tv review

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Loses Some of Its Magic

Kiernan Shipka in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Kiernan Shipka in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Photo: Jeff Weddell/Netflix

Early in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s new batch of episodes, which premiere on Netflix this Friday, its plucky, rabble rousing lead gets ready for school in a way anyone would envy. Music blasting, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) studies her reflection in the mirror — still sporting the platinum locks she gained during her dark baptism — and with each spin, her outfit changes. A red sweater becomes a black turtleneck. Fetching plaid pants become a skirt. The show brims with fantastical images such as these, taking the common tropes of adolescence — talent shows, school assemblies, parent-teacher meetings, new loves — and draping them with darkly spun, candy-coated irreverence.

When we return to the arch, decadently conceived world of Greendale, the deliriously hilarious exclamations (“Hail Satan!) continue, new contours of the witch world are introduced (there’s an Anti-Pope played with appropriate pomp by Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise), and everyone continues to look fabulous as they traverse through worlds dark and mysterious while balancing daily life. But something feels amiss. While there is still much to love about the show — especially how it uses fantastical trappings to revel in considerations of women’s quest for autonomy — its magic has dimmed a bit in the face of nagging issues that have grown harder to ignore. At times, the feminist-leaning dimension of the show is too blunt and its emotional center is rendered hollow. The character’s motivations feel opaque, giving the sense that their lives are being pushed in various directions simply because the plot requires it. Sabrina’s mortal friends feel ancillary at best to the story, taking time away from where the show truly shines: in its cheeky, expansive consideration of the world of witches and Sabrina’s place among them.

In these new nine episodes, Sabrina opens up its world-building as it dips into different corners of the witch world and its bloody hierarchies. The show continues to excel at creating lush visuals and subversions of various Christian and pagan rituals. At one point, Sabrina throws down the gauntlet to Father Faustus Blackwood (a decadently malevolent Richard Coyle) so that she can take the highly coveted position of Top Boy, a powerful role at the Academy of the Unseen Arts in which a student (always a man) works alongside Blackwood. “This is exactly why I plan to do away with these sexist, antiquated traditions when I am High Priestess,” Sabrina says with a precocious lilt. It’s a biting provocation, but it’s also a call for a revolution. This instinct opens her up to all manner of sabotage and manipulation, including being hunted by three demons that she vanquishes with an enchanted whistle and a spellbook — a blend of horror and ever-increasing suspense that shows the consequences of Sabrina’s desires.

But Sabrina can get a bit preachy in this territory, vaunting a kind of simplistic, feminist-minded message. In a way, that makes sense — Sabrina is still a teenager coming into her own and sees justice in the starkest terms — but the show finds much more fascinating ground when it lets these characters be people before representing issues, and when its considerations about gender and power are more subtly imbued. A story line about now-Principal Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), for instance, originally irked me on my first watch. She’s not just a principal or a witch, but Lilith, mother of demons and a dark goddess figure I have long admired. Why is she so hell-bent on being by Satan’s side that she would manipulate the lives of an entire town and doom a young girl to the very life she’s trying to escape? But as Sabrina stands firm in her convictions and Miss Wardwell contorts herself for the whims of Satan himself (who appears often enough in her home, he should start paying rent), you can see the glint of different generations of women using the means before them to scrape together enough power to have the illusion of autonomy. Sabrina doesn’t want the illusion; she wants the real thing. And when exploring this element, the show creates its most visually rich sequences.

In the third episode, we’re introduced to a Church of Night ritual known as Lupercalia. It’s a lusty, three-part ceremony in which witches and warlocks are paired together ending in a night of “orgiastic carnality,” as Aunt Zelda (a vivacious and focused Miranda Otto) puts it. It’s basically a yearly excuse for everyone to have a lot of sex in the woods. Director Salli Richardson-Whitfield uses the forest with aplomb in the episode — the inky shadows, crowding trees, and laughter of the characters in the distance — as the darkly intriguing, almost too perfect Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood) and Sabrina awkwardly figure out what their desire for one another mean. The forest makes their passions feel claustrophobic and overwhelming, much how I remember the world feeling as a teenager.

