The witching hour is upon us. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has arrived. One of the most-anticipated series debuts of the year has flown into our hearts on an eastward wind, but it’s not without its imperfections. On the heels of our review, here are some of the big things we loved about the first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina—and a few things we wish had been better. Hail Satan!
Sabrina Spellman would be absolutely lost without her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto), and thankfully, they’re two of the show’s strongest, most compelling compelling characters. While the pair start off as rather enthusiastic supporters of their coven and Sabrina’s impending induction into it, as the series goes on they grapple with the organization’s ideology in a way that really gets at the heart of the internal conflict that Sabrina’s dealing with herself.
The first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina explores what it means to rebel against institutions of power that are oppressive and ultimately holding people back from their full potential. It’s an idea that the series builds toward, with Sabrina as its focus, but it’s in Hilda and Zelda that we actually see those issues explored in much more nuanced ways. Despite the fact that Hilda is an exceptional witch, she’s excommunicated from the Church of Night for having been witness to Sabrina’s Catholic baptism and, in becoming an outsider, she’s able to finally become a relatively-independent person in the larger world. Though Zelda remains comparatively steadfast in her faith in the Dark Lord, she similarly comes to see the failings of the Church—and the ways that it’s been a problematic presence in her family’s life. To top that all off, Davis and Otto have fantastic chemistry that both feels reminiscent of the aunt characters’ dynamic on the original Sabrina the Teenage Witch series, and a spot-on spin on their comics counterparts.
Theme and Conflict
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is technically about a half-witch, half-mortal who’s navigating magic and high school, but it’s also about something much larger. The series encompasses a generations-long battle between feminine power and male dominance. This is evidenced by the Church of Night, a patriarchal organization where women do not hold positions of power, reflecting other traditional religious groups that systemically oppress their female members. Sabrina’s defiance of the Church isn’t just her refusing to sign her soul over to Satan, it’s also challenging the status quo...and that has a ripple effect, affecting all the women (and a few of the men) around her.
Stories like this can come across as heavy-handed, and sometimes the peanut butter is laid on a little thick—like with that scene involving Father Blackwood, his new heir, and all the menfolk basically shouting “hooray for dicks!” But this conflict lies at the heart of witchcraft narratives: Women are powerful, and that makes men afraid. That storyline is also playing out in American Horror Story: Apocalypse, where a bunch of greedy warlocks are literally bringing about the End Times because they don’t like the idea of women telling them what to do.
Sabrina’s (Mortal) Friends
Sabrina’s got friends on both sides of her family tree. Her witchy friends at the Academy of Unseen Arts are fine—mostly evil, with a touch of sometimes-not. It’s Sabrina’s mortal friends who really shine. The show does a smart thing in bringing Sabrina’s friends into the central narrative in a way previous versions haven’t. Like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, for example, mostly kept Sabrina’s magic a secret from her mortal friends. This made for some fun jokes, but it also made it hard for the series to grow.
In this version, Harvey (Ross Lynch), along with Sabrina’s friends Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), are introduced to magic pretty early in the season—not through Sabrina herself, but because Susie’s uncle gets possessed by a demon. This triggers a latent fear in Harvey, who once spotted Satan lurking in the local coal mine when he was a child. This event sparks their curiosity, and each of them discover they’re connected to something much bigger, and more magical, in the town of Greendale. Harvey comes from a line of witch hunters (hopefully his don’t involve an actual pair of denim “genes,” like on Sabrina the Teenage Witch) and Susie is descended from the woman who gave Sabrina’s ancestors safe passage to America. Then there’s Rosalind, whose family was cursed by witches generations ago with the “Cunning,” a gift of foresight that also comes with blindness.
This felt like a smart choice, as it gave Sabrina’s friends more to do than stand around like idiots wondering why some girl who looks like their BFF was flying on a vacuum in the middle of the night. Granted, it can feel a bit like The Vampire Diaries, as each character discovers the surprise familial connections and powers they didn’t know they had, but it works.
