Sleepy Hollow, the show that is definition of Whitney Houston’s song, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.” The recipe for a hit show was right in front of us–two leads with intense chemistry, occult adventures, and Orlando Jones laying down the law on Black history and keeping Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane in check (remember when he schooled Ichabod on Thomas Jefferson?). Add to that introductions of Native American History and John Cho, and you have a hit show on your hands!
And a hit show Fox had–the series premiere was one of the highest-reviewed primetime shows I’d seen. Every critic who watched it only had positive things to say about it and beyond that, they were eager to see the rest of the season as fans.
I also reviewed the series and began recapping it. I went from recapping to making deep dive posts about theories I had regarding the true nature of characters (I still like my “Katrina is Ishtar” theory) and how the power of “sin-eating” could be an allegory for Pure-O OCD (something I struggle with and am recovering from). In short, I was in deep–just check out the full breadth of my Sleepy Hollow coverage (via the Wayback Machine).
So where did the show go wrong? Simple–the show (the production brass, Fox, whichever) didn’t know how to handle the romance between Ichabod and Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). Or more to the point, what I think might have happened is because the show might have originally planned on Abbie and Ichabod being merely friends and, of course, Witnesses meant to stave off the Apocalypse. But the chemistry Mison and Beharie had on-screen as Ichabod and Abbie was just too palpable for it to not be mined for character development. Everyone, including critics, saw what was evident–Ichabod and Abbie were meant to be together. Yet, despite the chemistry being too palpable to use, the show was determined to semi-gaslight its audience about Ichabod and Abbie’s romantic potential.
In the beginning
If we’re taking a look back at Ichabod and Abbie’s relationship (aka “Ichabbie,” as dubbed by the fans), we have to take a look at what was said about the show at the time.
In a 2014 Emmy Magazine feature about Mison and Beharie, Mark Morrison wrote how Sleepy Hollow had outperformed other primetime juggernauts on competing channels, capturing the imagination of audiences around the country.
“When the show debuted on September 16, 2013, it was seen by an estimated 10.1 million live and same-day viewers and rose to 15.3 million when DVR viewings were added, making it Fox’s highest-rated fall drama premiere since Dark Angel in 2000,” wrote Morrison. “On October 3 that year, after only three episodes had aired, Sleepy Hollow became the first show of the season to be picked up for next fall. Announcing the renewal, Fox chairman Kevin Reilly called it ‘a conceptual blast unlike anything else on television.'” And it was, truly, unlike anything that had graced television screens for a long time.
If you mentioned Sleepy Hollow to almost anyone watching or reviewing primetime television in 2013, you could probably expect to hear only glowing accolades for the series. There are a lot of reasons fans loved the show–the spookiness, the adherence to practical effects and costumes for the monsters, the diversity in the cast, the element of costume drama. But the main reason all of this worked, the main reason for so much excitement around the series, was the chemistry between Mison and Beharie, who seemed tailor-made to bring their odd couple characters to life.
You could tell the two liked working together. Mison, who became popular with fans for not being able to keep a poker face and hide his emotions, would gush about working with Beharie whenever someone asked him about it. To quote Emmy Magazine when Morrison asked Mison about his scene partner, “‘I’m very lucky, ‘Mison says with an dmiring grin for Beharie, who is ready for her [E]mmy closeup in a shimmery gown and stilettos. ‘I get to work with Nicole all the time.'”
Beharie talked about how easy it was to work with Mison as early as the chemistry read.
“He’d throw something out and I’d react to it, like he was giving me a gift,” she said. “Or I’d have an idea. It was too people keeping the ball up in the air.”
Aside from the two having a professional and friendly admiration for each other, Sleepy Hollow EP Mark Goffman also told Emmy Magazine how the two were able to ground what could be a silly show with realism and gravitas.
