This fall a brand new witchy tv series was birthed into our world: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Though it features the same characters as the 90s tv series and the 1960s comics, this Sabrina is based on a much darker and spookier version of Greendale. I actually reviewed the first few issues of the comic itself, and was pumped to see the new series – especially when I saw that the author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa would be involved!
In general, I was totally and completely entertained by the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. There was a ton of stuff to really love about it, but there was also some stuff I didn’t like or was confused about, especially as someone who read the comics. I also noticed some odd choices concerning people of colour all throughout the series, and some theological changes that I think were… not a good look.
Let’s start with something I loved – the music. Every song throughout the show isn’t a masterpiece, but the soundtrack perfectly combines new tunes that people Sabrina’s age can love, and old tunes that set the scene for witchy and spooky moments. I don’t think I heard a single Fleetwood Mac song the entire series! Not that Stevie isn’t great, but that particular witchy image isn’t really as representative of teen witches. Instead, we have songs like Atomic by Blondie, an awesome cover of I Put a Spell on You by IZA, and Happy Birthday Sweet 16 by Neil Sedaka. I have two absolute favourite music moments that took old songs that I love from the 1960s that I’ve long considered beautifully witchy.
In episode 1 Sabrina’s deliciously attractive cousin Ambrose, who works in the family morgue, is getting ready to prep a body for a funeral while Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan adds to the slightly blurry vibe of the scene. I love Donovan and anytime you see him on a witchy playlist you see SEASON OF THE WITCH, it was nice to see something with a more psychedelic kind of spooky vibe.
The second is in episode 7, when the objectively best character in the show Prudence, is taking a luxurious buttermilk bath and eating macarons while The Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs reverbs off of all the walls around her. I screamed. This incredibly weird, slow jam from The Velvet Underground & Nico (one of the best albums ever) is so perfect for prudence and her personality. Not only is it dark and sexual, but even the instruments involved are kind of outside the norm. John Cale played his electric viola while Lou Reed played his guitar with every string tuned to the same note. The bass is played by someone who is not a bass player, and the percussion in the background is sparse and slow. It’s menacing and inviting and drips with sexuality and luxury. I’ve long been irritated at how often it’s left off of witchy playlists so I was thrilled to hear it.
Let’s talk about the real focus of this show for a minute – Prudence Night. A character created for the series. Prudence is an orphan and is usually in the company of Dorcas and Agatha, her orphan “sisters”. Right away she’s presented as an antagonist to Sabrina, as her and her sisters put a very inconvenient blood curse on her. Prudence’s story and motivations morph throughout the series over and over, even when her impeccable fashion sense stays deliciously on-point. She is my favourite member of the cast and my favourite character in the show. Prudence is smart, mean (I love mean women), gorgeous, sexual, pious, and powerful. She’s also black. Right away you have this juxtaposition between tiny, naive blonde Sabrina and this tall, sexual mean black girl. Prudence and her weird sisters always seem to pop-up to cause trouble for little Good-witch Mary Sue… I mean Sabrina… and Sabrina is always trying to change Prudence’s desire and very nature. Despite that, other characters treat Prudence as a capable and trust-worthy witch, even if she is definitely a mean girl. I’ve talked before about how white witches talk about black magic, and I found this to be a really lazy version of WHITE MAGIC VS BLACK MAGIC.
In that same scene with Venus in Furs, Prudence displays an enormous level of faith in her dark lord, and even asks Sabrina how it feels “not to believe in anything”. I loved this exchange. Despite Sabrina acting like she has a birthright claim to revolt against Satan, Prudence is the one who actually knows and understands her power, and finds power in her faith. Prudence doesn’t have time to make up bullshit reasons to revolt, she’s too busy becoming a badass witch at the academy where she seems to be a really dedicated student to her craft. Later she’s seen in a pansexual orgy full of mega-hotties and Sabrina absolutely looks down on her overt sexuality. This is a common trope in white supremacist media. Black bodies are simultaneously vilified and sexualized, and then vilified for revelling in the sexualization. Again, I found it really lazy.
We’re All Stars Now, in The Trope Show
Another trope popped up early in the series that’s common in so many American folktales and films and that’s “The Magical Negro”. Sabrina has two wonderful mortal friends who go to Greendale high with her, and both have their own brilliant storylines that bring them into contact with their own magic. Roz’s Nana Ruth is old and blind, and when Roz finds out she’s going blind she goes to her Nana to talk about it. So far so good. Turns out Nana Ruth is blind but has a heightened intuitive or psychic sense she refers to as “the cunning”. This allows her to see things people don’t with their eyes. She’s a psychic, and so is Roz – all because witches cursed the family a century ago. I absolutely love that Sabrina’s pals have their own magic, but Nana Ruth is a startling example of this Magical Negro trope in which a wise old black person, who is usually disabled in some way, provides guidance and information for the white protagonists.