The Set Design
We praised Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s creative set design in an earlier post, but it’s worth noting how good the series looks on screen. Every scene is dripping with gooey detail, from the creepy knickknacks in the Spellman home to the slightly discomforting educational posters in the school library. Our attention might be on the characters, but it’s worth going back and looking through their creative environments. Production designer Lisa Soper helped make a show that’s not only interesting to watch, but beautiful to look at.
Madam Satan, played by Michelle Gomez, is a devilish treat. She comes into the series as a mysterious figure that possess the body of Sabrina’s teacher, Ms. Wardwell, instantly turning the normally mousy instructor into a sexy powerhouse. For awhile, we’re kind of in the dark about what her plans are. All we know is that she wants to get Sabrina to sign the Dark Lord’s book, no matter the cost. There’s this vague notion of a “prophecy” thrown in there too, though I feel like it’s more of a guideline.
It’s not until the final episode, “The Witching Hour,” that we learn about Madam Satan’s identity and what her plans are. In a change from the rest of the season, Gomez sits in as the episode’s narrator, describing the already transpired events to the school’s principal (who she then murders). She talks about how she put the pieces in place to tempt Sabrina to finally sign the Devil’s book—not for revenge, boredom, or anything else. The Madam has ambition. She is Lilith, Adam’s first wife from Jewish folklore, who was “saved” by Satan and became his concubine. Lilith believes that Sabrina is destined to take her place, letting her rise up to finally become the Queen of Demons. If that’s not the case, well, then Lilith will take matters into her own claws.
This reveal is very different from the comic book, and I love it to death. Instead of making Madam Satan the spurned lover of Sabrina’s father, she’s now a famed mythological figure with a millennia-long history. According to folklore, Lilith left the Garden of Eden because she wouldn’t capitulate to God and Adam’s every demand. Lilith has since been demonized, if you’ll forgive the pun, as a temptress, a succubus, or the source of infantile disease, depending on what version you’re looking at. But there is the underlying story of a woman being punished for not obeying the men around her. In that regard, Lilith is the perfect villain for a story like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, where feminine power keeps clashing with the patriarchy. Where will that lead Lilith in the end? Only future seasons can tell.
Sabrina’s Hair Reveal
It may have taken an entire season and a bargain with the Devil to get Sabrina’s signature white hairdo, but it was worth the wait.
We Didn’t Love
Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina
Being the title character of a series can put a lot of pressure on an actor—and while Kiernan Shipka definitely steps into her role as Sabrina adequately for a large part of the series, there are also a number of moments where her delivery is straight-up at odds with the tone the show’s trying to set.
At times, her Sabrina is seemingly not at all familiar with the basic elements of witchcraft, like when she’s being hexed (which, to be fair, can be attributed to the show’s writing). More than that, though, she never quite feels like she’s really embodying the role compared to the rest of the show’s cast. You always get the vibe that she’s acting, which kind of draws your attention away from the show itself.
No Edward Spellman
For the most part, we were fine with the changes made from the original Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic book. Some of them were actually for the better, like making it so Harvey wasn’t some creeper pressuring Sabrina to have sex with him. However, there is one notable loss, and it’s the way the show changed Sabrina’s father, Edward Spellman. Or rather, got rid of him.
In the comics, Edward Spellman was not a good person. He spurned his lover, who became Madame Satan, driving her to suicide. Then, he magically made Sabrina’s mother go insane so she wouldn’t expose the Church of Night. Sabrina’s aunts eventually turned him into some kind of evil tree because of all the shit he was pulling—only escaping after Madame Satan burned him alive, giving him the opportunity to possess Harvey’s body and masquerade as his daughter’s boyfriend. It’s gross, but that’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Here, the only thing we really learn about Edward Spellman was that he was a super cool High Priest who totally loved Sabrina’s mom and wasn’t a dick at all. During the entire season, I was waiting for some kind of awful truth to come out about Edward, giving him the opportunity to emerge as more than just dead daddy. The signs were there. He’d secretly signed Sabrina’s name into the Dark Lord’s book, and Sabrina’s mother was lost in Limbo. It didn’t have to be the same story as the comic—after all, Madam Satan’s story was changed too—but it could be something more than “perfect dad is dead now.”