“We caught lightning in a bottle,” Goffman told the magazine. “Nicole and Tom are phenomenal individually, and together they’re unstoppable. They’re game for anything. In a world that is so fantastical, we can dream as big as we want and know that somehow they will help find an emotional truth and a reality to the scene.”
Mison talked more about his feelings toward Beharie in a 2013 interview with Screen Spy.
“I remember when I was called to Los Angeles to screen-test. It was a five hour screen-test, and Nicole, who had already been cast came in for the final three hours. We read together and played with a few scenes and it was instant,” he said. “We’re very similar actors. We like to play with what the other actor gives us. We both like to be generous with each other. We know that stuff that everyone refers to as ‘chemistry’ is actually generosity. It’s nice to throw things at an actor and be excited and surprised by what they throw back. We like exploring our scenes together rather than as two individuals. We like to do it as a team. She’s as wonderful off screen as she is on. It’s always a nice thing to find friends on a job and I certainly have with her.”
Their chemistry is certainly why I kept watching the series until Beharie left. I originally began watching Sleepy Hollow because of Beharie’s casting–I had seen her in 42 and was an instant fan. But after seeing how she and Mison grounded Sleepy Hollow and somehow made it feel realistic even though it was far from realism was what kept me coming back. Somehow, it made sense that a time-traveling British man who became George Washington’s spy would eventually partner up with a Black female cop from the 21st century to prevent the Biblical apocalypse. Only Mison and Beharie’s friendship and rapport could make that work.
I also don’t think it’s dishonest to assert that a large contingent of Black women viewers were propelling the series to its massive leads over other primetime shows. The 2010s weren’t a time of Black women and men being unable to headline shows, but it still had the feeling of novelty around it, and Beharie leading a show was something to talk about. How Beharie characterized Abbie was also something unusual for primetime, at least for me–Abbie wasn’t a stereotype of any kind. Whereas audiences are used to seeing Black women be “sassy” or “loud,” the best friend and sidekick or the opinionated enemy, Abbie was none of these things. She had a past of darkness, but it was one that stemmed from the dysfunction caused by mental health. She could be abrasive, but it seemed to come from a place of wanting to achieve emotional perfectionism and personal control. She was unsure of herself and her newfound calling as a Witness, but she was still brave and smart, utilizing her intelligence to stay one step ahead of the enemies she and Ichabod faced. She was the true star of the show.
Abbie represented something a lot of Black women could understand and relate to. She showed that it was possible to still be vulnerable while exhibiting strength, and that a heroine–especially a Black one–could be flawed and multifaceted. In other words, Abbie represented Black women’s humanity in a way that hadn’t yet been explored at the time. She was a fully-formed person.
The (seeming) inevitability of Ichabbie
The relationship potential between Abbie and Ichabod on Sleepy Hollow is something else entirely. It also propelled fans to latch on the series in droves.
Much can be said about Ichabod’s canonical marriage to Katrina (Katia Winter). Yes, originally, Ichabod was written to be married throughout the first season, in which he’s trying to save his wife from the clutches of Moloch. But I think it’s fair to say that none of the writers knew what kind of response the audience would have when they saw Ichabod and Abbie working together versus Ichabod and Katrina in a “loving marriage.” Just from my point of view, I saw more loving banter between Ichabod and Abbie than I ever did between Ichabod and Katrina. Where it seemed like Katrina was just some woman Ichabod knew from his past, Abbie seemed to bring out Ichabod’s zest for life, learning and adventure. Katrina was a tie to the past, while Abbie was an anchor in the future. For many watching the show, it was clear who Ichabod should ultimately end up with.
Mison’s idea about Ichabod and Abbie coincided with the fan’s idea overall. As he told Screen Spy, he felt the two knew how to lead each other.
“I think there is certainly something magical between Ichabod and Abbie. They are forced together. Whether they want to be or not, they’re forced into this relationship. They’re very different to each other. And they wind each other up no end, but that’s when the sparks start flying. And when sparks start flying that’s when … well there’s room for everyone to ship them, I think is the term,” Mison said. They certainly have a connection, and if anything was to happen between them it would certainly be fiery.”
