Character Study: The Mills Sisters on Sleepy Hollow

In memoriam, Abigail Mills.

Rasha: So we’re here to talk about the Sisters Mills in a character study, yes, in good part prompted by the death of Abbie on Sleepy Hollow. What have you watched of the 3rd season?

G: A plurality, if not a majority. I skipped about six. Maybe more. It was pretty boring. But I have the basic story arc.

R: That’s about where I am, though my several skipped episodes were toward the end of the 3rd season. I did watch the finale and I agree that I didn’t feel like I’d missed much by skipping the half dozen or so episodes preceding it. Except I was all like: now Captain Danny is in on the whole deal too, and turns out Papa Ezra Mills is beginning to express some Papa Eli Pope mastery outta nowhere wrt All That Occult Sh*t?

If Ezra and Jenny start meeting over red wine….

G: I skipped a few at the beginning, a few at the end. And yes, that is a pretty precise parallel. Makes me wonder but without much energy what Ezra Mills will be doing this season.

R: I guess I would be okay with it in theory, but the story potential lost with the death of Captain Irving (as in he must surely be a descendant of Washington Irving, the author/scribe/witness?! to the Sleepy Hollow source material–it is hard to make it up with a handsome Captain Past/Future Love Interest and Sudden Occultist Dad of Contrition.

G: I don’t disagree. It made me realize that by mid-S2, the Mills sisters’ relationship was the only aspect of the show that could beget true surprises.

Today especially, this kind of surprise is needed.

R: That is true. The arrival of Papa Mills is more interesting because of the interactions that Jenny and Abbie have, with him and with each other. What are the surprises you saw, and were there any in S3?

G: The snarky answer: In S3, LG couldn’t quite up her game as an actor beside Beharie. But the ideas between Abbie and Jenny–these questions of power, and of belief, and of what these levels of need and mistrust mean in the face of monsters that can make you do strange things–always offer the formulaic plots a little more depth than the blind and plodding Will They Or Won’t They Loyalty ‘twixt the Witnesses. “Mama” remains the best post-S1 ep, I think.

R: I agree. Tom Mison has more chemistry with Abigail Mills’ tombstone than he has with any of the ladyloves the show has offered him, and it remains disappointing to me that the show never recognized that Abbie Mills was at the very least the co-star who made the show work, and in all honesty, I think her story of balancing her straight-and-narrow law enforcement life choices with her family’s history of mental illness/occult powers, her sister’s outlaw lifestyle, and the new manifestation of her Duty to Serve showing up in this epic battle with Demons, Goddesses, and Monsters were way more interesting character evolutions than Ichabod’s comic adaptations to modern life. And we never even got to the part where she should be/is a witch!!!

Sigh, I need to take a knee and a breath.

G: I would agree with that. I think the show flattened as Jenny and Abbie’s relationship got better. Once there was a presumption of trust, rather than love, the episode formula was all that remained.

R: Ooo, this is what makes you so good. You are on point with that. They loved each other so fiercely right from the beginning and neither of them trusted the other, and for more than one reason. Abbie’s betrayal of Jenny as children, denying that she ever saw the monster [ahem, White Dude], never felt like it got worked through, more like they just got too busy and then all the heat went out of the scripts. Like Season 3 brought no heat. And, as much as I hate to return to this well trodden road: I think there are actually some parallels between Sleepy Hollow‘s inability to realize its most interesting sisters and The Good Wife‘s fundamental misunderstanding of Kalinda.

G: Right! When they loved each other but weren’t sure if they could trust each other…

Love and trust are not the same things for sisters.

…it added some heat and tension to the manipulations by Moloch and other such monsters, but S3 seems composed of: get threatened by a monster, find its weakness, someone we love is threatened, we will use that weakness to defeat the monster and save the person we love, with none of the ambiguities that attend love that were so potently portrayed in S1 and parts of S2. Say more about the Kalinda parallel!

R: It is utterly clear to me that Nicole Beharie knows way more about Abbie Mills than anyone in the writers’ room ever has. Let’s be honest that brilliant actors often do. I think the difference is that someone like Viola Davis is both brilliant and now in a position of power in her own projects and has some creative control over the character. Panjabi and Beharie haven’t found that place yet, and I would really love it for both of them. Hell, I would love to see then in a buddy cop show together. I will even accept Occult Buddy Cop show, that’s how much I love them both.

G: Hey, I have no problem with Occult Buddy Cop Show as a concept; it’s merely its execution that got lost in the shuffle. And yes on the actors. There is a role for Beharie on our imaginary pilot for Archie Panjabi and Orlando Jones, for sure.

But I’d add that this issue of the actor knowing the character better is a particular risk of serial TV. As a writer, I know it’s always possible and even desirable to have an actor learn or create things about the character that the writer doesn’t or didn’t consciously know, but particularly in TV, it’s possible for a writing team to have specific ideas, an actor bring more flesh to them than the writers would have deemed possible, and the writers genuinely be unable to keep pace over time.

R: You know, I still have affection for Lyndie Greenwood as an actress. I think if she was given the right scripts and a consistent character arc, she and those eyebrows would just tear right through it. But I would agree that she maybe isn’t bringing as much of her own understanding to Jenny as Beharie is bringing to Abbie. But when the scripts were good, Greenwood does well at playing the hothead, and I think someone as angry as Jenny Mills, someone as used to playing games to survive and win, wouldn’t soften up after half a season of adopted brother loving. They’ve still got her wearing the low-fi Indiana Jones gear; she should still be cracking some whips.

