Well! Sleepy Hollow's sophomore slump took a sharp uptick this week with "Mama," which gave us a long-overdue Mills family reunion...in a really questionable hospital.
Centering around something we've been without for too long (Abbie and Jenny's relationship), this episode nearly draws on some of the classic great ghost stories, where the ghost only illuminates your present problems, and defeating it means coming to terms with a hell of a lot else first. Given that we're seeing Jenny for the first time since her return from the Merchant Marine/spelunking mishap, it seems like a lot to give them all at once, but if you're going to do a standalone, might as well make it about the Mills sisters and go for broke.
The trick to this, of course, is that unlike all the Revolutionary War occult stuff, Abbie an Jenny's trauma is rooted in something very real: parental abuse, and all the issues that accompany their abandonment. It's one thing to claim George Washington left notes about his zombie resurrection in his special Bible, and quite another to have flashbacks of Lori Mills nearly killing Jenny in a car-fumes suicide attempt. And while the metaphorical demons of mental illness made manifest aren't new to science fiction, with only one episode to tackle it, it's no surprise it ends up a little sketchy in places. But when it works, it gives us what might be the most gripping episode of the season.
One of the smartest things this episode did was sideline Ichabod with a cold, so that he couldn't be the vaguely-scolding platitude fulcrum between them as he so easily ends up being when he's in the middle of their issues. I feel like we've missed him, too, amid all this Katrina stuff (which there's still tension about even in this episode), but his return to form should not come during a Mills sisters moment. Good call.
Abbie's off to have some home truths with her sister and she's looking forward to not having to tilt her head way back to check everyone's facial expressions, bye!
Sadly, this is immediately turned into something terrible by having Hawley sub in. Why on God's earth must he be here, interrupting such precious sisters time?
(Also, I know the Ichabod-drinks-the-soup-and-conks-out was intended for comedic effect and the episode was a little busy anyway, but is drugging someone without their consent not a big deal to Abbie?
Particularly given the context of this episode, in which the bad guy is evil in large part for drugging people without their consent, this feels really off. Why is this a chuckle and a cut-to? Hawley's narratively useless, but this is a red flag above and beyond everything else. If only there was some sort of agency for law enforcement that would hold people socially and legally accountable for drugging someone without their consent! Maybe Abbie could belong to it. How different things would be then!)
WHATEVER. Hawley. We'll all pretend he's not around, it'll be fine.
After receiving a case about suicides in Tarrytown, Abbie recruits Jenny to go with her. Jenny is not thrilled about being back in her old involuntary stomping grounds. After meeting a suspiciously pleasant nurse, they consult with Irving about what might be going on.
Sure, they never end up in the same frame, so we're making two-cent composite shots, but it's the thought that counts!
It's a particularly interesting scene since it reminds us of where everybody stands; Irving and Jenny share a joke about choosing your own Jello, which is the sort of insider humor Abbie knows better than to want to be a part of, and Abbie gets to be the one to ask if maybe Irving did it to try to escape his deal with Moloch.
Awkward as hell, and yet still so welcome.
The flashback is unfortunate ("I'd make the same choice again if I had to," Irving says in his own defense, which seems like a HUGE statement given how easy it would have been to just wipe the blood off his finger and sign in ink, but okay), but I'm so thrilled just to see them in the same room that I'll accept this as the kind of thing you say by rote when you're planning something else, because the man is planning something else.
Over the course of this episode, it becomes clear that a lot of the distance between the sisters is because of the version of their mom they hold on to. Jenny's is terrifying, especially her little-kid flashback about seeing Mama get dragged away screaming: "In her own way, Mom prepared me," she admits of Tarrytown. It's Mama as a foregone conclusion. Abbie, of course, has always used their mother as a tried-her-best cautionary tale about what happens when you can't suppress and keep moving. It also makes sense that Jenny's left relatively untouched by the evil nurse in this episode; she's worked through the demons Abbie is only recently beginning to shake loose.
And speaking of demons, when they replay the video of the most recent suicide:
"It's Mama," Abbie whispers, "back from the grave." Well, I think we have our cold open!
The rest of the episode involves investigating the evil force behind the suicides: though it turns out to be a nasty nurse ghost, of course, there's a lot of time where everyone thinks it's Mama, and has to deal with that in their own way.
There's also some rescuing people from suicide attempts, and Abbie and Jenny having parallel hauntings in a way that underscores the different coping mechanisms they've used. At one point they get stranded in the Clearly Haunted Wings. (This hospital has at least three totally abandoned wings with lead paint peeling off, surgical instruments just hanging around, open wires dangling. Sleepy Hollow, find some taxpayer dollars, dang.)
Abbie's scared but slightly hopeful – she still hasn't given up on seeing her mother and getting some closure. Jenny's first reaction? A shaky, harsh, "Stay away from me."
Even more telling is Abbie's first concern when she shows up: "Did she try to hurt you?"
We also get some flashbacks that present us with that same odd overlap of the supernatural and the everyday; their mother is literally battling demons, but even though her worry about them taking the route from the bus (the one we can only assume goes through the woods with the Four White Trees), terrifying your kids by shouting at them is not the best idea, and their house clearly broadcasts an impending visit from Child Services.
The mantra she makes them repeat? "Eyes open, head up, trust no one." Abbie would go on to obey this to the letter; Jenny would put her faith in the grownups and get bitten for it.
