Monday, February 2, 2015

What the Story of the Mills Sisters Means on 'Sleepy Hollow'

Welcome to Black History Month! We're going to start off this month by talking about something super chipper and upbeat and fun: the family history of Abbie and Jenny Mills on Sleepy Hollow! Whoo!

For those of you who don't watch Sleepy Hollow, allow me to explain that all of that was somewhat sarcastic. While I do really love the show and we are really going to talk about the Mills family history here and now, it's worth noting that their family story is not a happy one. Granted, no one's family story is happy on Sleepy Hollow, but Abbie and Jenny have gotten the short end of a lot of sticks in their lives. In a lot of ways, Abbie and Jenny are pretty stereotypical representations of what it means to grow up in a black household, at least according to Hollywood. What makes them different, and the show great, is how it reframes that stereotypical background into something different, unique, and ultimately powerful.

It's okay if you haven't seen Sleepy Hollow by now. It's not exactly a show for everyone. I mean, it tries to be. It throws every mythology you've ever heard of and quite a few you haven't at you, mixed in with United States history and a healthy dose of wacky hijinks. It's definitely trying to be your kind of show, whatever kind of show you like. But you can be forgiven for not having heard of it, because it's a little, well, odd.

The show is about the apocalypse and takes place in the titular town of Sleepy Hollow, where apparently the apocalypse will start. This town in upstate New York has the dubious distinction of being ground zero for a giant war between good and evil, and the only thing standing in the way of evil's triumph is a handful of humans trying to fight back the dark. Dramatic!

Our heroes are Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), a local police detective who gave up a potential career in the FBI to fight the forces of darkness, and Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), a Revolutionary War soldier raised from the dead two hundred years later so that he could turn the tides of this new war. Together they are the prophesied "Witnesses", the two people who will bear witness to the end of the world and, if they can, stop it.

Also along for the ride are Abbie's sister Jenny (Lyndie Greenwood), a former mental patient now freed and alarmingly good with heavy firearms, Ichabod's wife Katarina (Katia Winters), a witch who was trapped in Purgatory for two hundred years and just got out, and former police captain Frank Irving (Orlando Jones), a good man whose life was destroyed by the fight against evil and who might be kind of on the run from the law and also everyone else.

I mean, there are other characters, but that's our main crew of evil-fighters. That's who the narrative really focuses on. And I'm happy to say that of the five characters I just mentioned, three of them are black. That might not seem important, but when compared to the white white male male-ness of shows like Supernatural and Teen Wolf and Constantine and just most everything else in this genre, it's refreshing to see a predominantly non-white, predominantly female supernatural crime show.

But that's not our point today. Today I want to really hone in on the Mills sisters. See, when I first started watching the show, I was actually kind of disappointed by their backstory. As we're introduced to the girls, we discover that Abbie and Jenny were removed from their mother's care as young girls and placed into the foster system. Their father is not, so far, a part of the story at all.

While in the foster system, both girls witnessed a horrifying something while walking in the woods one day. We now know that it was the rising of Moloch, a demon, but the girls were horrified and traumatized. 

When the police picked them up they tried to explain what they saw, but were not believed. So Abbie lied and said that she didn't see anything weird. Jenny, meanwhile, refused to lie and felt betrayed that Abbie was so willing to forget. From that point on, Jenny was in and out of mental institutions while Abbie did everything she could to forget her past.

At some point along in there, both girls were "saved" by Sheriff August Corbin (Clancy Brown), a nice white guy who, without their knowledge of each other, mentored both girls. He taught Abbie how to be a cop and how to stand up for people who have no other means of protection, and he taught Jenny how to break out of handcuffs and how to hunt down magical artifacts. Which is interesting.

It's Corbin's death at start of the first episode that gets Abbie on a hunt for the truth and helps her see that Jenny really was telling the truth all these years, even if Abbie herself has chosen to forget. Eventually the sisters reconcile, though it takes a lot of time and a lot of groveling from Abbie. And Jenny becomes a full partner in the fight against evil, which is good because she's pretty dang experienced at it by now.

Along in the second season we discovered a bit more detail about Abbie and Jenny's mother. We discover that their mother was placed in a mental institution when they were removed from custody, and that all of this was at the behest of Sheriff Leena Reyes (Sakina Jaffrey). We also learn that while in the mental institution, their mother committed suicide. Which adds a sort of terrifying tinge to Jenny's stay in the institution - she was incarcerated at the same hospital and that's just super depressing.

