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Review: The Good, The Bad, And The Weird (Sisters) Of Netflix's 'Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina'

By Tori Preston | Streaming | November 3, 2018 |

By Tori Preston | Streaming | November 3, 2018 |

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In an epic fail on my part, I didn’t notice until I hit play on the tenth and final episode of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina that the season isn’t labeled “Season 1” but rather “Part 1” — implying that everything I’d just breathlessly marathoned would amount to something less than a cohesive whole. When all was said and done, these episodes served as a sort of fascinating and frustrating prequel to what I imagine the show wants to be — set up for an eventual plot pay-off. Granted, we knew from the get-go that Netflix had ordered 2 seasons/20 episodes of the series. And the good news is they’re already filming the back-half, as you can see from star Kiernan Shipka’s Instagram:

Better yet, the speculation is that Netflix might be dropping “Part 2” in time for Valentine’s Day, so hopefully we won’t have to wait too long to return to Greendale. In the meantime, let’s dish the good, the bad, and the weird of this bewitching series!

Warning: There will be SPOILERS for the full season ahead! If you’re not caught up, check out Joelle’s thoughts on the pilot episode here.

The Good: Michelle Freakin’ Gomez
Top to bottom, the show had excellent casting. Shipka captures the ego and innocence of the awakening Sabrina. Miranda Otto brings passion and zeal to Zelda Spellman, while Lucy Davis reveals the hidden core of steel at the center of the beleaguered Hilda. Entire think pieces could be devoted to Lachlan Watson’s gender non-conforming Susie, or insta-crush Chance Perdomo’s silky smooth cousin Ambrose.

Really, everyone in the cast shines… but I’m still going to single out Gomez as the star that shines the brightest (darkest?). She had already perfected the bad guy-turned-questionably-good girl as Missy/The Master in Doctor Who, but here she’s playing up a different kind of moral ambiguity as Miss Wardwell, Sabrina’s teacher. Or, as we come to know her, Madam Satan (a.k.a. Lilith, Mother of Demons, and Satan’s Concubine) — an evil force who takes Wardwell’s body and uses it to nudge Sabrina toward the dark side. In lesser hands, her role could come across as pure comic relief — a witchy woman emerging from the shadows with a cocked brow and a knowing grin. And sure, sometimes she IS just that, to delightful effect. But throughout these ten episodes, Gomez’s Wardwell keeps viewers on their toes, never quite knowing where her allegiance lies. Even though we basically know she has her own no good very bad agenda, it’s easy to hold out hope that she could be a genuine ally to Sabrina’s cause. A faithful advisor, with less stake in the Church of Night than Aunt Zelda, less self-interest than Faustus Blackwood, and more power than Aunt Hilda. Of course, in the end her agenda turns out the Dark Lord’s agenda, for her own purpose: namely, crafting Sabrina into her own replacement as Hell’s agent, so she herself can ascend the throne as Queen of Hell. Or is the Dark Lord just using her to sink his claws into Sabrina? Which brings me to:

The Bad: The Characters
I’m hoping there’s a twist in Part 2, because I don’t buy for a second that Madam Satan is getting used like that. And frankly, having trouble swallowing aspects of the different characters is a consistent issue with this show. Take Sabrina, for example. She’s trying to chart her own course between her Satanic witch self and her mortal self while faced with the secret legacies left behind by her deceased parents and the expectations of those closest to her. And “finding yourself” is a believable teenage motivation, don’t get me wrong! But by the end of the season, her determination to stick it to Satan and follow her heart takes some dark turns (RESURRECTING THE DEAD IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA, SABRINA!), and what started as a mission to have it all becomes a bratty assurance that she is special and untouchable. Worse yet, she somehow… is untouchable? After all, the Dark Lord is inexplicably determined to have her pledge fealty to him, because she’s, I dunno, destined to be more powerful than all the other very powerful (and willing!) witches already on his side? Look, I don’t need my main characters to be perfect or unchanging, but personally I felt she crossed the line into completely unsympathetic by the end. And in that regard, I’m actually happy that this was only half of the planned arc, so I can hold out hope that she’ll smarten up next season. Now that she’s, uh, evil.