(As their mother, Aunjanue Ellis has limited things to do, and all of it is pitched to eleven as we see the final stages of her struggle, but the intensity works in these limited doses. You have zero problem imagining the stress and paranoia of growing up in her household, even before she starts trying to kill them.)
They finally watch the therapy session that reveals Nurse Wretched is an evil ghost—after kicking the dudes out for "privacy," which frankly should have been the theme for this entire episode—but even that feels like just so much plotcakes to keep things moving outside the sisters and their great dynamic here.
Jenny's spent time being outwardly tougher but can barely watch the video (we can assume she has several of her own), and Abbie seems more well-adjusted but has a core of repressed iron, and has already admitted to Jenny's face that her greatest fear was ending up in Tarrytown like Mama and Jenny. She honestly cannot stop the pragmatic smoothing-overs. "We know why she was unstable." Well, problem solved, then!
Armed with information, it doesn't take them long to track down the creepy ghost nurse.
I need to know the story behind the picture of that guy. I just do.
By the time they realize the real baddie and the stakes, Nurse Wretched has already gotten to Irving, and he tries to check out of Tarrytown.
We'd have liked to see you shirtless, Irving, but not like this! Not like this! (This is a seriously dark episode. Drowning, suicide, medical experimentation, loss of physical and mental autonomy. Woof.) Of course the gang shows up in time, and when he's recovered, Abbie and Irving share a moment that seems particularly sweet after she checked in earlier this episode to see if he'd killed one or two people.
Then Abbie and Jenny and some dude head to their mother's room to face what life was like for her.
Jenny, chillingly casual about it in a way that Abbie seriously registers: "When you cause trouble in here they ignore you." And that's before Jenny remembers the time Mama almost killed her, and has a panic attack for which I blame her not at all.
This is another of those moments where the presence of an actual demon muddies the waters—did the demon drive her to do it, or just lock the car doors when she reconsidered? Was she on the verge of giving up on her own or not? It feels important, in an episode about fighting for your family in the face of public perception, but there's no real answer yet. I'd be more than happy to see Mama return in flashbacks or as a helpful spirit alongside Grace Dixon in some other realm, I'll be honest. There's still a lot to unpack here.
(Fun fact, if you want to take this to an incredibly dark place: Since Abbie and Jenny go to the same school, having Jenny at home and Abbie at school seems weird, until her mother reveals in the last moments that she always knew Abbie was meant to be a Witness, so she was just going to kill herself and Jenny and leave Abbie to face all this. YIKES. It's honestly the first thing I've heard that's poked a real hole in the theory that Jenny's going to end up being the surprise second Witness.)
Mama! The Mills sisters, as they do often in this episode, stand together against the oncomer.
(Abbie's seconds from moving in front of Jenny to block Mama's shot, just in case. Great beat.)
Mama warns Jenny to go find Grace Dixon's diary (hey! Grace Dixon!) and use it to banish the nurse ghost from the 1950s, which is a very interesting correlation that I guess is supposed to relate! Abbie gets taken while trying to force their mother to stay and give her closure (such an in-character movie for Abbie, dating back to literally episode 2), and Jenny and some guy race to grab Grace's diary from the basement.
What she finds that she assumes will work? A "West African invocation to expel witch doctors who have risen from the dead."
Abbie gets strapped down and nearly force-fed the drugs (creepy, oh my god so creepy), but with her mom taking the brunt of a nurse-fight and Jenny getting exponentially better at West African invocations every time around, they soon triumph, and the nurse disappears, leaving only asbestos insulation and rusty metal and lead paint and bald wires and old bodily fluids and cave-ins and malaria pools behind her. All's well now.
Except Abbie, who needs closure so much that she actually seems to be on the verge of having an attack of emotional claustrophobia about it. So Ichabod brings by some séance equipment and the world's tiniest table, so they can try and contact their mother one last time
(Abbie's touching his knee; in 1791 that means they're engaged. He's debating whether or not to tell her.)
And finally, the Mills sisters get to see their mother calm and happy, and make their peace.
NO, I'M NOT, IT'S RAINING. YOU ARE. SHUT UP.
As all this is going on, of course, Katrina has a plot, because heaven forbid we ignore Katrina for even a moment. Luckily, it's short, since it's just a revisiting of eveyrthing she's been easily ensorceled into doing with the demon baby, including letting it feed from her shoulder as Henry looks on jealously:
("It can't feed from her breast, for obvious nudity reasons, so we need some other way for her to physically nurture the baby." "Suck on her shoulder until it turns human." "Well, I mean, maybe like a vampire, it could drink blood from her ne-" "SUCK on her SHOULDER until it TURNS HUMAN.")
And even though she comes to her senses and tries to poison it, it's too little too late. You can tell Katrina is new to this century because she doesn't know about the speed of demon-baby growth the way the rest of us already totally did.
Her list of travails is into Varney the Vampire territory here. It's actually getting boring how many terrible things have been visited upon her, at which she mostly flaps her lashes in horrified amazement as everyone around her slowly loses patience. "I fed my impressionable demon baby from my shoulder and it turned into an eight year old!" "Aw jeez," everybody says, checking their phones, "that sounds terrible, ugh."
But honestly, I care even less than normal, because logic is returning to Sleepy Hollow in sudden, amazing pockets.
Irving BROKE OUT of that place and RAN for it. He hops in Abbie's trunk! Everyone in the car is just sort of staring at one another wondering if this subplot's gone rogue! YES, IT HAS AND IT'S GREAT.
Welcome back, team! Whatever you do next week, it should be fun.