The saving grace with Nana Ruth is that most of her guidance is for her own granddaughter, who is developing her own magickal ability that is distinctly different from Sabrina the white witch. There’s also a couple of wonderful moments where Sabrina’s gender non-conforming friend, Susie, meets her and Nana Ruth calls her “young man”. When Roz tries to correct her the look of joy on Susie’s face when she says “NO IT’S OK” is beautiful. The implication is that Ruth’s gifts allow her to see a person’s true nature and I can only imagine how much that means to Susie.
I also noticed a kind of lop-sided reference to Native American folk magic and tradition that REALLY bothered me. In one episode Sabrina uses her version of a dream catcher to trap a sleep demon and Hilda says “sometimes the oldest and simplest magic is the best”. This was… ok… but then later when Zelda is kind of flippantly mocking witches with no innate magical power she says “what’s next – crystals? SAGE? please!” and I cringed. Using the magickal traditions of people of colour and mocking them as ridiculous in the next breath is peak white witch culture and I hate it. I get what they were going for, but they clearly didn’t know or care that white sage is just as old and sacred a tradition as dream catchers to those Native American families and tribes who practice this way.
You Could Fly a Broom Through These Plot Holes
I know it’s only season 1, and that we have a holiday special AND second season coming up very soon, but damn were there ever a lot of plot holes and things that just didn’t make any sense.
In the first 5 minutes, we see that Sabrina loves very gory horror movies. Of course. She even has an encyclopedic knowledge of these films. Harvey remarks that “THE BLOODIER THE BETTER” for Sabrina. This, of course, is never mentioned again. Also, when cannibalism and gore come up, Sabrina is totally not down at all. Seems weird for a satanic witch who’s part of a coven that eats human flesh, but ok.
This brings up another thing – was Sabrina not raised in the church at all? Sabrina doesn’t know who the high priest of her own church is, she doesn’t seem to understand a lot of these satanic traditions or festivals or holidays. She’s half-mortal so she goes to a mortal school, but there’s obviously a fairly large and pious congregation in Greendale. Does she not go to regular black mass? We never even see kind of the standard mass. Zelda is INCREDIBLY devout and this seems weird to me. She obviously has some contact because she knew the Weird Sisters and they seemed to know her. In the comic it’s stated that Sabrina transfers to a mortal school because the Academy isn’t really welcoming of her lineage – but why does she go to mortal school in this show? Do other witch children start at the academy when they’re young? Do they not go to regular school? Why didn’t Sabrina start there earlier? How does she know the Weird Sisters if not from school or church? Sabrina’s belief is also…. not clear. She clearly believes Satan is a real entity, but then doesn’t believe in the tenents and beliefs of the church.
There are also little things like when Harvey sees what should be the demon that lives in the mines he actually sees the figure we’ve been introduced to as The Dark Lord himself. So which is it? and why Harvey? In the first episode at the academy, we meet a young boy named Quentin (WHO IS HELLA SMALL WHEN DO THESE CHILDREN START AT THIS EFFING SCHOOL?!) who is sent by Father Blackwood to welcome Sabrina. But then Quentin and his ghost friends are supposed to be like…. not known of? But father Blackwood clearly knows about, and employs, these ghost children.
There’s a big stink made about balance and that to resurrect one person, you need to sacrifice another. and yet a single sacrifice was enough for Madame Satan to raise the ghosts of 13 long dead witches. What the fuck?
Finally, and this was the weirdest thing I noticed throughout the whole series – mentions of the Vatican. I’m sure this will be expanded upon next season, but I still had to mention it. The obviously fake story about how Sabrina’s parents died is that her father Edward, the former High Priest of the Church of Night, was scheduled to give a lecture at The Vatican and died en route. WHAT?! Why is the head of a Satanic Coven who signed his name in the book of the beast giving a lecture at the Vatican? We later find out that Ambrose is on house arrest for trying to bomb the Vatican in the 1940s. Are they implying that the Vatican is actually a secret satanic stronghold? They wouldn’t be the first ones to remark that for priests that are to follow a strict code of poverty, the church seems to have a lot of bling and that the church often seems to consider itself higher than god. Still, I think it’s wild that Sabrina could have someone say to HER FACE that her Satanic High Priest father died on his way to a SCHEDULED appointment at THE VATICAN and not think “gee, that sounds weird.”.