For more consistent character problems, look at Zelda. Now, Miranda Otto absolutely sells this character, but if you think too hard about her motivations from episode to episode you’ll notice the inconsistencies. She’s a Satanic zealot who is constantly promoting her church’s interests over her niece’s — though she claims that if push came to shove, she wouldn’t really have let them cannibalize Sabrina in their special sacrificial witch feast. Uh, thanks for that, Aunt Z. Or how about how she’ll do anything for Faustus Blackwood, the head of the Church of Night, even going so far as to help him cheat on his pregnant wife — only to turn around and kidnap his first born twin while telling him there was only one baby that survived. This is the man she’s practically sold her own niece out to — the niece she had JUST claimed she regretted raising, while moaning about how she should have let Sabrina’s mom’s mortal family take her as a child. And now she’s gonna try being a surrogate mom again, just because she’s worried about how Faustus and his Church will treat the baby, since it was a girl that was born before the boy? Gender dynamics are a huge part of this show (see: Madam Satan’s subtle maneuvers vs. Blackwood’s bold manipulations of Sabrina), and to be fair, she’s basically right. Blackwood’s reaction to his son is to take it as a sign from Below that men should be in charge. Still, that’s a big about-turn for Zelda to make all of a sudden. I’m taking this entire sub-plot as a hint that there’s a gender war brewing in the Church of Night, and while I desperately want Zelda to be firmly pro-Girl Power in the coming conflict, it’s hard to buy her commitment to the cause based on her actions during this season.

Also problematic: Prudence. She has it out for Sabrina before the two have even met. And if she were consistent with that hatred, fine! But then Sabrina manages to get her help, and to help her, leading to a rocky relationship that wasn’t complicated so much as nonsensically knotted. I loved the Weird Sisters, and Prudence in particular. In terms of casting, hats off to Tati Gabrielle as well for being electric on screen. But dammit, the Sabrina-Prudence dynamic was the central “will they or won’t they?” of the whole season, and I wanted the mercurial shifts to be determined by their actual motivations rather than the demands of the plot.

The Weird: Balki?
Bronson Pinchot plays Principal Hawthorne, which isn’t necessarily weird in and of itself. What IS weird is how hot he is, kind of. Am I wrong? Maybe I just wanna know his skincare secrets.

The Good: Satanic Witchery!
The show made a compelling case for witchcraft and its practitioners — and even for the more devilish elements. The explanations of the hypocrisy of Christianity’s “False God” were convincing, as were the comparatively sympathetic free will-promoting roots of the Church of Night. The Dark Lord accepts that people are weak and prone to failure, which is a pretty decent sales pitch! Of course, things went off the rails a bit when the secret of the Greendale Thirteen comes to light: that these witches were allowed to hang to slake the bloodlust of the witch hunters, and let the rest of the coven to continue on in the shadows. On the other hand, the Feast of Feasts plot draws a line between the will of the deity (in this case, the Dark Lord) versus the interpretation of his intent as made by flawed people (Father Blackwood), and also offers a powerful examination of the nature of faith that was more nuanced that I was expecting. In the end, I want to buy into the sisterhood of witchcraft, even as we see the witches undermine each other. And more than that, I want to believe in the power they hold, even as I know it comes with a heavy price.

More Weird: Gaeta, The Vampire!

Battlestar Galactica’s Alessandro Juliani pops up as the weatherman-turned-late nite vampire host-turned-quirky bookstore owner, Dr. Cerberus, and I was TOTALLY rooting for him to make out with Hilda. And then he did! And then his eyes went all demony. Wah wah. Of course, he wasn’t the only BSG alum to pop up in the series: Michael Hogan, a.k.a. Colonel Tigh, also showed up as Harvey’s awful grandfather. And though this doesn’t really count, I have to say it: Harvey looked like a young Evan Peters, his brother Tommy looked like Logan from Veronica Mars, and Nicholas Scratch looked like Baby Julian McMahon… AND IT DISTRACTED THE HELL OUT OF ME.

The Good: Nick Scratch
No, I’m not saying Sabrina’s dark suitor is a good thing on his own. He’s mostly an enigma who pops up to help our girl out from time to time. Though let’s be honest — he’s CLEARLY Satan masquerading as a teenager to get close to Sabrina, and I expect that to be a huge part of next season. But, predictions aside… the actor who plays him is named GAVIN LEATHERWOOD. And that alone earns the character a place on the good list, dammit.

The Weird: Salem
At first, I was disappointed that the cat didn’t talk. But by the end of the season, I realized I could tell what he meant by the meows — and it turns out that Salem is a bitchy little critter! So I’m adding the fact that I now interpret cat-speak to the “weird” pile.

The Good: Roz, Susie, and yes — even Harvey
While I felt like Sabrina’s character went off the rails a bit toward the end, her ties to her mortal friends were one of her best qualities — making her decision to go full-dark to save the town, and turning her back on them in the process, truly impactful. But it wouldn’t have worked if the friends themselves hadn’t been interesting, and I think the show did a good job of giving each one defining conflicts that may relate to Sabrina, but aren’t ABOUT Sabrina. Roz is slowly going blind, but discovers that it’s part of a curse on her family — a curse placed by witches several generations ago. But as her eyesight diminishes, she gains a different sort of sense: “the cunning,” which… well, it’s basically “the shining.” Susie discovers her own sense of self by connecting to her fascinating ancestor through journals… and through the spectal appearance of that ancestor, who offers her guidance. I expect we’ll learn more about both families next season. As for Harvey, he comes from a long line of witch-hunters, which sets him at odds with Sabrina’s other side — but he also is in conflict with his own family, and eventually with Sabrina herself. Initially, all we see about these characters is the lengths that Sabrina is willing to go for them, but by the end we see each of them face their own demons, and the truth about Sabrina… and then ultimately accept her. The fact that she’s the one to walk away makes it heartbreaking, because the proof of the mortal capacity for goodness is right there with these three. If anything, they’re too good to be true — but in a show filled with over-the-top devilish antics, that’s a nice contrast.