“I think she knows when to allow him to lead, and when to pull on the leash – hard – which he occasionally needs,” he continued. “They balance each other out a lot. We see how he encourages her to have a bit more faith and belief in these weird things that are happening and she in turn is very good at balancing him out and saying ‘Stop being an idiot!’ which in the context of the modern world he is very capable of being.”
The relationship also said something about the times we were living in when it came to showcasing interracial relationships onscreen. I feel like in many ways, Ichabod and Abbie’s relationship is one of the best examples of an interracial relationship in which equality and friendship are truly the basis for the relationship. If you’ve read my articles on interracial cringe before, the online world will have you believe that every interracial relationship is based on surface level tripe, stuff that feels more like Race 101 than a basis for something real and concrete. Yes, people get their hair braided. Yes, people can dance, regardless of race. What else is new?
But with Ichabod and Abbie, their relationship is based on connecting temperaments. The two fit together like a puzzle, and it has nothing to do with race. Ichabod is professorial by nature, slightly pedantic and cynical. Abbie is also cynical, but she is ambitious, courageous, and in some cases, impatient. Their personalities are similar enough that they can work well together, but are different enough that they know how to curtail each other in ways that actually make them grow as characters. Abbie gets Ichabod to stop being so arrogant about his facts, especially when his facts aren’t actually true (i.e. Thomas Jefferson). Ichabod gets Abbie to slow down to cross her Ts and dot her Is before charging into meet the beast of the week. They make a great team, and if we’re talking saving the world or going down the aisle, you want the person next to you to be your teammate, not someone you’re experimenting on.
It felt to me that Abbie and Ichabod’s relationship was actually based on judging someone by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. However, from what I saw on Tumblr, some Sleepy Hollow viewers seemed enamored by the relationship solely because of the racial element. And it didn’t help that at the time, Scandal‘s biggest relationship, Olivia (Kerry Washington) and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) was what everyone was talking about. Sometimes online, it felt like the two relationships were referenced together by some fans, perhaps because both relationships involved a man having more chemistry with someone who wasn’t his wife. But in reality, the two relationships couldn’t be further apart. As much as Mison let his impish excitement over working with Beharie bleed into character work for Ichabod, making it appear that Ichabod was ready to risk it all for Abbie, Ichabod as a character would never be a cheater, at least not a willing one. No matter how infatuated Ichabod might be with Abbie, he wouldn’t ever destroy his vows in a dishonorable way–the only ways out were either separation or death. The same can’t be said what what was happening on Scandal.
That relationship was, for some reason, seen by some Scandal fans as a gold standard in white men/Black women relationships. But the relationship was every bit the interracial cringe that I have written about, at least from my outsider perspective as a non-Scandal fan. I did know enough to hear how the relationship was compared to Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ relationship within the series itself. That’s a dangerous comparison to make, seeing how Jefferson was a slaveowner and rapist, making Hemings (who was actually related Jefferson’s wife, Martha) his “mistress” in her early teens.
Seeing how enslaved women couldn’t be mistresses in the sense that they had no agency over their bodies or sex lives, she was a victim of slavery twice over. Whereas Olivia had agency over her life, the comparison to Hemings was made using a version of Hemings’ life that has been created to denigrate Black women who sleep with white men–the “bedwench” stereotype. Olivia was marked as a sellout for being in an affair with a married man, and the President of the United States, no less. The character eventually became entrenched in that stereotype, with many of her longest relationships being with white men.
