For its third episode, Salem accuses a third member of its Puritan town of witchcraft. But what happens when two of the most powerful local witches disagree on what should happen to the accused?
It was nice to have an episode of Salem that focused less on shocking set pieces than on character moments. Our head witches Mary Sibley and Magistrate Hale have a small war over the fate of Isaac the Fornicator, who spied on the Witches' Sabbath with John Alden. While Mary isn't above arranging the deaths of other innocents (including other women chafing against the Puritan regime), she feels a certain kinship with Isaac. They were both separated from the people they loved because of George Sibley, and both suffer the scars of their pasts. So even when it becomes clear that Isaac saw the Sabbath, Mary is inclined to protect him.
The world of the witches becomes a bit richer with this episode, and not just because Hale seeks the counsel of Petrus, the seer, and Mary the counsel of the witchy elder Rose. The differences between Mary and Hale are in sharp contrast. She chose the life of a witch for vengeance and power, and she wants to exert her will over every aspect of Salem. Hale, on the other hand, was born into a witch family, and his priority is to protect his fellow witches.
That doesn't mean that Hale has any more sympathy for the powerless. He disapproves of the witch hysteria that Mary is whipping up, but only because he fears what it will mean for the real witches—that, and he dislikes this female nouveau witch charting the course for Massachusetts' witches. When he dispatches the ghoul to retrieve and bewitch Isaac, he mocks the poor fellow, calling him, a "decrepit deformity." Hale's commitment to the witch lifestyle is probably greater, however, as Mary expresses concern that all the sacrifices she has made in her life have been in vain.
Meanwhile, we also get a fuller picture of Cotton Mather and his impetus for "protecting" the town from witches. It's not that he personally driven toward witch hunting, but rather that he wishes to impress his father, the great Increase Mather. It's interesting to see that both Mary and Cotton are driven by their affection for people in lower social strata as Isaac is saved not just by Mary, but also by Gloriana, who confides to Cotton Mather that she fears she could be executed for witchcraft as easily as the midwife who was hanged last episode. She prompts Cotton to be more cautious in his investigation, and when Cotton ultimately releases Isaac, calling him a drunk rather than a witch.
But Cotton's desire to keep up appearances prevents him from becoming truly heroic. When a bewitched Isaac stumbles into the brothel, terrorizing the women, Cotton has to get himself dressed and come into the main hall through a respectable entrance rather than through Gloriana's bedroom door. I wonder if Salem will ultimately make this bizarro version of Cotton Mather more of a hero, or if he will ultimately become the fanatic who increases his own reputation by accusing innocents of witchcraft.
Then there's Anne Hale, who finds herself unknowingly caught between Mary and her father in a magical battle. Anne seems unaware of the truth about Salem's witches, including her own father, but she gets a taste of bad magic in this episode. Anne's role in this episode is interesting, less because of Anne herself, but because it becomes clear that Mary is not above using her magic against the other witches of Salem in order to get what she wants. There's also a sort of metatextual discussion between Anne and her mother as to whether Mary Sibley is a good role model for other women. Goodwife Hale argues that Anne should be more like Mary in terms of manners and poise because she has become a powerful voice in Salem. Anne argues that the things Mary argues for are vile, but her mother responds that she could use her voice in any way she likes if she becomes more like Mary. Given that Anne is the daughter of a witch, I can't help but feel that this is foreshadowing, and that we will see her eventually match Mary in power, if not in other ways. And I wonder, what if Mrs. Hale shouting at her husband about?
Anne's point seems the more relevant one in this episode, as Mary once again uses her power against one of her fellow not-so-Puritan women. Perhaps Anne will be the proving ground for the question: Can a woman in Salem become as powerful as Mary Sibley without becoming a bad person? Given what we've seen with George Sibley, can any person become powerful in Salem without using that power for personal gain or fanaticism?
Amidst all of these strong personalities, John Alden remains a remarkably dull character. Even as a device, he's not half as interesting as Isaac, whose affections from Mary seem well earned. The most significant scene he gets in this episode is toward the end when Mary tells him that she can't protect him if he stays in Salem. It's almost a confession about her true nature, but I can't be bothered to care whether John Alden picks up on it or not. I'm too busy wondering what George Sibley is doing with that knitting needle and whether he'll ever manage to get his wife's familiar out of his belly.