*Mild spoilers for The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina*
To the delight of many horror fans (myself included) witches are enjoying a moment in the sun right now. This year has seen films like Hereditary and Suspiria make waves with their frightening portrayals of one of civilizations oldest horror archetypes. And now, Netflix has thrown its hat into the ring with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, based on the horror comic of the same name, itself a dark reimagining of a beloved Archie icon.
Similar to the light and wacky ’90s show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, this new Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) is a half-witch, half-human teenage girl, living with her magical aunts Zelda and Hilda. As if navigating the pitfalls of high school and teenager problems weren’t enough, Sabrina must also contend with the added responsibilities of her blossoming magical abilities.
That’s where the similarities end, because like the horror comic, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina casts Sabrina and the other witches as everything old-timey witch-hunts said witches were: full-on devil-worshipping cannibals who hold black masses in the woods and have a dangerous propensity to interfere with mortal affairs. In this new TV series, Sabrina must decide if she will embrace her human side and forsake her witch heritage, or if she will join her family by signing her name in the Devil’s book and give up the mortal world.
It’s a fun and macabre show, with lots of entertaining twists on old TGIF material. But more importantly, the fascinating thing about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is how sharply it examines the power dynamics of being a witch. Power and influence trickle down from Satan, to his high priests (all men), to influential coven members, until those at the very bottom tear at each other for scraps. This dynamic is intentionally juxtaposed against Sabrina’s yearning to harness her fledgling powers and use them as she sees fit.
First, let’s get some key review points out of the way…
I liked this show a lot, but it had some pretty glaring faults and made some choices that kept it from being truly great.
#1—The Writing: the show is very much a teen-drama, ala any CW show ever. With it comes a bunch of annoying teen drama and earnestness that, quite frankly, detracts from the show’s more interesting elements. I’m not saying that the show can’t or shouldn’t examine those teenage experiences. I’m just saying that Chilling Adventures is heavy-handed at times. It often veers from insightful exploration into shallow performative wokeness or ham-fisted attempts at character development.
The points the show tries to make using secondary characters are worthwhile but underserved by the choice to treat Chilling Adventures like a teen show. Better writing could have fixed these flaws, especially since there was some very fertile material to mine with Susie’s gender identity and Harvey’s struggles with his father’s toxic masculinity.
Better writing, in general, would have elevated this show.
#2—Sabrina’s Casting: It pains me to say it as a fan of Mad Men, but I don’t think Kiernan Shipka was the right choice for Sabrina. I still can’t quite figure out what made her performance feel flat. Her acting was…serviceable. But I kept wondering what a spunkier, sassier, more confident performance might have looked like, especially when Sabrina tangles with the Weird Sisters or has tense conversations with Ms. Wardwell or fights with her aunts. So many of the supporting actresses seemed to act circles around her, which made for some freakin’ awesome secondary characters but a lackluster protagonist.
#3—The Worldbuilding: By far, the most appealing aspect of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the world of Greendale. I loved the morbidity and macabre details of the witches’ lives. The show delivers loads of spells and creepy rituals and other cool weird shit. Sometimes, all you want to do is find a new world and explore it, an urge which Chilling Adventures readily obliges.
From the high school to the Cerberus Books to the forest, Greendale presents a very cool counterpoint to the cloistered world of Sabrina’s home and The Academy of the Unseen Arts. I also enjoyed the show’s quasi-present setting, with modern conveniences like laptops alongside 60s fare like vintage fashion, old cars, and outdated TV sets.
Greendale appears stuck in a time warp, which speaks to a time in our human history where powerful women were beginning to question both their place in the world and why they routinely submitted to male authority figures.
…Which leads me to my main point
I was not expecting this show to use Sabrina’s choice as a way to examine patriarchal structures. At all.
I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised; it’s just that I’ve never seen a witch story do what Chilling Adventures has done. The archetype of a witch has always invoked feminine power and fears surrounding that power, particularly as it threatens institutions of masculine power. Depending on the aims of the artist invoking the archetype, witches can be everything from monster to feminist examples due to their refusal to conform to the patriarchy and their entanglement with male authority.
Witch Asa Vajda from Black Sunday is tortured and killed for practicing sorcery and threatening the male-dominated authority of the Church, which overcomes her again by the film’s conclusion. The three women in The Witches of Eastwick are repeatedly manipulated and used by the Devil for his ends. The witches in The Craft claim allegiance to neither God nor the Devil, but still worship the deity Manon, who still presents as male. In The Witch, Thomasin trades one male-dominated hierarchy for another, though we don’t know how writing her name in the Devil’s book works out for her.