As I’ve previously written about, Hemings was a victim, and it’s harmful to paint her as a “bedwench.” It’s equally harmful to paint Olivia and women she represents as bedwenches or sellouts. With that said, this doesn’t erase the fact that some Black women do date white men specifically because of a perceived racial value or privilege. For some women, it’s a big deal to date a white man because it’s seen as dating up, or it’s seen as dating better–for these women, Black men are all the same, while white men represent social progression, affluence, status. Some of this ideology bled over into some Sleepy Hollow fans who loved seeing Ichabod and Abbie together. But all Black/white romantic relationships aren’t created equal, and for me, sometimes it was hard to tell who was loving the relationship for the relationship and who loved it as a vicarious racial fantasy.
Outside of what I was seeing about people’s racial fantasies, there was a very real conversation to be had about how Abbie’s validity as a romantic interest was being treated by people on the internet, and even within the show itself.
Fans were felt like Sleepy Hollow was hesitating on making Abbie have a romantic interest that wasn’t mired in some type of drama. Cho’s character Andy Brooks, was immediately toxic by being so obsessed with Abbie that he made a deal with Moloch to protect her from the dead. Abbie’s ex Luke Morales (Nicholas Gonzalez) seemed okay, but was also seemingly a chad of some type. Abbie’s other past flame, Daniel Reynolds (Lance Gross), was also just written along the “some dude, maybe chad” prototype. None of these characters were ever defined outside of having dated Abbie (ironic, since it’s usually women who are characterized this way). I wrote at the time that I didn’t feel like Abbie was being shafted in how she was shown romantically, mostly because I felt represented by it. Seeing a Black woman who was confident in herself without giving off desperation for a relationship felt like I was seeing myself. But I get how others also felt like Abbie was getting thrown into the “Strong Black Woman” trope, especially when she was written in Sleepy Hollow episode to essentially babysit Katrina.
Ultimately none of this hand-wringing would matter anyway, since Beharie would leave the show by the third season.
The mishandled tragedy of Abbie Mills
By 2016, Beharie was removed from Sleepy Hollow and Abbie was killed off. There were many thinkpieces written about Abbie being unceremoniously axed (including my own). But maybe there was a sense of irony when Abbie would say that she was tired and was finally at peace, because, as we would find out later on, Beharie was exhausted in real life.
When she initially left the series, Beharie wrote in a statement how she was thankful to the show for the platform to bring Abbie to life.
“Sleepy Hollow has been an incredible experience in every way. I loved playing Abbie. It’s been such a gift to have taken this wild ride… Alas, Abbie Mills has done all she was meant to do,” Beharie said in a released statement according to Shadow and Act. “I’m excited about what the show has in store for us next. I’m rooting for my co-stars and crew… they have been my inspiration, my teachers, family, my friends, over the last few seasons. I want to thank the fantastic producers, writers, and directors who have worked tirelessly to bring this show to life. I want to thank Fox for their faith and support. But, most of all, Sleepyheads for all of your love – what an honor. I will never be the same. Stay tuned.”
But what we didn’t know was how she felt boxed out of the show by executives. She would later reveal the truth in 2020.
While promoting Miss Juneteenth, Beharie told the Los Angeles Times how her illness became a sticking point with the show’s executives. As I wrote up for Shadow and Act, Beharie said that both she and Mison were sick at the same time while filming Sleepy Hollow, but she saw how Mison was treated differently than how she was being treated, especially since she had an autoimmune disease.
“My co-star and I were both sick at the same time but I don’t believe that we were treated equally,” she said. “He was allowed to go back to England for a month [to get well while] I was given Episode 9 to shoot on my own. So I pushed through it and then by the end of that episode I was in urgent care.”
She said she initially put much of the blame on her character’s poor ending on her autoimmune disease, but, she said, “it’s taken me the last few years to really see clearly that it wasn’t personal, it’s about the way that these structures are set up.”
“There’s a lot of pressure in a situation like that where so many people are relying on you alone to get up and get going,” she continued. “I feel like it’s taken me the last few years to really see clearly that it wasn’t personal, it’s about the way that these structures are set up. It was very difficult to talk about at the time because I wanted to get back to work. But I was labeled as problematic and blacklisted by some people.”
