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Last night’s Sleepy Hollow premiere was dastardly ingenious television

Abbie (Nicole Beharie) and Ichabod (Tom Mison) work to save the world yet again in the Sleepy Hollow premiere.
Abbie (Nicole Beharie) and Ichabod (Tom Mison) work to save the world yet again in the Sleepy Hollow premiere.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

"This Is War," the second season premiere of Sleepy Hollow, is an energetic gallop through everything the weirdo horror show does well. (Thanks to its shortened seasons, the show last aired in January. Its network, Fox, is hoping absence really does make the heart grow fonder.) The episode has plenty of Ichabod (Tom Mison) and Abbie (Nicole Beharie) interplay. It has plot twists galore. It has fish-out-of-water gags. And it has complicated back-story delivered in a pitched murmur.

But none of these are the best thing about the premiere. No, the best thing about "This Means War" is the way it used all of the rules of modern serialized television against you.

Sleepy Hollow

Everybody wants to see Ichabod (Tom Mison) and Abbie (Nicole Beharie) working together again. (Fox)

Time jumps and dream sequences

"This Is War" uses a storytelling device that's currently very trendy on TV to get away with one that could seem much hackier.

When "This Is War" begins, Ichabod and Abbie are working feverishly to find the key tied to the end of the kite with which Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity. (The key is a loophole to get people in and out of Purgatory and... let's just not get into it, okay?) At first, it seems like this is a dream sequence, the sort of thing that will prompt groans and eye rolls, but Sleepy Hollow just keeps going with it. And going with it. And going with it. And then it starts to make it seem like something else entirely.

TV is going through a spate of time jumps recently, where a show leaps over a few months or even a few years, in order to get to another point when the story will be exciting again. There are times when this has been done very well — in fact, FX's Fargo accomplished just such a feat earlier this year — but most of the time, it's just a way to change the status quo without really doing so. In the space the show leaps over, characters can get married or have children. They can develop feuds with each other. They can even die. Things that could have been stale if they played out in real time can become cool and mysterious if the time jump is executed well. But most of the time, it's just a superficial way to shift deck chairs around on the Titanic, a way for an aging show to stave off disaster a little while longer.

Everybody in the same boat

Sleepy Hollow

I couldn't work John Noble's excellent work into this piece, but aren't you glad you got to see him anyway? (Fox)

So Sleepy Hollow leans into its dream sequence — because it is a dream sequence, something we learn, but only after lots and lots of time spent inside of it — by making you think, for all the world, that you've just gone through a time jump. Ichabod and Abbie keep talking about an awful year that's just transpired. They mention that Ichabod's wife and Abbie's sister are both dead. (Buried in all of this is the hidden hope that Ichabod's wife — the chief obstacle to any eventual coupling between Ichabod and Abbie — being dead could unite the two heroes romantically. The episode is even playing off of those who watch it solely for the sexy subtext.) They plunge forward with their plan, as if it's the only way to stave off disaster.

And what's key here is that Sleepy Hollow knows you've seen enough TV to recognize both a dream sequence and a time jump when you see one. And it also knows that it can play these cards as a way to suggest that, say, Ichabod and Abbie are going to have to travel back in time to the end of the season one finale (when the former was buried alive and the latter stranded in Purgatory) to avert the terrible year to come, because it knows you'll buy the show doing something this whacked out. It knows you've watched enough Sleepy Hollow to believe it would do this, but it also knows you've watched enough television to understand the conventions it's playing around with.

Ichabod and Abbie only recognize they're trapped inside of a dream — designed by the villain to trick them into revealing the location of Franklin's key — once they realize that they can't remember the year that transpired. In that sense, then, the characters are the viewers, superficially caught up in the thrill of passing over so much time, before realizing how much of it was ultimately hollow. The time jump is there to put them in the same boat as those watching them, and viewers end up disoriented and discombobulated before heading into the rest of the premiere.

Sleepy Hollow

Ichabod (Tom Mison) is the time-traveling British hero America needs right now. (Fox)

Lines of credit

Think of it this way: you are a bank extending lines of credit to any serialized TV show you engage with. The show has to put up collateral to assure you that it will be able to pay off any credit you extend it, and if it starts missing payments, your backlash will be swift and painful. Just as it's enormously difficult to catch up if you start missing payments on a real loan, it's very, very hard to win the audience's trust back after egregious storytelling decisions. And just as it's hard to take out a bank loan worth millions upon millions of dollars your first time out, TV shows have to work to build up the collateral that will let the audience trust them to pull off their craziest twists.

What the second season premiere of Sleepy Hollow indicates is that the show knows exactly how much credit viewers have extended it, and it's ready to start trying some even crazier stuff. Most of the collateral Sleepy Hollow has placed against its loan is in the form of Ichabod and Abbie, two of the most engaging characters on TV, who also have some of the best chemistry on TV. The show tested just how much it was able to get away with leaning on their partnership in season one, and it's now applying those lessons to its second season.

Indeed, the bulk of the premiere is taken up with Ichabod scheming to break Abbie out of Purgatory, something that might have felt dry and boring if the show hadn't found a way to immediately throw us off its trail. By opening with the fake time jump, Sleepy Hollow establishes how ruthless its villain is, and it reminds you of how fearless the show's storytelling can be. But it also gives you lots and lots of Ichabod and Abbie time before ripping that away again, making you long all the more for the two to reunite, which they only do again near the episode's end.

Sleepy Hollow burned through so much story in season one that it's only natural to fear that it will have to slow down in season two — or, worse, speed things up so much more that the story becomes unintelligible gibberish. "This Is War," then, is a huge sigh of relief, because it understands that the show only gets credit from us insofar as it borrows against our love of Ichabod and Abbie. It toys with us, and it laughs about how it treats them, and we, suckers who have handed it credit hand over fist, wouldn't have it any other way.

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