While The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina undercuts any sense of danger, you become such a fan that you find yourself ignoring flaws.
Ms. Wardwell (Lilith)
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Sabrina Spellman, on the cusp of her 16th birthday, is asked to choose between her mortal life and life as a witch. She refuses to do so and even goes to trial over it because we learn her father, Edward, and Aunt Zelda had long promised her to the dark lord. Luckily, her other aunt, Hilda, and mother, Diana had her baptized before that happened so a compromise is made. One in which Sabrina goes to the Academy of the Unseen Arts, where witches in her coven learn magic, and she gets to spend time with her mortal boyfriend Harvey and friends Roz and Susie.
Yet, with getting that major victory, so comes Sabrina trying to change the culture of the Church of Night. Something her father did when he was a high priest but the new high priest, Father Blackwood, has largely undone. Mostly because he prefers the old ways which were very patriarchal and granted the high priest a ridiculous amount of power. So, throughout the season, we see those two clash.
But, Father Blackwood isn’t the only witch Sabrina clashes with. Her traditionalist aunt Zelda often teeter-totters between her loyalty to family and loyalty to the church. Also, a young woman named Prudence, with her minions, find themselves repeatedly going back and forth from torturing Sabrina to being on her side.
Though, the one who is the most puzzling at times is Ms. Wardwell. She, a servant of the Dark Lord, sometimes referred to as the mother of demons, has plans for Sabrina. Plans which will have her take her place and Ms. Wardwell, real name Lilith, become queen of hell with a throne beside the dark lord. Yet, throughout the season, it is hard to tell if maybe she has grown close enough to Sabrina to maybe not use her for selfish means. That may be, just maybe, she has taken to the child.
Oh, and did I mention there was drama in Sabrina’s mortal life too? Roz, Sabrina’s partner in crime, is going blind thanks to a curse put on her family many generations ago. Then Susie, an androgynous young girl, she is being bullied and harassed. Add in Harvey’s family coming from witch hunters and Prudence’s minions killing Harvey’s older brother Tommy, who Sabrina tries to resurrect, and you get drama on top of drama. The kind Sabrina finds herself unable to solve without doing what she has fought against the whole season – signing her name in the book of the beast.
However, with Lillith growing tired of Sabrina just naturally deciding to forsake her mortal life and fully focus on being a witch, she forces her hand. Only to learn Sabrina is one of the four most powerful witches to only live. Leaving us with Sabrina, now an official member of the Church of Night, book signed and all, breaking up with Harvey, part of Prudence’s crew, and ready to take on the world of witches and warlocks. Likely the same way she did the mortal world.
Harvey and Sabrina As A Couple
Harvey and Sabrina have the perfect balance of something which seems age appropriate with what you expect out of a first love. By all means, they seem like a couple who has been together for years with how lovey-dovey they are – without having to be over the top. Also, despite not having sex, there is this intimacy between them you rarely get to see between teen characters. For whether it is Tommy’s death or just hanging on Sabrina’s porch, there is a closeness that most shows lazily use sex to convey. With these two, you are reminded sex is but one of many ways to show two people in sync, not the sole.
Ms. Wardwell (Lilith)
It isn’t clear where Ms. Wardwell stands or who she is for a good part of the show. First off, she hops from this girl who you would think was one of the Greendale 13 to the local history teacher, Ms. Wardwell. From there, while she has a relationship with the Dark Lord, you are never sure if her alliance shifts to caring more about Sabrina than the Dark Lord sometimes. Especially as Sabrina, naively, begins to trust her and treat her like an adopted aunt. Making you, at times, feel uneasy about whether she is friend or foe in the best way.
Zelda and Hilda’s Relationship
Zelda and Hilda have a real love/hate relationship. One in which Zelda, thinking of herself as a golden child often having to compensate for Hilda. Yet, despite how downright cruel, even abusive, Zelda can be to Hilda, it is their relationship which has the most heart. Well, in terms of non-romantic relationships. For it is with us learning how lonely Zelda would be without Hilda, her fears and the anxiety which comes with the possibility of losing her that we see the real Z.
Their relationship especially becomes something to watch as you see them struggling to co-parent such a headstrong witch like Sabrina. For while Hilda is very maternal, still tucking in Sabrina at 16, who doesn’t complain about it at all, Zelda treats Sabrina like a child in a different way. The usual, do as I say not as I do. Leading to them clashing and Zelda even being pushed to tears on one occasion. Thus giving us a real sense of family with complicated dynamics and dependencies.
Maybe it is just me, but I feel like when it comes to vampire lore, even zombie, I’m well versed on the rules that many productions follow. However, with witches? It almost feels like an untapped market. Granted, we have the new Charmed, this, A Discovery of Witches, and quite a few other productions taking advantage of that.