The characters that intersect most importantly in the magical half of Sabrina’s life are allowed enough time in the spotlight for us to revel in their eccentricities and foibles, with Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis being particular standouts as Sabrina’s caring, gloriously odd aunts. What Hilda and Zelda offer — sometimes starkly so — are road maps to how to live as a witch under the strictures of the world at large. The show uses them to flesh out various details of the witch world, bringing the series its best humor and energy while also, more so in Zelda’s case, story lines of their own. (Also, no one says “Hail, Satan!” with the zealousness and panache that Otto does.) But Prudence and Ambrose feel a bit mishandled in these episodes. While Hilda, Zelda, and Miss Wardwell offer both moments of delirious delight and more impactful questions about the limits within the witch world for women, the show has yet to significantly consider notions of race in its world-building. Although they remain beautifully dressed and acted characters, the inability to consider the racial dimension of the witch world, along with certain stereotypes the writers fall into, slightly dim the otherwise effervescent story lines that include Dorian Gray (yes, that Dorian Gray) running a warlock bar.

The other sour note that disrupts this otherwise frothy confection is Sabrina’s mortal friends, who don’t neatly fit into the show now that she’s taken a sabbatical from mortal schooling and dedicated her time to witch studies. (That is, aside from a lovely scene between an astral projecting Sabrina and Roz (Jaz Sinclair) about knowing when you’re ready to have sex, which hits a vein the show should tap more often: remembering these characters are kids still figuring who they are and what they want to be in the world.) When Sabrina’s mortal friends appear, the show typically pivots to their leeriness about magic and how they feel about each other, rather than getting into their dynamic with Sabrina. Harvey (Ross Lynch) continues to feel egregiously miscast, adding none of the charm necessary to understand why Sabrina held a flame for him — or, for that matter, why Roz would suddenly be interested in him either. Pairing Harvey and Roz romantically opens up a box of issues the show doesn’t properly grapple with: Why would they ever get together with Sabrina between them? Why can’t the focus be more on Roz’s struggle with going blind and her newfound psychic abilities? Beyond making the various love connections of the series more complicated and giving some plot for characters that remain either ill-defined or downright unnecessary, it’s a baffling choice that brings even the most charming moments to a screeching halt.

More frustrating is the treatment of Lachlan Watson’s character, who announces his desire to transition and be called Theo. The greatest issue with Theo is that his life is narrowly defined by his gender identity with little understanding of who the character is beyond that lane, which often leaves scenes feeling more like an after-school special than a tender and dynamic exploration of a young kid’s struggle to become the person he desperately wants to be. When Theo’s story line intersects with magic, the show slips into knotty territory that isn’t properly untangled.

Take episode four, which has a nifty wraparound story involving a tarot reader (played by the exquisite Veronica Cartwright), who sets up shop at Doctor Cerebrus’s kooky store and leads each major character to unique fantasy sequences showing the consequences of choices they may make. In Theo’s tarot read, he sees what happens when using magic to aid in his transition. But the spell he steals from Hilda has grim consequences, mutating his arm into tree bark. Instead of having Hilda reverse the spell, Theo chooses a more brutal choice, causing an intriguing premise to slip into the grotesque and exploitative. Witchcraft has often been used as a method of transformation in cinema. This arch plotline could work if we had a better understanding of Theo beyond this narrow vision of his identity. When did he decide one particular vision of masculinity — the basketball star and beloved jock — was what he yearned for? Many of Sabrina’s best sequences in these episodes build their thematic and visual landscape on physicality. Whether it’s learning that Satan visits women on their wedding night for lustful purposes or witnessing Sabrina sweaty dance floor escapades with Nick Scratch, the body is often the show’s most useful landscape for communicating ideas about desire and power. For Theo, unfortunately, there is only trauma.

But each time Sabrina swerves into such uneven territory, it finds its way back to its strengths as a visually rich, darkly comical, and immensely fun to watch piece of wish fulfillment. The show ricochets from near-perfectly pitched dark fantasy to rote considerations of normal life, only striking the right balance when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it still has enough magic and wonder to enthrall.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Loses Some of Its Magic