This one isn’t a plot hole, but just hella lazy film-making. I know they filmed this in Vancouver (and New Westminster where I used to live! The Paramount is actually a trashy strip club inside an old theatre. I love seeing it look wholesome. I used to walk by every day and chuckle) outside of apple season but what on EARTH is up with these trees? The apple trees have blossoms on them and then like, plastic fruit glued to the branches. The tree the Mallum Malice is growing on isn’t even an apple tree. It looks more like a maple. I would have preferred fully fake trees. Like even the plastic ficuses that grow plentifully on soap opera sets would have been better. They filmed that scene in a gigantic park full of trees from all over the world, so the fact they just found the biggest and mossiest one and didn’t care what kind it was made me cringe.
Hey Girl Heeeyyyyy, Wanna Live Delicious AF?
Finally, we get to the thing I both loved and hated simultaneously about this show – SATAN’S WITCHES. I talked recently about Satanism, Satanic Witches, the Satanic Temple, and their belief in FREE WILL. I was hoping Sabrina would revel in her dark power and find empowerment by being able to shed the good girl image. I got the opposite. There are a BUNCH of great feminist themes through the show. Sabrina is fighting for her right to free will and individuality, Susie is fighting against the gender binary, Roz is fighting against the patriarchy and white supremacy, Madame Satan uses creative and incredibly clever means to coax Sabrina into her power, Hilda is fighting for her own individuality and for love, and the end of the series makes it clear that the battle of the sexes is alive and well in the Church of Night.
I was disappointed to find out that the general idea in this series is that the Church of Night, and Satan the deity, are hypocritical and manipulative. That they’re not different than Christian religions who place taboos on sexuality and individuality and women in general. Sabrina has to be a virgin for her dark baptism, she has to sign her name in a book and pledge herself to Satan if she wants to keep her powers, Zelda’s worst nightmare is having Satan himself think she sucks and prefer her sister. (Honestly, I hate Zelda lol) To Sabrina’s credit, she questions a lot of the right things and most of the witches around her acknowledge that her concerns are valid, but that it’s all worth it. Ambrose remarks that, depending on whether you ask a man or woman, the Malum Malus is either the apple of evil or fruit of knowledge. When Sabrina questions why Satan demands their service in exchange for power Prudence remarks that “he is a man, isn’t he?”. Zelda snatches a female baby to keep it from being cast aside or even killed by Father Blackwood because he wants a son to lead the coven. This sheds a little light on why he never claimed Prudence, despite knowing she was his child – which is a very Christian monarchy thing to do. I love Sabrina’s fight, but I hate the way Satan and satanism were portrayed. Again, it felt lazy. I loved the ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ references but come on, the satanic panic is over. It was a humungous tragedy and spewing this stuff now is just… lame. To then rip-off the Baphomet statue designed and created by The Satanic Temple is awful. Don’t steal from someone and insult their religion in the same scene, jerks. If this is fiction, keep it fictional. I didn’t need the series to be realistic, but I also expected it to be new and different and this was the same old Satan. A goat-headed sketchy dude with personal space issues that seeks to control and bind women, while lying to their face and pretending it’s all about free will. Disappointing.
In general, I enjoyed the series. I watched season 1 twice, and am looking forward to the upcoming holiday special and second season. I hope Sabrina’s beliefs and place in the coven become more fleshed out and complete. I hope Roz’s psychic gift is hella fucking cool. I hope we find out why Susie can talk to/see a ghost. I also hope they keep up all of the fun details and easter eggs I caught throughout the show! Lots of characters share names with those from Salem in 1692, the Academy of Unseen Arts choir is singing a Charles Manson song, fun nods to Satan in folklore like Nick Scratch – Old Nick and Old Scratch are nicknames for the devil – and Vinegar Tom. Hilda’s more folksy magickal habits versus Hilda’s glamour and darkness.
I also love that they did actually try for diversity in the series! The comics were set in the 60s and I was little bummed that the show wasn’t, but if it was we wouldn’t have the character of Susie, whom I love. Having a cool non-binary character with a psychic gift and heart of gold is awesome and wouldn’t really have been as possible in a retro setting. There are multiple characters of colour (though the mains are all very mayo), queer characters, and Roz is about to be a disabled woman. That’s a great start.
I hope the writers and cast can learn a little bit from some of their mistakes, and that Prudence stays exactly how she is because she’s perfect and I’m obsessed with her.
Read my review of the source material – (comic!) Book Review of Shadows: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Vol. 1: The Crucible
Watch the teaser trailer for season 2!