WATCH CLOSELY: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” — Apocalyptic Witchcraft
By Peg Aloi
Where will the coven go from here? Its pivot away from patriarchy echoes the growing resistance of women the world over — and that is a powerful message indeed.
Maybe it’s because pop culture’s witchcraft obsession shows no sign of slowing down, with a new Italian series about 17th-century witches just announced by Netflix, and that reboot of The Craft opening later in 2020. Whatever the reason, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s third season digs even deeper into the folklore and practice of ancient and modern witchcraft, and this witch, who is also your humble TV columnist, is loving it.
When last we left the witches of Greendale (the town is very near Riverdale, and this show is a spookier spin-off), all hell had, quite literally, broken loose. Our intrepid half-mortal, half-witch heroine Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men, whose 2017 foray into horror, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, has been garnering some attention lately) had challenged the High Priest of the Church of Night, Faustus Blackwood (Coupling‘s Richard Coyle) and the Dark Lord (Prince of Hell) and more or less won. In retaliation, the demonic monarch imprisoned her boyfriend Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood) in hell and her friends vowed to help her get him back.
Also at the end of Season Two, Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda (the excellent Miranda Otto) renounced her marriage to Faustus, who turned out to be a misogynist patriarch. The coven of Satanic witches who preside over the shadow side of Greendale are a sort of elite society with their own boarding school. The daytime Greendale is all Scooby-Doo high school hijinks (with some intersectional activism and coming-of-age drama thrown in). Because of her dual nature, witch and mortal, Sabrina straddles these worlds. In Season One, her Sweet Sixteen party was also her Dark Baptism, the ritual when witches must proclaim their allegiance to the Dark Lord. The Satanic antics are all rather arch and fantastical (Aunt Zelda’s smiling “Praise Satan” is now a popular meme), making this all rather fun and entertaining.
The duality themes kick into high gear in Season Three, with Sabrina discovering the truth of her origins and the obligations they impart. Though she’s spending more time in hell, she still has time to be on the cheerleading squad (a nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer?) and there are some fun but superfluous musical numbers. Speaking of music, Roz (Jaz Sinclair), Harvey (Ross Lynch), and Theo (Lachlan Watson) start a band called “The Fright Club.” The trio sing ’80s songs in Harvey’s garage. The episodes already clock in at just over an hour, and it’s not clear what dramatic purpose these musical interludes serve. Still, they add some youthful energy to balance out the show’s increasing concentration on its older characters (more on that in a bit).
The first episode finds Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) and lover Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), one of the Church of Night’s “weird sisters,” traveling (well not traveling exactly, they seem to do a kind of magic teleporting from place to place) to New Orleans to entrap Faustus Blackwood, who escaped the coven’s wrath for his betrayal of the female witches. There they meet voodoo priestess Marie Lafleur (Skye Marshall), possibly modeled on real-life Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Marie helps them find Blackwood in Scotland, which gives Ambrose and Prudence an excuse to dress in kilts and walking boots and drink scotch from flasks. I’m completely in favor of these travels if they mean the use of exquisite costumes. This season’s costume design is a tour de force, and it’s hard to pick a favorite look: the all-white Picnic at Hanging Rock-tinged scene (complete with pan pipes!) for the full moon ritual in Episode 4, “The Hare Moon,” the gold luxe robes and jewels of hell’s monarchs, or the ragtag period-inspired gypsy looks of the traveling carnival.
Yes, a traveling carnival comes to town (borrowing some gorgeous visual inspiration from HBO’s Carnivàle), and Greendale is besieged by the “pagans” who run the show. Cue confusion among those viewers who know a bit about modern earth-based spirituality: aren’t witches and pagans, they ask, kind of the same thing? Well, no, and the conflation in the show doesn’t clarify the issue. And yet there’s an intriguing through-line here; the narrative links the Satanic witches’ inverted Christian lore of crucifixion with the earthy, ancient rites of human sacrifice practiced by the pagans. It has very little to do with the real life practices of contemporary witches and pagans, but the overlap of folklore and the shameless references to 1973’s The Wicker Man are fine by me. (Look for nods to Midsommar, Carrie, and The Fly, too)
There’s plenty of sex, romance, and heartbreak this season, too. My favorite TV couple of the moment is Sabrina’s aunt, the sweet-natured kitchen witch Hilda Spellman (The Office’s Lucy Davis) and local bookstore/café owner Doctor Cerberus (Battlestar Galactica’s Alessandro Juliani): they’re nerdy and sweet and a bit naughty. Their story arc this season is quite the roller-coaster ride. I admire that the show dives right into portraying middle-aged folks in love rather than focusing on the hormonal angst of the teenagers. The show’s portrayal of sex, its pleasures and its consequences, keeps the proceedings squarely in the realm of adult viewing. But the eroticism is treated with subtlety; there’s a rather charming air of restraint to it all. The love lives of humans and witches are veiled in mystery and magic.
The most powerful plotline this season is too complex to explain and too intense to give away. Suffice it to say that the world more or less ends, and the witches turn to a form of worship even older than their post-Christian Satanic witchcraft to reclaim their power. Where will the coven go from here? Its pivot away from patriarchy echoes the growing resistance of women the world over — and that is a powerful message indeed.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.