Likewise, the threat of boundless female power is hemmed in by the patriarchal structure in Chilling Adventures. I do not recall another film or television series spending this much time on the bureaucratic friction and institutional hypocrisy of a coven. I also can’t remember a witch story so deeply questioning the motives of the patriarchal structures that use and manipulate women for their own ends.
Oh yes, witches receive loads of cool powers and near-immortality, but they’re not free to use either as they see fit. At first, it seems immensely disappointing that no one stops to consider that maybe, just maybe, the Dark Lord isn’t as infallible and powerful as he claims.
Would someone as great as all that need a veritable pyramid scheme to maintain his power? Why so much hierarchy and so many rules if this is about free will? Could it be that he doesn’t believe in doing the dirty work himself? Or that he’s actually entirely dependent on harnessing human power, particularly feminine power (after all, witches are born magical). Could it be he wants Sabrina because she’s way more special than anyone realizes, except the Devil, and he’d like to keep it that way? (Obviously, this will be the case in future seasons.)
Of course, the Church of Night has a strong PR game to dismiss such questions, as Father Blackwood goes on and on about “free will” and “free thinking” and “symbolic gestures.” And of course, all of it is proven false.
The sticking point is that, while most of the witches know the score and chafe against the rigid hierarchy, they seem resigned to the belief that they cannot change things. Are they working within the system to dismantle it? Are they simply not interested in being truly free from a man telling what them to do? Are their characters poorly written?
These threads speak to the greater double standard to which women trapped in such patriarchal structures hold themselves.
Sure, Madam Satan is full of righteous rage about how women are kept subservient, but her work for the Dark Lord threatens to be her undoing. She has no guarantee that he will give her the reward she wants. It’s not exactly convincing when she rolls her eyes and says, “When will the world learn? Women should be in charge of everything.” Or when she hisses, “All women are taught to fear power. Don’t accept your power from the Dark Lord—take it. Wield it.” Come on, Madam Satan, you’re just going to turn around and wield it however Satan tells you to.
Prudence Night, who quickly became one of my favorite characters, exemplifies this paradox. She has a keen sense of that trade-off when she explains to Sabrina how the Dark Lord operates:
Sabrina: I want freedom and power.
Prudence: He will never give you that, the Dark Lord. The thought of you, of any of us, having both terrifies him.
Sabrina: Why is that?
Prudence: He’s a man, isn’t he?
This exchange becomes all the more frustrating when, in “Feast of Feasts,” Prudence is completely swept up in the “honor” of being Queen of the Feast, when she will become “transubstantiated, living on in every member of the coven and the heart of Dark Lord.” This ritual is a raw deal, only ever involving witches, not warlocks. The whole coven encourages women to make martyrs of themselves for the good of a coven that has lied to them from the beginning. And for what? To be pampered for a few days? To get to wear a killer dress and sit on a throne of skulls? Not only is the whole ritual exposed as a scam, but the coven exposes itself as merely engaging in bloodlust covered with a veneer of spirituality. It’s not about gratitude or selflessness—it’s about consuming tasty female flesh. The Queen of the Feast is not special. Literally, any girl will do.
And here Sabrina’s choice is laid bare. She can submit to the hierarchy, obtain her guaranteed but limited power, and enjoy the protection and the social reinforcement of the coven. Or she can strike out on her own, learn about her formless power as she goes, and risk making some formidable enemies. It’s a terrifying choice, and one cannot fault her or any witch for feeling alone and small in the face of the Dark Lord’s power dynamic.
Isn’t better to at least get a piece of the power and the longest of shots to prove your value once and for all (even if it will be exploited), which hopefully happens before your High Priest decides you’re more useful dead than alive? So long as you walk an impossible tightrope act and don’t end up like the Greendale Thirteen?
If you can’t beat them, join them?
But maybe the Dark Lord can be beaten. I hope The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina continues to explore how such examples of patriarchy treat women as interchangeable and disposable until a male authority figures out how he can leverage feminine power. It would take superhuman effort and coordination on the part of Sabrina and her allies, but I’m hoping we see a full-scale witch rebellion in Season 2.
Let’s see if the Dark Lord is as big and bad as he claims to be.