tv review

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Is a Decadently Malevolent Halloween Treat

Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina, Michelle Gomez as Miss Wardwell.
Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina, Michelle Gomez as Miss Wardwell. Photo: Diyah Pera/Netflix

I have always loved witches. Whether it’s the fiercely determined detective Rowan Black from Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott’s comic Black Magick, the gloriously evil Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust, or the teenage hellions of The Craft, witches at their best are a potent excavation of female power, matrilineal progression, and the thorny gender dynamics in pop culture. But it has been far too long since a witch tapped into such terrain with aplomb on television.

The first episode of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, spinning from the pages of showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s comic of the same name, didn’t give me all that much hope. Like Aguirre-Sacasa’s other series, the CW’s gloriously ridiculous Riverdale, Chilling Adventures is stylish and intriguing, but it’s weighed down by a dynamic I’ve long grown tired of, in which the central witch is torn about coming into great power because she’s in love with a man. That the titular half-witch, half-mortal Sabrina Spellman (played with plucky resilience by Kiernan Shipka) is only 16 years old, and her love, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), has the personality of wet cardboard doesn’t help matters. But I’m glad I kept watching: By the end of the second episode, which charts Sabrina’s 16th birthday on Halloween and the dark baptism meant to usher her into the Church of Night, the show finds its rhythm and true motivating force. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina proves to be a decadent, malevolent fable with sharp humor, distinct characterization and cast chemistry, opulent visuals, and a striking richness to its world-building. The series uses those strengths to root Sabrina’s journey in her own desire for autonomy and power, defined only by herself rather than the various great forces seeking to control her, including Satan himself.

In that second episode, Sabrina has a revealing exchange with Prudence Night (played by scene-stealer Tati Gabrielle, who carries herself as a strange love child between Josephine Baker and Nancy from The Craft), a full-blooded witch with a penchant for brutal bullying and one-liners. After a rare moment of the girls working toward the same ends — vengeance against jocks from Sabrina’s mortal school Baxter High — Sabrina notes that she wants freedom and power. But Prudence warns that the Dark Lord would be terrified of Sabrina or any other woman having both. Why? “He’s a man, isn’t he?” Prudence responds with her trademark drollery.

Sabrina is a young woman steeped in two worlds, both of which are fleshed out and particular in this debut season. Her mortal life is defined by her days at Baxter High, where she canoodles with Harvey and hangs with her friends, a bespectacled, proud feminist Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and the sprightly Susie (Lachlan Watson), who is exploring her own gender identity. But it’s Sabrina’s life as a witch that provides the series its most verdant terrain. She lives in a grand mansion doubling as a mortuary with her sharp-witted cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) — a warlock who’s been on house arrest for nearly 75 years — alongside her bubbly, put-upon Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) and her stylishly piercing Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto). (And yes, Salem appears in the show, but he doesn’t talk. Rather, he’s a goblin taking the form of a watchful black cat.)

Sabrina also matches wits with the dean of the Academy of the Unseen Arts and High Priest of the Church of Night, Father Faustas Blackwood (a deliciously mischievous Richard Coyle), who has a tangled history with her father. Her two lives ultimately crash into each other thanks to her beloved Baxter High teacher Mary Wardwell, who in the first episode begins as a mousy spinster only to be killed and have her form taken by the demoness Madame Satan, a villain played by Michelle Gomez with such vampy decadence she steals each scene she’s in.

Against that backdrop, one of the great strengths of Chilling Adventures is also the most surprising: its structure. Even the best Netflix series is besieged by poor formatting. They often feel three episodes too long with a sagging middle that adheres to a single major arc with few, if any, stand-alone episodes to speak of. While individual episodes of Chilling Adventures could use some trimming — they average out to a full hour each — overall the series is smartly built due to its multiple story arcs large and small. Episode five is a particular standout, in which a sleep demon plagues the Spellmans in their own nightmares. Everything from the great design of the demon (which looks CGI free!) to the plotting reveals that Chilling Adventures is indebted to the cult charms of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It’s also within the folds of this fifth episode that the show’s relationship with magic gains new dimension. In Chilling Adventures, magic always has a price. While some of the best spell-casting scenes are built on the idea of communities and families being a well of strength, the world-building of the series — particularly the ongoing discussions of the “Greendale 13” who were killed in the town’s very own witch trials, and the Thanksgiving-esque Feasts of Feasts in which a witch is sacrificed and eaten by her own coven — lands on the undeniable fact that the Church of Night has noxious sexism braided into its rituals and beliefs.