The thing that bothered me about all of this backstory going in is that it's exactly what we expect the media to write as a backstory for black female characters, right? Their mother was mentally unstable and they grew up in foster care. One of them has been in and out of prison while the other is "exemplary" and "rose above her situation". They were mentored and "saved" by an old white man. He gave them the skills they needed to survive. But they are both still haunted by their terrible childhood.

Like, isn't that the sort of backstory that's racist and painful in its stereotyping of the African-American community? It plays into all of the horrible tropes about black families. It's kind of really insulting.

And yet, I really appreciate it.

I really appreciate it not because it falls into all of those kind of racist tropes, but because it takes those tropes and develops them. Abbie and Jenny's horrible backstory is still horrible, but as we come to understand it better, we see that it was horrible because these girls have been swept up in a battle between good and evil for their whole lives. We come to find that the reason their mother was mentally unstable isn't because there was something wrong with her or because black women are bad mothers or any of that crap. It's because their mother, Lori Mills (Aunjanue Ellis), could hear the demons circling her girls and was trying to keep them safe. They drove her crazy, but she protected her daughters.

It's this reframing, the way that the show takes potentially bad story points and puts them in a different framework, that I love. Lori Mills wasn't a bad mother, she was an amazing mother. She was just struggling against the unmitigated forces of darkness. And she didn't kill herself. She was actually killed while fighting against a dark spirit. Her life isn't a tragedy that stains her daughters forever, it's a heroic story of a woman who fought back the hordes of hell for almost a decade and a half. On her own. Because she knew that her daughters were going to grow up and save the world.

That's the part that makes me appreciate their backstory. The fact that all of this badness and sadness and horrible crap happened not because "that's just what black families are like", but because the Mills family is and was caught up in the greatest struggle between good and evil of all time. Their childhoods sucked because evil was attacking them and trying to bring them down, because they are so important.

I also really like this story, because the Mills' backstory isn't presented as something that just happened. It's not just a fact about them that everyone accepts and ignores and moves on. No one tries to paint their childhood as typical or normal for black women. The other characters in the show actually are very sympathetic and compassionate towards the girls. There's never any indication that their kind of hardship is or should be normal.

And it's something that we see both girls still grappling with. Both Abbie and Jenny still have to deal with the bad stuff that happened to them. Discovering their larger purpose and the meaning of their lives doesn't make it all go away. It just gives them a context in which to heal. Even better, they help each other heal. They refuse to let the circumstances of their lives turn them against each other, and, once reconciled, they have each others' backs. United. Sisters.

But probably the biggest reason I like this reframing of their backstory is for the way it forces the audience to look more deeply. This storyline, the revelation that the Mills sisters have been ground zero for a divine struggle their whole lives, is a talisman against judgment. You can't judge, this show tells us, because there is absolutely no way you know the whole story. You can't tell me she was a bad mother because you don't know what's really going on. It takes all those old tired stereotypes and gives them a meaning and dignity and context.

In going into Black History Month, I guess I just think it's important to think about the old stereotypes we've become used to hearing about the black community, and it's very worthwhile to look for ways in which those stereotypes have been and can be destroyed.


  1. At some point along in there, both girls were "saved" by Sheriff August Corbin (Clancy Brown), a nice white guy who, without their knowledge of each other, mentored both girls ... It's Corbin's death at start of the first episode that gets Abbie on a hunt for the truth

    A mentor who saves in some way - physical, psychological, spiritual, social, whatever - teaches, and then dies to show that shit's gettin' real is what heroes get. Not every time, obviously, but it's a big trope. And this time, the heroes getting it are two black girls.

    And another big trope is the Magical Negro, whose life revolves around facilitating the growth of the white hero whose story it really is - hell, Ichabod gets one. But here, it's a Magical Whitey.

    Sure, Sheriff Corbin saves Abby and Jenny in different ways, and prepares them for what's coming. But that's the biggest thing we know about him: the most important thing this old white authority figure's life has been lived for is to help the growth of these two black girls into the women, and heroes, they must become; and even better, he knows, accepts, and is proud of that.