Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina leans into darkness, witchiness, and humor primarily by way of its curious, winsome characters. Not all are universally beloved, of course: Prudence Night has been both praised and scrutinized for her periphery presence in Sabrina’s life (and therefore the show itself), while Sabrina’s besties Roz and Susie mostly exist as undercooked facsimiles of teens. Ambrose Spellman, however, has become a captivating favorite among fans and skeptics alike. There is something about him, this warlock confined to the Spellman home.
The more time we spend with Ambrose across season one of Chilling Adventures, the more it becomes clear that we don’t know very much about him at all. The unknown unknowns surrounding Ambrose contribute to his attraction, in collaboration with actor Chance Perdomo’s soul-captivating good looks, which he expertly plays to magnetic effect. But nothing so trite as “mysterious” distinguishes Ambrose from the slate of delightful personalities that romp across Greendale. Rather than any number of traits, his allure is better attributed to the atmosphere left hanging in every scene he appears in, lingering when he is away. Ambrose doesn’t conjure so much as emit from every sly movement, every lolling turn of phrase. In episode six, one scene opens on a hazy morning at the Spellman house, birds chirping, pancakes stacked. “Hey. What’s the matter, love?” Hilda asks. “Nothing,” Ambrose replies. “Just my melancholia.”
Ambrose is in bondage. At the start of Chilling Adventures, he is 75 years into his sentence, bound to the Spellman property limits after caught in a conspiracy “to blow up the Vatican,” as he explains to a boy he cannot touch — a warlock named Luke — on their first date. Ambrose leaves the borders only as a spirit, laid to rest in body as part of the controversial method called astral projecting. “Only the dead are allowed to travel the astral plane,” his Aunt Hilda warns with talk of “psychopomps” and something named the “Dweller in the Abyss,” but she observes his passage anyway, adorably riled by her sister-murderer Zelda. (Ambrose’s cautious plea, “I like him, Auntie,” would have done me in, personally.) Under Hilda’s distracted watch, Ambrose traverses the realm of the dead to do what would be quite banal for someone more free and less queer — sit in a café across from his crush who will soon ghost him. (Their courtship resumes when Hilda steps in, again.) The rest of the time, Ambrose emerges and retreats from the many nooks of the Spellman house-slash-mortuary dispensing knowledge, among other things: caution, skepticism, shade.
In his popular 1917 essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud develops an account of two forms of grieving. Mourning and melancholia are both responses to loss: “The reaction to the loss of a loved person,” he writes, “or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” Mourning, though painful, is healthy; melancholia is pathological. There is another side to mourning, the light at the end of the tunnel if you will, where the resolute absence of that which once was is gradually accepted as true, and in time, the grieving person returns to their own life. But a melancholic person, writes Princeton professor Anne Anlin Cheng, “is psychically stuck.” They consume and are consumed by their loss, which becomes formative to their sense of self. We either overcome loss or are overcome by it.
Nobody in the Spellman household — much like the many of us and nearly everyone on television — knows how to mourn properly. (I’d place bets on the Walker women knowing what to do, especially Roz’s grandmother Nana Ruth, seen knitting her own shroud in the season finale.) The irregular circumstances surrounding Edward and Diana Spellman’s deaths keep their loss open, unresolved. Zelda and Hilda each harbor their own thoughts about the matter and chaperone Sabrina accordingly: Zelda, devout and concerned, fears her niece straying from the Path of Night as her father did; Hilda, anxious and accommodating, offers the open mind deprived her brother and his wife in life and death. An infant when her parents passed, Sabrina interprets her parents as a mystery whose answer could be the key to reconciling her split heritage once and for all. Fastened to their loss is the impending loss of her mortal life, a life that was always in some sense fictional, whose convenient deceits hold less water with each casting.
The fifth episode, “Dreams in a Witch House,” traipses through the Spellmans’ worst nightmares courtesy of the demon Batibat, beginning with Sabrina. Dream Harvey proposes to her and she accepts, passing along the news to her disapproving and trepidatious Dream Aunties. “You’re a witch, he’s a mortal. Worlds that are, and will always be, diametrically opposed,” says Dream Zelda. “But Mom and Dad,” Sabrina tries. “Flouted convention,” Dream Zelda finishes from behind a lit cigarette, “and where are they now? They’re both D-E-A-D. Dead.” Dream Zelda taunts the missive at her dream-niece’s core: “Your attempts to conciliate your duality will only bring you pain and suffering,” she whispers. For the rest of the season, Sabrina bounces back and forth between mortal life and the Academy of the Unseen Arts, solving problems and creating new ones. Though she, indeed, causes suffering for others and herself, her attempts to exorcise personal (and literal) demons exhibit a dynamism her cousin finds enviable.
