(This was also posted on my review blog, the Conqueror Weird. If you haven’t watched Salem – well, watch it, but also beware of very, very mild – mostly censored – spoilers in the below article.)
It was seeing Robert Eggers’ chilling The Witch in February last year that really got me interested in classical Satanic witch lore. Viewing the film was followed by a dive into texts like Heinrich Kramer’s* Malleus Maleficarum, Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum, Montague Summers’ A Popular History of Witchcraft, and so on.
One day, while lazily surfing on Netflix, I came across the first two seasons of Salem. I figured I’d watch it and see if there was any merit to it.
I generally don’t expect much from these types of shows; they usually a) have no respect or solemnity towards the hundreds of innocents that were tried, killed, and defamed as witches, b) have no understanding of the goldmine of material that the witchcraft topic provides, and generally go down a sort of “dark Harry Potter” route, and c) are generally trashy shows. I had similar problems with American Horror Story: Coven, which not even its strong leading cast could save.
So I put on the first episode, “The Vow”, not expecting anything of interest to occur. At worst it would be offensive, at best it would probably be mediocre.
First this happened:
And then there was this:
And there was also this:
And by the time this strange dark pilot was over, I had already given the show five stars.
The show has, ever since I saw it, been my favorite thing on television. It dodges all of the aforementioned problems – it has respect for those who died and acknowledges that they weren’t really witches, it has almost incredible faith to the folklore (right down the Malleus Maleficarum‘s weirdest, most NSFW chapter), and the characters are well-drawn and compelling.
It’s certainly an acquired taste. I appreciate that creators Adam Simon and Brannon Braga go totally out there with their witches. If you’re going to have a show about traditional European/early American witchcraft, you really just have to suspend your disbelief and go balls-to-the-walls. This is possibly the only show that could pull off a certain appendage being transformed into a crow without making me laugh out loud.
The performances, too, are outstanding. Shane West plays the leading man role with grit and intensity. Tamzin Merchant starts out as the innocent childish Anne Hale but beautifully captures the various changes that begin to occur in her life. Seth Gabel plays the Puritanical Cotton Mather, who may not be so bad after all (his father, on the other hand? Ha!), and excellently pulls off the part of the erudite scholar who gets way out of his depth. Oliver Bell, one of my favorite performers in the series, actually, is really very impressive as [spoiler] who later – in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever seen in any medium – becomes [spoiler]. Ashley Madekwe plays one of my favorite characters, Tituba, and excels at it. Joe Doyle is wonderful as the archetypal Gothic prince, while Lucy Lawless – Jesus, she probably scared me more than any other character in a show populated by devils and monsters.
There are some lesser characters I haven’t covered (Elise Eberle, despite playing one of my least favorite characters in the show, does a lot for the role, as do Iddo Goldberg and Jeremy Crutchley; Samuel Roukin is really strange and menacing as Beelzebub; Xander Berkley and Stephen Lang and Stuart Townsend and Michael Mulheren and so on are all wonderful) – but there’s one cast member who’s the real star of the show. Janet Montgomery…Christ, will someone give this woman an award? She plays Mary Walcott, later Mary Sibley, and even later just Mary. I can’t talk too much about her performance without ruining it, but by God she’s amazing. She’s scary, sympathetic, sometimes quite funny, and always engrossing in her role as the Samhain** of the Essex Hive (or coven). She’s absolutely amazing and her performance alone is a reason to watch the series.
Many consider season one to be the weakest season; I never had a problem with it, and, upon rewatching some of the first half, still don’t see any glaring issues. If anything it was the first half of the third season that might’ve been a little clunky – it was certainly not bad, nor mediocre, but the pacing was decidedly slow and somewhat out of touch with the quick-moving action of its predecessors. This is more than made up for, however, with the second half.
There are some nice references here and there that the discerning eye can catch. There’s a rat familiar named “Brown Jenkins” after H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal Brown Jenkin (from my favorite of his stories, “The Dreams in the Witch House”) while the final episode has some subtle nods to his “The Thing on the Doorstep”. [spoiler]’s transformation in the final episode is redolent of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The witch couple in “Night’s Black Agents” for some reason remind me of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane in The Princess Bride. There are surely a few more, but these I won’t spoil.
Salem is emphatically not a documentary; while it incorporates a few real-life characters like John Alden, Cotton and Increase Mather, Giles Corey, etc., things never appear extremely accurate (compared to, say, the stunning verisimilitude of The Witch). But this is not at all a bad thing: the vision of 1690s New England presented is almost fairy tale-like, an imagined heightened reality that allows for some truly gorgeous costumes and a lot of eloquent (but not archaic) language. Real occurrences like the French-Indian War are frequently implemented, and there’s even some relevance thrown into the mix: in the third season, Salem is struggling from a refugee crisis.
The final episode, which aired last night, was really amazing. It left the door open for future stories while not leaving any loose ends and giving a satisfying conclusion. We found out [spoiler] was pulling the strings all along, and not everyone got their happy ending. I still feel bad about what happened to [spoiler]’s character at the end of season two, but he’s been gone a long time. The peripheral characters met their fates quickly. Poor, cruel [spoiler] did a lot of nasty things, though she certainly didn’t deserve that. But by God, that last scene is going to stay with me till the day I die. It’s one of the most bleak, pessimistic, utterly horrifying things I’ve ever seen. One reviewer described it as “soul-crushing”, which is probably the best way to describe it. I won’t spoil it for you. Just go watch the show. First two seasons are on Netflix and the third is on its way.
I was fortunate enough to see the creators, along with Janet Montgomery and Shane West, at 2016’s New York Comic Con. All of their responses were well thought-out and friendly, and everyone seemed like a really charming person. I was, unfortunately, much too shy to ask any questions, and, while I was dying to go to the signing, a family matter came up and we had to leave. I left very regretful that I never got to meet the gang, especially since that was probably my last opportunity to.
As the past year has been full of both external and internal drama, and I’ve needed something dark and weird to lift my spirits, Salem was a godsend. I’m fourteen years old, which is already a pretty awful time to be alive without all the extra nonsense thrown in, and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find film/TV that sates my (decidedly niche) interests.
Salem did more than just sate those interests. It helped me get through a lot of stuff, and while I’m sad to see it go, I’m glad it got such a good ending (and that it even exists in the first place!). It’s as terrifying as The Witch and as intricate as Michael Alan Nelson’s Hexed (God. Can we get a Hexed TV series? Please?). It’s nightmarish and absurd and really beautiful and worth watching.
What are you waiting for?
*“Heinrich Kramer’s” : there is dispute over whether or not Jacob Sprenger – attributed as co-author in many editions, including the original – actually contributed to the work.
**“Samhain” : the leader of a coven is referred to in trial transcripts as the “Grand Devil” or “Coven Devil”, but this often leads to confusion with Satan himself. Salem uses the name of the pagan festival from which Hallowe’en originated as the title for the master of a coven.