By Peg Aloi
I will miss Chilling Adventures of Sabrina more than I may care to admit.
The witches in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina can live for hundreds of years but, alas, the popular Netflix show is being cancel ed after four seasons. Creator and show-runner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa says one more installment of the show will appear in graphic novel form. Despite its popularity and hordes of enthusiastic fans across social media, the television series is done, and has ended on a sad but upbeat note. Maintaining Season 3’s apocalyptic undertones, Season 4 introduces a story arc that pits Sabrina’s two identities — as Queen of Hell and witchy cheerleader at Baxter High — against each other in a battle against an occult apocalypse. Sabrina (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka) finds herself having to fight to protect her friends, family, and the town of Greendale. The next town over from Riverdale, the location (and title) of another teen drama horror hybrid loosely based on Archie comics, Greendale is a cute town where the mornings are always misty and it always looks like autumn. Every home and building seems to have a cozy hearth fire burning, and there is a sort of dual-plane existence where Sabrina attends her mundane high school and, beginning on her 16th birthday, the local witchcraft academy known as the Church of Night.
There was an unmistakable ramping up of narrative complexity and aesthetic intricacy after Season 1, as if the show had found its footing. It fully embraced its sexy, sometimes silly, and always juicy story lines. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina turned out to be a true genre hybrid: a coming-of-age drama that welcomed bits of comedy, horror, fantasy, and even musical pizazz. What set this mix-and-match effort apart, however, was its additional focus on older characters who had their own romantic and sexual entanglements, their own battles. The show’s witchcraft grew increasingly complicated as well. Satanic worship of the Dark Lord defined Seasons 1 and 2, but Season 3 ushered in an era of feminist goddess worship of Hecate, the Dark Mother. This enhanced the plot strand in which Zelda (Miranda Otto) ended her brief but disastrous marriage to the misogynistic Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle), a narcissistic warlock whose story arc follows his efforts to destroy the world in ways that feed his own quest for power. The shift to a more earth-based spiritual focus was also reinforced when the witches faced off against a group of rather evil “pagans.” They killed off all of Greendale in order to feed the nature idol they had erected — after a ritual sacrifice in a wicker man. The series has kept up a delightful and steady stream of self-conscious homages to well-known horror films, including The Wicker Man, Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (oh yes) and various Argento films. Sabrina and her friends are ardent horror buffs, and every episode offers a chance to discover sly references.
Season 4 begins right after Season’s 3 finale saw a desperate attempt to stave off annihilation, with Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chase Perdomo) helping to magically create an alter-ego in Hell as well as an alternate timeline to stave off the pagans’ attack and restore balance to existence. Sabrina is upset about ending things with her boyfriend Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood); likewise, Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) broke up with Ambrose. The cousins bond over their mutual loneliness, with Ambrose hiding away in his library and Sabrina casting love spells and making up reasons for her friends, now paired off in couples, to unite again as the “Fright Club.” Theo (Lachlan Watson) and new boyfriend Robin (Jonathan Whitesell) have to deal with a member of Robin’s hobgoblin family who is begging him to return to their realm. Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Harvey are still in love, but Roz discovers something surprising about her identity that changes everything.
With things in Greendale already slightly precarious, Blackwood’s infernal plans include conjuring a line-up of “Eldritch Terrors” to attack the citizenry. In keeping with the show’s often political undertones, these disasters echo America’s own recent social ills. Darkness takes the form of ghosts of miners who are trapped underground, perhaps a reference to the damage of climate change. The Uninvited is represented by a homeless man rejected by everyone he meets, surely hinting at the Trump administration’s disdain for the nation’s poor, elderly, and undocumented. The Weird takes the form of a tentacled Lovecraftian presence that takes over Sabrina’s body. The Perverse transforms the town’s reality; everyone is brainwashed into taking part in a fascistic nightmare in which Blackwood is Emperor and witches are public enemies who are captured, tortured, and executed. Meanwhile, Blackwood has started a sort of fake Christian revival, along with Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) and Mary Wardwell (Michelle Rodriguez, who also plays Lilith, Queen of Hell).
Sabrina and her friends and family manage to stave off these terrors, with one stand-off taking place during the wedding of Sabrina’s Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Dr. Cee (Alessandro Juliani). The outstanding cast gives this final season their all, relishing the outrageous situations and delicious dialogue, perhaps knowing how dear these characters have become to us. The series never failed to look stylish; there were regular calls for lush costuming and opulent sets, along with some fun musical scenarios (a “Battle of the Bands” is somehow both intrinsic to the plot and wonderfully gratuitous). Eventually, a reckoning arrives that forces Sabrina and her hellish alter-ego to make life or death decisions. I found the ending somewhat corny and romantic; no doubt some fans were satisfied with it. Still, the conclusion manages to be pretty suspenseful. Viewers know ahead of time that the finale is coming and, of course, we want the witches of Greendale to carry on with their fascinating lives. Alas, it’s not to be.
I will miss Chilling Adventures of Sabrina more than I may care to admit. The show was not only amusing and entertaining; it contained a great deal of unexpected depth. What’s more, there was a consistent approach to diversity in casting and characterization, as well as in its slate of writers and directors for individual episodes. The details of esoteric lore were well-researched and accessible, even though, at times, the choices made could be arbitrary. I can’t think of a finer display of costume design in recent memory: Angus Strathie (who also designed costumes for Moulin Rouge!) is to be commended. Depictions of sex or violence were not shied away from, despite the fact the show was obviously aimed at younger audiences. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina broke the mold in valuable ways, not the least of which was how it immersed viewers in a consistently compelling narrative that artfully infused witchcraft and the occult into our mundane mortal world.
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, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.