When we learned that Brannon Braga was returning to television drama with a fantasy show about the Salem witch trials, we had high hopes. And Salem is off to a fun and demented start, imagining that the American colonial witch hysteria involved real witches, while keeping its questions about good and evil complicated.
Although Salem certainly owes a debt to witchy TV shows like the most recent season of American Horror Story, it feels much more like a retelling of a classic tale. Those of us who grew up hearing names like Cotton Mather, John Alden, and Tituba will recognize shades of American history in Salem, while realizing we're getting a highly fictionalized version of that history. After all, the famous Captain Alden is, in this version of the story, the secret lover of the future Mary Sibley until he is sent to fight the French and Native Americans in defense of English colonial interests.
The problem for Mary is that she's already pregnant with John Alden's child, and we've seen what the village elder George Sibley does to people who break the Puritan's laws against extramarital sex. She turns to Tituba, who here is not a slave simply caught up in a moral panic but a skilled practitioner of the magical arts. Tituba takes Mary into the woods (the venue for all dark, mystical doings) and performs a magical abortion, inducting Mary into the world of witches. When John Alden returns to Salem, he knows nothing about Mary's fetus, nor does she understand why she has broken her vow to him and wed the terrible (and now apparently infirm) George Sibley.
What's interesting about Salem is that it doesn't quite take a side in the battle of Puritans and witches, at least not yet. John Alden is our protagonist because he represents our modern values: he believes that the Native Americans have souls (if anyone has souls); he's suspects mental illness is behind Mercy Lewis' ravings before witchcraft; he's a self-made man, ready to run from Salem with the married Mary, and he trusts his own experiences over the possible half-truths found in books. He stands in contrast to Cotton Mather, the Harvard-educated son of the famous Puritan minister and leader Increase Mather. Cotton is a hypocrite, preaching purity while visiting brothels, but, while he relies too much on his books for his knowledge, some of that knowledge is true, especially when it comes to witches.
Then we have Mary Sibley, our chief witch. We can understand fully why Mary made her twin pacts: one for magical powers and one as George Sibley's wife. When John Alden left Salem, Mary was a powerless young woman, terrified of George Sibley, a woman who had to give up the possibility of a wanted child in order to protect her life, a woman whose love was driven out of town by Sibley. Now she is the wealthiest woman in town, a woman whose voice is heard and respected during meetings, a woman who is in the process of getting the ultimate revenge on George Sibley. While she plays George's pious wife in public, but secretly is behind his illness, forcing him to keep her toad familiar in his stomach until she needs it. Salem even gives us that famous feature of witches, the nipple that is located near the genitals for nursing familiars. It's a jaw-dropping moment, but one completely in keeping with the witchy mythology of the era.
But while we can delight Mary's vengeance and understood how Puritan culture drove her to it, Salem is careful not to paint her simply as a woman happily liberated by power. She seeks the destruction of the Puritan way of life, encouraging the witch hunt so that the Puritans will turn on and kill one another so that the witches might gain control of Salem. And even people who don't subscribe heavily to Puritan beliefs, like John Alden's friend Quarry and the chripy nature worshipper Anne Hale, risk getting caught in her bloody net. Something dark has entered Mary's soul, something that we can see flashes of in the mirror, though the sudden reappearance of John Alden plants a seed of doubt that bargains have been worthwhile. Meanwhile, the ageless Tituba whispers in her ear, Mephistopheles to Mary's now questioning Faust.
It's significant that the antagonistic forces of Puritanism and witchcraft mate to form the pilot's most shocking scene. Cotton has been trying to get Mercy to name her witchy tormenter, but when he learns that a hex prevents Mercy from naming the witch in question, he dresses the poor girl up in a fetishistic harness and muzzle, leading her through the town on all fours like an ill-behaved dog. Mercy points herself right toward Mary, but the witch uses a silent spell to drive Mercy to bit off her own fingertip and accuse Quarry of being the witch.
Of course, if we had any question about the witches' link to demonic forces, they would be dispelled by the witches' sabbath, in which the animal-headed witches psychically gather, drenched in blood, to pay homage to their dark master. (And Magistrate Hale, Anne's father, is one of the key members.) At the same time, though, the Puritans are making a bloody sacrifice of their own, on the altar of Cotton Mather's panic. Poor Quarry, after being accused of witchcraft, finds himself pressed to death before Alden can come to his rescue. The witches may be ushering the devil into Salem, but Cotton Mather and the other Puritans are holding open the door. And while Alden may be the person we're supposed to root for, it's clear that Mary Sibley and Cotton Mather are going to be fun characters to watch.