But, what Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does which, at the very least, A Discovery of Witches doesn’t, is present the day to day of a culture. Not just the big stuff which is connected to the episode or season’s drama but holidays. How the structure of a coven works and the sexism which is part of it. Things which will matter after whatever villain is coming after our hero for some traditions, like the Feast of Feasts, could ask of her to die and be consumed.
What Happened to The Witch Hunter?
As noted in the following topic, this show doesn’t really present an interesting, or significantly credible, threat to Sabrina. One which did seem like it would be a problem was the possibility of a witch hunter. However, upon learning Luke was anything but, and Luke’s ex, Connor, becoming an afterthought, so did the idea of there being a witch hunter.
Any Sense of Danger, From Villains To Situations, Is Undermined
Between the Dark Lord, Father Blackwood, walking the Astral Plane, going in limbo, and so much more, Sabrina is threatened in a multitude of ways. Problem is, she rarely fails and even when she does, it is because she got a little too cocky. Which presents a bit of a villain problem. For while Prudence was very prejudice against half-witches, outside of her hazing Sabrina, also putting a curse on her, those two didn’t really have beef. In fact, they work together early on and present that classic idea that someone wouldn’t be so prejudice if they got to know what they claim to hate.
Which you can forgive since Prudence, for most of her life, was an orphan and seeing this half-witch so loved and cared for naturally would lead to ill feelings. However, then comes all the other things which are treated as big deals yet get handled fairly easily. Take the Astral Plane. The way Hilda and Zelda speak about it, you’d think using it would be the main way witches end up dead. However, everyone uses it to the point it becomes an unconfirmed reason no witch has a cell phone. After all, why use facetime on a phone when you could project yourself into a room?
Then when it comes to the Dark Lord, Father Blackwood and other entities? Between Father Blackwood getting blackmailed by someone every 3rd episode, being defeated in court by a mortal, and this 16-year-old outsmarting a man who is likely in his hundreds, you just roll your eyes at him. The Dark Lord as well because there isn’t anything fearsome about him, besides his look.
I mean, let’s take into account who his minions are and how they fail nearly the entire season to get what he wants. Much less, both probably not following whatever the Dark Lord’s plan is because they have their own selfish pursuits in motion. Both of which seem to be about claiming more power which can be seen as something that would be the Dark Lord’s alone.
On The Fence
Tradition vs. Progressive Values
You have to appreciate the fact show makes an effort to make feminism entertaining. Even it’s critique of the Christian and Catholic church at times. Yet, more often than not, it feels a bit heavy-handed and worth an eye roll. For while there is some attempt to use Zelda to balance out the need and love of tradition, it often isn’t strong enough to counterbalance Sabrina’s crusades. Especially since Zelda abandons them in a heartbeat if it means protecting Sabrina. Thus making it so the show largely becomes a fight against patriarchal society by a progressive witch who doesn’t understand how coming into everything with a sledgehammer never works. Particularly due to Sabrina’s style is leading with her heart and only remembering her brain once things don’t quickly go her way.
Ambrose is one of those characters you have to love, yet question if how he was written was based on an algorithm. Be it him being Black, bi (pan or what have you), and having the dialog you’d expect to hear from Salem, if we could hear him talk to Sabrina, he seems too geared towards being likable. Unlike Hilda and Zelda, it sometimes feels he lacks complexity, even after the nightmare episode establishing how isolated and alone he feels. Which isn’t said to downplay that character development. It is just, I think for me Ambrose suffers from being the few of his kind, a Black warlock. So him not feeling like the kind of character you can put on a pedestal, just being an example of one who exists, leads to complicated feelings.
Sabrina’s Friends Roz and Susie
The same goes for Roz and Susie. They feel like their part of this show is to push the idea of this program being “woke,” diverse, and yet not creating a character who feels fully fleshed out. Take Susie, for example, her gender identity thing is complicated in ways this show pushes enough for you to create the conversation, but it kind of avoids it in the show. Take Nana Ruth referring to Susie as a boy and her being excited, but the show not following up on that and asking if Susie might be trans or something similar.
Then with Roz, while her Blackness is in her hair and the books she reads, and you want to say the presentation of “The Cunning” should be seen as a development, it falls short. Making it where, when it comes to Roz and Susie, Ambrose perhaps as well, it feels like they are established in season 1 just enough to maybe kick it into next gear season 2. When, with Sabrina having come into her own, they too can get the time and attention to significantly catch up.
A part of me really wants to label this as positive for I really do like the show, despite the room for growth you can see. However, looking over the praise vs. everything else, it makes me realize that I’m probably reminiscing about this show with rose colored glasses. Hence the mixed label. While a very good show, which admirably tries to use witch culture to address inequality within the world, it is far from perfect. In hindsight, you may argue it is close to it, but the more you step back, really think about Sabrina’s journey, and who is in it, the argument for perfection becomes increasingly difficult. To the point you’re left saying it was good but leaves a good amount of room for improvement.
Which I think it’ll definitely do when the show returns in 2019.