Mison himself talked about what it was like reckoning with Beharie’s absence from the show. In an interview with Flicks And The City and other outlets in 2016, Mison said that he didn’t know about Beharie getting removed from the show until an episode or two before her last. He also talked about how he recognized what Abbie meant to fans across America.
“I did notice instantly in America particularly when you have a woman of color a lead role, it’s not just a woman of color in the lead role. It immediately means so much more than that across the whole of America,” he said. “It’s…a woman of color in a position that not very long ago she wouldn’t have been and it comes to symbolize so much more. And when something like this happens, when they kill off said character, of course it’s going to mean an awful lot more, consequently…Abbie Mills represented more than just another character in the show.”
As far as we know, Mison and Beharie are still friends, if Mison’s statement as of 2016 to Flicks And The City is to be believed.
“I’d love to do a play with Nicole,” he said when asked if he’d want to work with Beharie again. “Yeah, of course, I think we found a real rapport and found a very good, steady working relationship and if we can go and explore something else with that, yeah, I’d gladly do it.”
While Mison and Beharie have both put Sleepy Hollow behind them, it’s shame that the series ended up the way it did, far away from where it first started. What began as an all-out battle against time and the impending apocalypse became an aimless monster-of-the-week series with Ichabod leading a motley band of characters. Gone was the original DNA of the series and in an attempt to save the series, the team behind the show tried to turn Ichabod into a Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes-type character, a white guy who knows everything and leads people of color around as sidekicks. That wasn’t who Ichabod was, and seeing him become such was pretty disheartening.
Relying on Ichabod’s white maleness also showed how that particular strategy was beginning to wear thin as 2016 and 2017 rolled around. By this time, Hollywood was beginning to have bigger conversations about race and the role it plays in Hollywood’s biases. More viewers were using Twitter and other social media to tear down the assumptions Hollywood execs had about what audiences want to see. Ichabod came into Sleepy Hollow as a modern-minded man despite being from the 18th century. When Sleepy Hollow ended, he had unfortunately become hollowed out by an industry that felt his leading qualities were intrinsic with his race and gender.
The aftermath: lessons learned
So what have we learned? Mison and Beharie still like each other, as much as can be gleaned from old interviews. At the very least, there’s no bad blood between them. We’ve also learned that while Hollywood still has a lot of growing to do when it comes to eliminated its racial and gender bias, things have changed a lot since 2017, Sleepy Hollow‘s last year on the air. There’s now a plethora of shows and films starring people of color, with more coming every year. Beharie and Mison have both contributed to this boon of diverse content–Beharie starring in the well-reviewed Miss Juneteenth, in which Beharie plays a former beauty queen who is now raising her defiant daughter, and Mison starring as Mr. Phillips and the Game Warden in HBO’s Watchmen.
Also, while interracial relationships are probably still not shown in the media enough for it to be equal parity to their numbers in reality, they are shown more, including LGBTQ interracial marriages. Shows like Home Economics, Ginny and Georgia, Chicago Med, New Amsterdam, and others are contributing to the movement to make interracial relationships less of a taboo and more of a normal part of American life.
What’s probably the biggest lesson is how women in the industry are learning to utilize their voices to speak out against mistreatment. Thanks to the Me Too movement, more women in the industry feel empowered to speak out about the abuses they’ve faced. Talking about what these things were seen as detrimental to an actress’ career; it was expected to just put up with the mistreatment and chalk it up to being a factor of showbusiness. But as Beharie said in her interview with the Los Angeles Times, she’s learning to see things differently.
“Since [Sleepy Hollow], I’ve been making sure that I’m working with the right folks,” she said. “It’s something that we’ve seen with #MeToo and Time’s Up, where people who’ve asked questions have been discarded. It’s not a new story [but] I never thought it would be my story. Unfortunately it is, but healing takes time and I feel like I’m on the other side of it. I learned a lot. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, though.”