G: Greenwood used to be better when her writing was better, I agree. But she doesn’t have the character-building strength to maintain her depth when it isn’t, and so much grieving and need was demanded of her this season that she just was not able to bring. Leaving her scenes seeming as hollow as they were written to be. Which was not the case for Beharie. But then again, that’s also a character contrast: Abbie’s internal, Jenny external.

R: I would add to the first part: without the script making explicit room for it. And Beharie is such a miracle because she, like Panjabi, will make a whole feeling out of the smallest sliver of silence or the way she says a line that would otherwise seem flat. I think there could have been so much more room to draw out the internality of Abbie, in contradiction with her very public kind of work, and her very keeping-up-appearances tendencies. Jenny’s the emotional one early on, and yet also this more outward and outgoing badass. Sigh, now I’m drawing the graphic novel in my head.

Oh, for what might have been. (Fan art by asieybarbie)

G: Well, Abbie’s a person for whom shutting down external emotions was the only available way of protecting herself, and Beharie has always played that to the hilt. And beside her until she wasn’t is a sister who’s raw, external, oozing, and an abject force of nature. This would really be a superior graphic novel, wouldn’t it?

R: It would be the best, but I only trust the fans on Tumblr to write it. How did the showrunners give us so much of the raw material, the topography of an interesting world, and then fail to understand what they had drawn? They think they drew a picture of man out of his time? Really? Like really, the most compelling drama of this show for me has been how do two such different women (who are sisters! who betrayed each other! who are bonded by their trauma with mom, dad, and Moloch!! who chose different paths to deal with their trauma!) come back together and save the motherf*cking world. That is the pitch. Crane is literally the magical supporting character.

Complete with mystical astrolabe.

G: I like Crane tremendously, don’t get me wrong. I think he’s fun and funny, and I like the stories of two people from different times drawn together. But I think Jenny is imperative to Abbie’s story and we’ve not yet found a character who’s imperative to Crane’s.

R: Other than Abbie in her role of witness, yes.

G: Right, exactly.

R: Ergo, Abbie is the main character of this show. It really is not an opinion.

G: We want an emotional danger that parallels the monster danger, and only Jenny can provide that for Abbie. I also want to call attention to Beharie’s unconventional-on-TV yet absolutely spot-on portrayals of trauma after she goes to different parts of the underworld over time, and the successful ways in early seasons that that bonded her to Jenny and the unsuccessful ways that it didn’t do that in this past season.

R: Damn, now I’m flashing back to Mama, and the Grace Dixon episodes. Like seriously, Crane never managed with any of his old tyme people to approximate the significance of Abbie connecting to Grace.

G: And they tried really hard to make him do so.

R: And maybe that’s just not possible given the monstrous history of the threat to Black lives in this country and how much more precarious and therefore precious Abbie’s connection to Grace, to her mother, to her sister, even to her father, even to her adopted father Corbin, are. Say more about Abbie’s trauma journeys.

Augh, this right here y’all. This tho.

G: I definitely think that for a while they were playing out the races of the characters and S3 they went colorblind. And it was not effective.

R: Agreed. There was a magic in mixing history and time travel and occult badassery that offered redemption. It’s true that Crane was listing all the We brought her back from Purgatory and the Catacombs, and now we’ll bring her back from the Box.

G: Abbie has spent some serious time in the various portions of the all-purpose underworld before she actually dies, and Beharie plays the character’s trauma as internal abrasions more than overt PTSD, or even the badassery-PTSD that we saw on Jessica Jones. It’s consistent, it’s honest, and it’s in the world of women on television extremely unusual.

R: Can you name an example of how/where you see her do it? I agree, btw.

G: In the second-to-last episode of Abbie’s life, when they prepare to reenter the Catacombs. It’s a pain that’s clearly overtaking her while being superseded by its necessity. She plays it so quietly. Even when she’s in the Catacombs. She’s able to maintain this outward calm and still demonstrate that she’s in tremendous pain and desperate.

Haunted by shadows.

R: Given all the evidence, I have to imagine, rather uncharitably, that her choice to create an internal portrayal of trauma might have been required by the failure of most of the scripts to give her space for anything else. Blocking in that last episode was so. bad.

G: Oh, everything in that last episode was so bad. But I was paying attention to the scripting of the trauma. She could’ve gone dramatic if she was the type; there was enough material written for that. She didn’t do it. She found the reality of how this character, as opposed to A Woman on TV, would handle that pain.

R: It’s a shame that there’s bias in awards circles against the supernatural material of shows like Sleepy Hollow. Beharie has been doing really fine work, and it’s hard to think of other characters that come close to the nuance of Abigail Mills for both Black women on TV, and for young women characters in the superhero/supernatural genres writ broadly.

G: It is a shame, but though it could have been once, it’s not a great show, or even that good a show. Abbie, and the Abbie-Jenny relationship concepts, are gemstones in what’s otherwise supernatural fluff.

Had us blogging this show like.

R: We should close yes, but two observations from the S3 finale?

G: Please!

R: Season 1 Jenny would totally have shot the Hidden One, and I’m glad Season 3 Jenny did, even if the aftermath in that whole lair scene was abysmally scripted, blocked and performed.

G: This is true.

R: And: I managed to still enjoy Abbie’s last talk with Crane, though I wanted to yell at the television when the script had her say “we women folk were all just here to help you develop.” Nah, y’all, ya lost me. Nope.

G: I pretty much tuned out after her meeting with Corbin, honestly. Since I knew she was dead for reals already, the suspense was gone and I didn’t expect the script to get anywhere good. But ew.

Sadly, it feels like we’re saying goodbye to Jenny’s best days too. She deserves a sister!