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‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ Part II Review: The Witches Refuse to be a Footnote

The pseudo-feminist hell fight we were waiting for

Jessica Xalxo Apr 19, 2019

Sabrina taps into her powers. Photo: Diyah Perah/Netflix

Bone-haired, silver-tongued and square-jawed: Sabrina Spellman is back! Things are different in part two of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS). A new era is dawning for the Church of Night and it’s going to be one hell of a fight to usher it in (spoilers ahead).  

There is an allure to Sabrina’s world, what with 16-year-olds habiting dark settings such as the woods, the desecrated Church, the Academy of Unseen Arts, mines that lead straight into hell and oh yeah, school. It’s everything you would tell a kid to stray away from. But most of the characters in CAOS are born into this world and interact with it as is their natural instinct to do, making it not as unsettling and even intriguing to witness. These teenagers are not powerless even as they’re subject to authority figures: powerful females, patriarchal males and the autocratic Dark Lord. Maybe that’s what is so interesting to see play out on screen. Conversations, actions and emotions that we as viewers might not feel so comfortable navigating in the real world – because it would be downright terrifying.

The “half-breed” Spellman, played by Kiernan Shipka, has signed her name in the Book of the Beast and she isn’t taking no for an answer. So are a good chunk of the witches, warlocks and mortals. Part two of CAOS sees the characters unite, over time, to topple the “traditional” facade and misogynistic hierarchy of the Church of Darkness. Questioning norms is inherent to Sabrina’s character. Whether she is doing so at the Academy, at home, at church or to the Dark Lord himself, her disruption of the set principles serves as an arrow for the plot, to spearhead the resistance which interestingly, is also the overarching theme of the season. Her assertions,  like when she stands up and bellows, “I am Sabrina Spellman. I shall speak, and I shall be heard,” after trying to halt her aunt Zelda Spellman (Miranda Otto) and high priest Faustus Blackwood’s (Richard Coyle) wedding are consistent with her speaking up, which has been critiqued by many as being unrealistic, but it’s a contrast to the silence of the other characters on the show and therefore, an important part of the dialogue – although a privileged one.

Characters who don’t openly challenge the established authority do begin to question it, especially when Blackwood puts forward his misogynistic and alienating five tenets of Judas. Their lack of open assertion may come from a wholehearted belief and acceptance of the Church of Night’s teachings but its root lies in the close ties they hold with the authority. Before being violated by Blackwood’s Caligari spell, Zelda scoffs at her fiancé’s rendering of the play The Passion of Lucifer Morningstar, recalling that Lilith never “wandered helplessly in the wilderness,” and that she “provided for herself, like a survivalist.” The realization of Blackwood’s “barbarism” is a building shock for Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence Blackwood (née Night) who functions as both an aid to the resistance and the “strong left hand” to her father. What is significant is that Zelda helps Prudence come to this conclusion. It would be easy to blame Zelda and Prudence for their complicity in Blackwood’s tyranny, but it would be remiss to do so without heeding the manipulation and exploitation of their trauma, need for power and positions by Blackwood.

Unlearning occurs for the warlocks and mortals too as Sabrina censures Nicholas ‘Nick’ Scratch who astral projects to her bedroom – “Nick! What if I were doing something private?”. In the world of magic, where the boundaries between planes and dimensions are blurry and people can find quick albeit dangerous passage to realms better left untapped, the necessity for drawing lines becomes ever more immediate and vital to establishing and experiencing healthy relationships – whether romantic, friendly or familial. The dialogue, in turn, also addresses consent when called upon or visited, especially in a personal space. The portrayal of a healthy romantic relationship between Rosalind ‘Roz’ Walker (Jaz Sinclair) and Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) is noteworthy as they discuss how magic can be a trigger for Kinkle and he thanks Roz for her honesty about the cunning (visions) which establishes trust and comfort in their evolving dynamic.

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The long-running breakout resistor of the show would definitely have to be Hilda Spellman (Lucy Davis). Long story short: you mess with Hilda at your own peril. It’s amazing how the show explores the facets of her character, whether it’s the harmless baker, the loving fool, the wise human or the angry witch. Hilda’s spoken resistance is sheepish but she is the protector who always says what needs to be said, and not a second too late: “You sit there on your platform and your privilege, and you pretend you’re better than the rest, and you’re not. I know the truth. Blackwood’s a killer, and because his downfall would bring about yours, you close ranks and you turn a blind eye, but I see you,” she calls out the Dishonorable Council.