Equally as important is recognizing and honoring Black women’s worth in the industry and in the country as a whole. After Abbie was killed off, many Black women who watched the show boycotted the show. The hashtag #AbbieDeservesBetter, which had been created before Beharie’s departure in response to what appeared to be bias within certain scripts, was reignited once Abbie died. The series’ impending cancellation a year later had everything to do with audiences not wanting to see the show without Beharie’s presence. Beharie said to the Los Angeles Times how she has come to terms with the level of support there was for her in the midst of her personal struggle.
“There was a fan base that, without me even really saying anything or anybody knowing what was really going on, picked up on something,” she said regarding the support. “I was shocked by the hashtag. I didn’t really have time to take it in because we were working, 16-, 18- hour days. And once I left and heard about everything, I didn’t have the voice yet. I was too busy healing to really take it in.”
Thankfully, the industry has changed–it’s not done changing, of course, but we’ve now seen more avenues open up for Black women, from Insecure and Abbott Elementary, to Pose and the aforementioned Watchmen, to the Black Panther franchise and Jordan Peele movies. There’s much more beyond these examples as well, which shows just how big the explosion of projects featuring Black female talent has been. Even better is that it seems like it’s not slowing down.
Beharie reflected on the changing times in her Los Angeles Times interview, saying, “I’m reconciling what it means to be an actor and an artist and a woman of color. The consequences of making a mistake or causing a ripple in the water are greater. And ultimately, nobody wants to be [deemed] trouble. So those situations hold you back and you keep quiet, not wanting to upset anyone or ask too many questions. But I feel like I, and the world as a whole, are in a different place now and I’m happy about that.”
Maybe, if we change how we look at the failures of Sleepy Hollow, we can see how the missteps were part of a growing conversation in Hollywood about how race and gender are shown and responded to. Sleepy Hollow was both ahead of its time and of its time. It put a Black woman front and center and happily critiqued whiteness in sly ways, chief of which being Ichabod’s position as Abbie’s partner and, to be blunt, her sidekick. But at the same time, it mistreated its Black star within the confines that were deemed “ordinary” by Hollywood standards. She was a woman of color who wasn’t playing by the rules, or so they thought, and needed to be punished. But as many women of color have experienced, whatever Beharie did that was seen as disruptive was because she had a pressing need that had gone unheard. Where she saw a need for rest and healing, they saw an actor who wasn’t pulling their weight.
What I’d like is for those who made Beharie feel unworthy because of her illness to apologize to her. She didn’t mention any apologies in her interview and maybe unbeknownst to us, they have apologized to her in private. But as much as I want an apology for her, I do recognize that the biggest lesson in all of this is how important self-advocacy is.
Every aspect of Abbie’s life revolved around self-advocacy. She had to advocate for herself as a member of the police force, in fights with the supernatural, and sometimes to Ichabod himself. Fandom speculation about Ichabbie can also be tied to advocacy, whether that was advocating for Abbie (and Black women as a whole) to be seen as a desirable person outside of stereotypical norms, or advocating for interracial relationships to be seen as normal. Even those fans who got their kicks out of seeing a Black woman with a white man were, in their own way, advocating for Black women to be seen as something worthy of protection (even if they didn’t realize that the protection they were advocating for is white patriarchy).
Beharie’s time as Abbie included her advocating for herself, for her right to be sick and be taken care of. And when she wasn’t heard, that advocacy turned into finding a way out of what had become a toxic situation. While it’s unfortunate Abbie had to die for Beharie to heal, I don’t begrudge Beharie for doing what she had to do. At the end of the day, those in power realized that she took the secret sauce with her–what she had couldn’t be replicated, no matter how many women of color they brought on the show after her as her replacement.
Advocacy for yourself is what matters in the industry, in life, and in love. Because even if you are partnered up, don’t think your time taking care of yourself is over. Abbie and Beharie’s lessons still echo long after the series is over, and as time goes on, those lessons become ever more poignant.