Ambrose, by contrast, must wallow in his loss. He cannot read or steep or sex it away, much as he tries. He is pansexual, and Ambrose’s queerness is constitutive of his wistfulness — and vice-versa — what writer Brandon Taylor might call a “queer dreariness.” Like Sabrina, Ambrose has a crucial parental loss in his past along with an impressive résumé. Oxford and a poetry collection at age 17, painting with the Surrealists, gifting Houdini his signature stage tricks — none of which, Father Blackwood points out during their first meeting in episode eight, explains how Ambrose found himself in a position to be punished by the Church of Night. Ambrose gives another, sadder version of the time passed, starting with the murder of his father at the hands of witch-hunters. In the wake of his death, Ambrose recounts, “I drifted from university to university trying to find a father figure. And then, I found one … And his mission became my mission.” Perdomo’s mouth sneers while his eyes remain afraid, adding up to the same panicked optimism we saw in that café during his date. Ambrose hopes and knows hope can be deadly. It is little wonder why, apart from his overall dishyness, viewers have latched onto his mood.
Ambrose is melancholic because he is stuck and stuck because he is melancholic, melancholic because he is Ambrose, and Ambrose because he is stuck. “The melancholic is not melancholic because he or she has lost something,” writes Cheng, “but because he or she has introjected that which he or she now reviles.” It would be easy to imagine a version of Ambrose infatuated by his own allure as a captive, fashioned not in cozy-boy swag but pompous frippery, witty but unaffected, seducing mourners with Lothario intent. Instead, mourning becomes him, fills him up, taken in with every long, drawn breath, exhaled with every psychically exhausted sigh.
“I am continuously missing everything,” he tells Sabrina in the first episode. His jaw ticks. He smiles that beautiful half-smile — no teeth this time — looks down and walks away. That fear is why his Batibat-induced dream is the nightmare of recursive servility disguised as freedom: He must tend to his own corpse, who, as Dream Hilda cruelly relates, “was a tragic shut-in” with “no friends, no one to mourn him, no one to miss him.” During the autopsy, he recites a bit of Hamlet (Act V, Scene 1), arguably confronted with a greater reminder of mortality than even a blank skull. Upstairs, Dream Father Blackwood has news: The binding spell instituted under his uncle’s leadership — delusion or real? — is null! Ambrose is free! He laughs and first ventures emancipation in the form of a question. “I’m free?” Then in a sacred whisper, “I’m finally free.” As a viewer, it is painful enough to see the joy break out across his face, the titters that escape his chest, knowing it is all just a dream. But even worse, we must watch Ambrose become the foretold stabbing victim, unzipped as the corpse in the earlier scene. He is frozen but conscious, blank-faced yet screaming. “Trapped in existential solitude, forever and ever,” Batibat tsks. While all the demonic dreams are sad and awful — some real screaming meemies — Ambrose’s is particularly dreadful, perhaps because waking up removes the bloodstains but not much else.
In real life, post-Batibat’s nightmare, Father Blackwood does have a proposition for Ambrose. He cannot commute the sentence, he claims, as if he’s not the highest-ranking authority in the Church of Night, but he can “lessen it.” What results is indentured servitude, or at best an unpaid internship. “Come work for me,” says Father Blackwood — a devilish invitation from any source. It will be “community service.” Then, lest anyone think me too juridical, Father Blackwood tells Ambrose, “You and I will work toward your pardon and complete freedom.”
The irony of Blackwood’s offer is one of the many contradictions spidering across the Church of Night’s doctrine. Much like its patriarchal structure, the Church premised on dark fugitivity exercises its power in conventional ways when it suits. By the end of the season, Ambrose is mobile but unfree. His decision to protect the mortals of Greendale is superseded by his own love interest, the person responsible for his altered sentence in the first place. “I’ve bound you to the academy,” says Luke. “You have to stay.” As the episode concludes, Ambrose glances uneasily at the men Luke insists are his brothers. “Hail Judas! Hail Satan!” they chant in unison. Ambrose, loner in a crowd, does not join in. He shifts back and forth. His eyes are afraid.