You know what? This deserves to be unpacked in more detail. Yes, the resurrection caused some great drama, I’ll give it that. But the entire storyline about Sabrina bringing Harvey’s brother Tommy back from the dead because she’d do anything for Harvey — DESPITE THE FACT THAT SHE NEVER EVEN SPOKE TO HIM ABOUT IT — was infuriating. It was peak “I’m sixteen and know everything,” which was believable and frankly necessary to knock Sabrina down from being the perfect hero and set her on the path to signing her soul away. It also led to her getting dressed down by her entire family, even Ambrose, and watching them walk away from her. In fact, it was the first time she had to face the reality that she could be so wrong about something that she might alienate everyone around her. What I’m saying is, I get why it happened. But up until that moment, Sabrina actually was clever, and I’m not sure I believe that she’d make a mistake THIS HUGE: i.e. skewing the soul-math by offering a sacrifice to resurrect Tommy, then resurrecting the sacrifice, and then expecting to just get away with it with no consequences — all for a guy she barely knew, just because her boyfriend was super sad about it. I mean, of course she cared about Harvey’s feelings, don’t get me wrong. But there’s no way puppy-dog Harvey would rather have his girlfriend cheat death with dark magic instead of just supporting him while he processes his grief. Add if she thought that, it was not only arrogant on her part but also showed a lack of faith in Harvey himself. Basically, this was a bad plan on so many levels, and she should have known that. It may have been necessary plot-wise, but it didn’t sync up with the character of Sabrina that had been established. The whole thing made me want to take the show by the lapels and shake some sense into it.That’s why I’m giving this its own place on the ranking. BECAUSE I’M STILL SALTY ABOUT IT.

The Good: That Cain Pit
I just think it’s nifty that a mortuary has it’s own plot of dirt, seasoned with Abel’s blood, that can bring people back from the dead. There’s a lot of potential there. But Sabrina isn’t allowed to touch it anymore.

The Bad: Ambrose’s Love Life
Did I miss the part where they explained the ramifications of Hilda slipping Luke that love potion in his latte, or was it just to explain why Luke would reconnect with Ambrose after Ambrose ghosted (astral projected?) on their date? But aside from that, Luke is clearly Blackwood’s lackey, and he stole Ambrose away from Baxter High the night that the Thirteen rose without his consent. There has to be some ulterior motive, right? I mean, I get that Ambrose is very lonely after all that time under house arrest for trying to bomb the Pope or whatever, but he ain’t no fool. He’s gonna see through Luke’s nonsense soon, right? Or am I just jaded and can’t believe that love is real?

The Good: The Timelessness Of It All
Greendale is a town out of time. The characters dress like they’re holdouts from the 1960s, but with cell phones. There’s a sweetness to Harvey and Sabrina’s romance, that is somehow devoid of sexual overtones. Roz crusades against banned books, yet the bullying against Susie feels very modern. The soundtrack will go from a Velvet Underground track to Fiona Apple, then back again. There is no defined era, which allows the plot to weave together a lot of elements that might clash if we had a definite “when” in mind for the show. Add to that the fact that half the cast are witches and warlocks who admittedly don’t age, and a certain amount of that “retro” vibe is built in. Greendale is both completely fictional and yet idiosyncratically believable, and is basically a character in its own right.

Sabrina is now attending the Academy of Unseen Arts full-time, all dressed up like a Weird Sister and making flirty faces at Nick. But why is she so damned “special” in the eyes of the Dark Lord, and is Nick him? What really happened to her parents, and why did they lie to each other about her various baptisms? What is Madam Satan’s next move? Will Sabrina and Prudence really get along? WILL THEY HAVE AN ORGY TOGETHER? What’s Salem up to, if he’s not allowed into the Academy? What’s Gaeta doing with his demon-eyes and budding romance with Hilda? And how long does Zelda think she can hide that stolen baby for? Will the witches topple the warlock patriarchy? I enjoyed Part 1, but mostly it just got me really eager to see where all this set up is going. C’mon Netflix — where’s Part 2 already?!

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Tori Preston is deputy editor of Pajiba. She rarely tweets here but she promises she reads all the submissions for the "Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything" column at [email protected]. You can also listen to her weekly TV podcast, Podjiba

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