Then, Harvey’s brother Tommy died and Sabrina resurrected him...only without his soul. We thought: Yes, finally. We’re going to see that awful twist we all know is coming. Edward is going to come back, and he’s going to be a nightmare. It would’ve been so easy to bring him into the show as a new threat, putting him in Tommy’s body so he could wreak havoc on the Church of Night that had spurned him. That would’ve taken away the terrible incest angle, but still let Edward be a version of the monster from the comics. Alas, Edward’s still out there in the void, the perfect ethereal father figure. What a waste.
Too Much Shallow Focus
There was some clever camerawork in the season, especially in how it worked within the spaces of the Spellman house and the Academy of Unseen Arts to make everything look slightly off-kilter. But a lot of the outdoor scenes were filmed in shallow focus that blurred the edges and make everything feel a little muddy. We get that it was to make the scenes look “witchy,” but sometimes it just confused things. It should’ve been cooled down a bit.
“Dreams in a Witch House”
Most of the episodes in the first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ar interconnected, with events from one directly affecting the next. However, there is one bottle episode, and it’s a doozy.
In episode five, “Dreams in a Witch House,” the inhabitants of the Spellman house are put under a sleeping curse by a demon named Batty Bat, a creature that can control dreams and trap people in their own nightmares. This provides an opportunity for the audience to look inside the minds of Sabrina, Aunt Zelda, Aunt Hilda, and Ambrose (Chance Perdomo). There’s some decent body horror, and some actually terrifying moments (like Sabrina getting put into that torture device). But we don’t really learn anything new about these characters. It’s all oversimplified versions of conflicts that had already been established, like Ambrose hating the fact that he’s under house arrest.
We enjoy a good bottle episode, even when they don’t serve a narrative purpose, because they’re a way to break out of a show’s routine—limiting one’s space provides the chance to tell an inventive story. Sadly, “Batty Bat” was no “Duet” from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It wasn’t interesting enough to work on its own, and the season as a whole didn’t justify its existence.
This should not have to be explained, but it is in extremely bad taste to depict black people being hanged on television without an extraordinary amount of context and care that make it clear that a) the creators of the television show understand the significance of that imagery; b) said hanging serves a narrative point.
Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence is one of the best parts of Sabrina and yet, the show repeatedly handles her character in a way that can read as extremely ignorant of race.
Views on Sexuality
While there are a number of queer characters in Sabrina, the show never really gets around to acknowledging their identities in a meaningful way, which ends up making them feel kind of hollow. At first, it seems as if the show is going to give Susie a subplot in which she explores her gender identity, but instead, it repeatedly introduces queer-phobic people who misgender her in order to drive the plot forward. “Misgender” feels almost like an inappropriate term because, again, the show doesn’t do the work to actually convey to us as an audience whether her gender is something she’s actually trying to unpack.
In addition to the Susie, Sabrina also dabbles in more than a bit of easily avoidable gay panic for reasons that don’t actually contribute anything to the show. Sabrina and the Weird Sisters’ clap back at Susie’s bullies in the mines don’t amount to much more than “oh, wouldn’t it be hilarious if we made a bunch of guys kiss one another,” and it’s made even worse later in the series when it’s revealed that one of the bullies is actually attracted to his friend.
Bonus: We Thought Was Fine
“What about Salem?” That question’s been asked in the comments of just about every Chilling Adventures of Sabrina article. Everyone keeps asking about that cat! It’s not that surprising: Salem Saberhagen is a beloved part of Sabrina. In this version, Salem is a goblin who answered Sabrina’s summons and came to serve as her protector. We hear him speak, once, and the rest of the time they communicate telepathically. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either. He serves a valuable purpose, and gets to save the day a lot. We thought he was fine.