This dual nature of magic — as a means of power for women, but also a prison the Dark Lord has created for them — charges the show’s visual and aural landscape. Visually, Chilling Adventures is brimming with a richness that bests many fledgling series. It balances between a self-aware kitsch and a clever subversion of horror tropes: Scenes are often dripping in shadows or blasted with neon; distortion warps the edges of the frame when magic is afoot, giving the series a surprising boldness and experimentation. The costume design is full of prim necklines, bows, and decadent fabrics that lend the show a late-1950s feel, even as the vernacular, rhythm, and particulars of its feminist perspective root the story in the present. The music choices are often glaringly on the nose, but that also adds to the kitsch posturing and elastic referencing. Production design is especially strong throughout, with the Spellman house being a crown jewel: A chicer version of something ripped from the imagination of early 1990s Tim Burton, it’s brimming with stained glass, carpets the color of blood, winding staircases, and a wall with shoes delicately placed on floating shelves as artistic display.

Of course, none of these darkly spun pleasures would work if it weren’t for the show’s deft characterization. Shipka plays Sabrina as a precocious young woman dedicated to maintaining her autonomy. She’s plucky, forthright, and kind. (And also surprisingly chaste for a show that includes an orgy set to Fiona Apple’s iconic song “Criminal.”) Her morality feels starkly black and white for a girl who has been consistently reminded the world is anything but — and she has a surprising lack of curiosity of witch rituals — but thankfully, the end of her arc is thrilling enough to make up for these issues.

It also helps that Sabrina is a bit outshined by Ambrose, Zelda, Hilda, and Madame Satan. As played with marvelous detail by Chance Perdomo, Ambrose acts as an uproarious rule-breaker and charming mentor in Sabrina’s life, while also getting his own desires and love story rather than just being a token gay character. Zelda and Hilda have one of the most tangled sister relationships I’ve seen in pop culture in a while. At times intimate and others abusive, their bond demonstrates the way family can heal and hurt in equal measure, and Miranda Otto’s deliciously spiky performance as Zelda grants the character a layered interior life. By far my favorite, though, is Gomez’s Miss Wardwell. To put it mildly, she is that bitch. A cunning, powerful, and dynamic woman, Gomez gives her a slinky grace and poison-tongued cunning that made me wish she had a series of her own.

The downside of all that witchy glory is that Chilling Adventures snags when it spends too much time focusing on the mortal existence of Sabrina’s friends at Baxter High. Susie’s gender identity remains unclear and undefined, which could be fascinating material for a story line about a teenager figuring out this aspect of themselves, but instead scans as if the writers are playing it for story tension rather than genuine character development. Harvey, meanwhile, is by far the greatest issue: He isn’t charismatic or all that distinctive, even as the show struggles to give him a story line of his own. It’s hard to understand why Sabrina is so wholly dedicated to him, and it’s especially hard to reckon with Sabrina’s love for him when the show grants her a would-be love interest in the form of Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), a sexy warlock who has a dark charm and devotion to her late father’s beliefs.

As I watched the early episodes, I was also worried about the show’s black female characters. (Lady Blackwood, played by Alvina August, is more a device than anything else.) Would Roz and Prudence rise above being tokens that could easily be surmised in a few words — the warmhearted best friend and the bitchy, bougie black girl? Blessedly, Chilling Adventures gives them both screen time and character development: While Roz struggles to come to grips with a disability looming on her horizon (and a clearly supernatural gift inherited by the women in her family), Prudence struggles with her desire to impress Father Blackwood and maintain her hold on the Weird Sisters (Abigail Cowen and Adeline Rudolph) who make up her trio of badasses roaming the halls of the Academy. Chilling Adventures is smartly devoted to fleshing out its side characters. So even though the central romance is such a drag, a host of other bright and engaging characters aid the show from getting dragged down by it.

Beyond its uneven premiere, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina proves to be an enchanting confection brimming with pleasures supernatural and mundane, alluring and horrifying, aural and visual. In many ways, the series takes the best lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It so marvelously interrogates notions of freedom, power, and womanhood within this darkly rendered world of magic and intrigue, I suspect it will become an obsession for witch lovers like myself everywhere.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Is a Halloween Treat