor of the angel Orion. They all walk the razor edge between good and evil that Ichabod references in the closing minutes of “Spellcaster”. With three episodes left in the season, the question is who falls.

Odds & Ends

– Jenny is off being Hawley and looking for some magical MacGuffin. Poor Jenny.

– Watching this episode with captions was hilarious. Lots of “whooshing” and “zapping” to describe the magical effects.

– One of the things I dug about the episode was the return of Abbie and Ichabod putting together clues, then devising an innovative solution to the problem at hand. Neither happens when these two are apart for long stretches or when the show over-relies on magical solutions.

– This week in revising American history: Abbie asks, “So Solomon Kent is responsible for the Salem Witch Trials?” No, Abbie. Just…no. I don’t even know where to start on the reimagining of the trials, except to possibly be grateful the show didn’t relocate them to Sleepy Hollow. I’m especially discomforted that Sarah Osborne was reduced to a passive victim rather than a social-norm eschewing unruly woman, but I pick my battles.