WATCH CLOSELY: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” — Coming of Age Cauldron
By Peg Aloi
The series presents plausible, relatable social situations within a weird, dark, quasi-magical framework.
(SPOILER ALERT: Some plot details from the first five episodes ahead.)
As the second season of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina gets underway, things heat up quickly Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka, who is maturing nicely into this role), still sad about breaking up with Harvey (Ross Lynch) and feeling the effects of the satanic vibe of her dark baptism, decides to focus on her studies at the Academy of Unseen Arts and stay away from Baxter High for a bit. Her Aunt Hilda (the hilarious Lucy Davis) cajoles her about missing her old friends, but Sabrina is worried that being called on to do the Dark Lord’s bidding might put her friends in danger.
Ah, the trials and tribulations of adolescence! The series presents plausible, relatable social situations within a weird, dark, quasi-magical framework. Who among us did not occasionally feel cursed as a teenager, or wished for magical powers to wreak vengeance on our tormentors? Sabrina is discovering the depths of her power but also the limitations of her wisdom. As a coming-of-age metaphor, signing your name in the devil’s book is right up there with losing your virginity, right? Despite the show’s casual attitude about sex in some contexts (orgies, sado-machism, etc; this show is not for kids despite its comic book aesthetic), the treatment of teenage coupling (both social and physical) is still romanticized.
Speaking of sex, you may recall that Principal Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot), who kept trying to put the moves on Mary Wardwell (the exquisite Michelle Gomez), met an untimely end in Season One. So now it’s Principal Wardwell to you! Of course we know that Wardwell’s body was taken over by Lilith, the Dark Lord’s consort and servant. Oddly, her “fake human” behavior tends towards the compassionate and fair-minded so, unsurprisingly, she is an advocate for feminism and gender parity. Principal Wardwell stands up for Suzy (Lachlan Watson) when they decide to try out for the basketball team (which until now has only had boys on it). Good old Harvey (Ross Lynch) is on the team too, and also stands up for Suzy, but things get ugly in the locker room when the creepy jocks decide to mock the team’s newest (and smallest) member. Suzy also decides to assert their non-binary identity and asks her loved ones to recognize her new name and persona.
Sabrina continues to defy Father Blackwood, who seems to genuinely fear Sabrina’s pedigree, given her father’s once-hallowed position in the Church of Night. Sabrina decides she will push back against the coven’s gender bias by announcing she wants to be considered for “Top Boy”—a sort of Prom King/Class President/Head Altar Boy/Harvest Lord figure who is like a glorified personal assistant to the High Priest. Apparently no one has ever challenged the gender restriction before; Sabrina competes against Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), her new crush, for the coveted position. People are passionate about this contest: support and antagonism come from unexpected places. Sabrina slowly discovers there may be some trust issues among her closest compatriots, who are choosing to remain faithful to their old boy cabal.
Stylistically, the show continues to present some stand-alone episodes, their specific themes allowing for a doubling of Sabrina’s two worlds — high school and witch school. In “The Passion of Sabrina Spellman” a Church of Night performance of a passion play about the fall of Lucifer and his partnering with Lilith is set against a Baxter High class assignment to do scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Michelle Gomez looks on while her character’s myth is performed live — it is devastating to behold. In “Lupercalia,” a pagan festival that coincides with Valentine’s Day provides plenty of opportunity for romantic and sexual escapades, with some delightful fairy tale imagery of wolves and girls in red capes.
In another slightly more stand alone episode, a strange old woman shows up at Dr. Cerberus’ House of Horror (the funky bookstore-café where Hilda has been working alongside owner Dr. Cee, played by Alessandro Juliani) and offers to read tarot cards in exchange for a place to sit in out of the rain. Her readings illuminate various characters’ issues by way of offering visions of a possible future as well as suggesting gentle guidelines for how best to proceed. Hints of characters’ past secrets and deepest fears are revealed, anticipating future dilemmas to come. This serving of back stories is full of juicy details, but sometimes the history derails the forward action.
The new season features some fun cameos (like Twin Peaks‘ Ray Wise as a sort of satanic pope figure). The episodes in general feel a bit longer than they need to be. Forty-five minutes would suffice but, clocking in at nearly an hour, there’s sometimes a tendency to throw in scenes that come off as superfluous. Still, I’m finding this second season to be full of action, character intrigue (showing off the excellent cast), and spot-on political metaphors that will have some viewers contemplating whether the world they’re watching from is similarly mired in evil.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.