(Trigger Warning: Sexual violence)

Hell’s hierarchy is extensively patriarchal, corrupt and irredeemable, to say the least. Methuselah of the Council asks Hilda to show him “how passionately she desires Father Blackwood’s demise,” inching his hand up her knee. This scene is especially pivotal in the post #MeToo era and deftly portrays the inherent allowance in patriarchal power structures to exploit that which it believes it holds dominion over. The Trivium of hell aren’t much better than their earthly counterparts. The gatekeepers are above investigation and treat gossip as fact, condemning Ambrose Spellman (Chance Perdomo) to death for killing the Anti-Pope. The Anti-Pope? He takes the cake, expecting witches to interpret compliments such as “oh my, she is sumptuous. You please both Satan and myself,” and “who is this fine, supple witch?” as blessings. Part two of CAOS traces the disease from its root to the branches of the tree, revealing the immediate need to destroy its power.

CAOS’ second chapter helps viewers further understand hell’s hierarchy. Then we see a woman topple it to take her rightful position even as Satan himself tries to delineate her to the sidelines. Lilith (Michelle Gomez) is the embodiment of wrath and she is done shining the Dark Lord’s hoof. We see her rise against millennia of abuse, and her resistance is a metaphor for the larger struggle of the coven, because she was the first woman (Eve) and witch, subservient only to Satan – till now. Her role begs the question of why the Dark Lord came to be the king of hell in the first place? If he was banished, so was Lilith. Was Satan king because he is male? This wouldn’t be the first time in history we found ourselves posing that question.

The witches and warlocks confront the orthodox position of the male in the Church of Darkness, assert their autonomy and help each other unlearn the ingrained. They also question their faith. In Satan’s church, there is no choice. There is only his desire and denying him comes with an actual claw on your soul that forces you into submission. His religion is reminiscent of a toxic relationship. Denying him leads to consequences – often for your loved ones – and he withholds information from you so that you continue to serve him. A particularly convoluted plot twist was the revelation of Sabrina being Satan’s daughter and to make matters worse, his consort too. Incest is a grey area, but it’s black and white when even one party says no to the engagement. Hence, make like Sabrina and when asked to yield to the Dark Lord’s will, say, “Sorry, but I have school.”

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CAOS doesn’t lack in representation of gender and gender identity. We see Lachlan Watson’s Susie Putnam grow into Theo Putnam and feel comfortable in his own skin. The journey is by no means easy and Theo faces a lot of opposition and doubt along the way, but the show portrays his transition beautifully; it’s not a plot gimmick but a vital and flourishing part of the storyline. The show renders acceptance – for both Theo, and his friends and family – delicately and sensitively, giving him time to come out as a transman. Owing to cultural osmosis, CAOS’ depiction of gender identity and transition is a step forward in how people can feel comfortable enough to assert and live their identities, especially as Watson themself identifies as non-binary. The scene between Theo and his father (“Maybe you could start by calling me Theo”) provides relief to many watching, pushing forward a positive portrayal – and we have Watson and the transgender writer in the writers’ room to thank for that.

There’s still aplenty broiling under the unfolding gritty, dark and spellbinding narrative of the show. There is appropriation, token representation and absent acknowledgment of race, privilege and indigenous practices of magic (to make matters worse, these practices are lent a colonized narrative), even as Tati Gabrielle, Jaz Sinclair and Chance Perdomo deliver spectacular performances and depth to their roles. Their arcs of assertion progress slower than that of Shipka’s Sabrina. Where Sabrina is assertive in every scene, Prudence, Roz and Ambrose take time to find their voices and understand their position in a conflict, leading to a season arc where their experience, power and trauma are only realized to tie up a plotline and defeat the baddie. If they were granted more screen time to navigate said conflicts and engage with them meaningfully, the result might have wrapped the season instead of setting up the next one. When given a complete plot, their actions only serve to aid Sabrina, taking away from their well-deserved glory.

Treating them as tools to further Sabrina’s narrative is a disservice. To put things into perspective, even the one Council member of color is a silent and nameless figure in the background. And while we’re still speaking of characters of color, why is Agatha presenting as a wall, at best, in almost every scene? Let characters of color take up positions of power and exercise their voices. Sabrina is not their representative or mouthpiece. We would defer to call CAOS a feminist show because even though it is powerful and subversive, it’s not intersectional.

A major win this season was that the mortals saved the day. CAOS establishes Theo, Roz and Harvey as characters capable of deciding their fates and being more than just allies in the fight against evil. Theo saves his friends from the Mandrake and together, they close the gates of hell with no magic – just a curse, some pencils and papers. Their fight is an important moment of agency. As characters without magical powers, they demonstrate that they can hold their own and that they won’t allow darkness to lead them to believe they’re something they aren’t. The finale sees the three knowing resident mortals of Greendale save the world.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a dark, twisted, vintage roller coaster ride that makes viewers upend and assert their beliefs while exploring unconventional depths of imagination. And the show should continue telling its story, not ignoring the characters and storylines that are instrumental to its intricate narrative. CAOS has enough promise to not realize it.