Salem (Season One)
Posted by Holly
Mary is in a bit of a bind. As a woman living under the tight rule in Salem, MA in the 1600s, she finds herself unmarried and pregnant, with the father presumed to have died in the war. So she does what any reasonable Puritan woman would do: she bargains her unborn child to the devil in exchange for power and influence. Years later, she is the head of a powerful group of witches, bent on turning Salem against itself in an attempt to complete the Grand Rite. Oh, and John Alden, the father of her child, returns to town alive and well just as the accusations begin to fly.
If you’re familiar with history, or have even read The Crucible in high school, a lot of what’s going on in this show is going to sound familiar. In fact, just like with The Crucible, many of the names used in the show are taken from the real-life events of the Salem Witch Trials, with a few of the facts of their lives (and occasionally their deaths) spattered in here and there. It’s, of course, in no way attempting to be historically accurate, but rather rooting itself into the true events and spinning a story around them.
For the most part, I think it does a good job. This ended up being a binge-watch for me, between its infectious theme song, its consistently driving conflict, dark and striking visuals, and its many but carefully woven plot threads. It has enough momentum to justify spending a weekend indoors and allowing yourself to become immersed in the world and the characters, and get pulled into the dramatic webs that tangle them all together.
Every single episode of this show passes the Bechdel test. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve been able to say that. Not only are there women significant to the plot, with schemes and motivations all their own, but there’s a rich variety of them. What makes Mary tick is obviously very different to Anne, Mercy, or Tituba, and each one is allowed to shine, falter, and be a complex human.
That said, I occasionally found the framing of Mary’s character slightly uneven at the least, if not outright problematic. While powerful and in control one moment, her weakness in all of this is – of course – John Alden, her former lover. This slides her from cold and calculating to a slave to her heart pretty quickly. It does not soften her entirely, however, which is a relief. There is also a focus on her maternal instinct, deprived by the loss of her child – this is thankfully mirrored in Magistrate Hale. His story also focuses heavily on parental instinct, and the attempt to balance being paternal and nurturing with his life as a witch – with disastrous results.
Is this a perfect take on the Salem Witch Trials? No. Is it introducing anything new to the concept or lore of witches? Again, no. But it is a fun, addictively watchable addition to the current canon. If nothing else, give the first few episodes a go, and if you like the dark and moody atmosphere, chances are, you’re not going to want to stop.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Just try not to get that theme song stuck in your head.
Scariness level: It’s not going to keep you up at night, but there are some strikingly chilling visuals peppered throughout. Being set during the Salem Witch Trials, there’s also a heavy focus on the horror inflicted on humans by other humans, so often the witches aren’t even part of the horror element.
Violence level: You’ll find far worse on American Horror Story, but it has some cringeworthy moments.
Bechdel Test: Every. Single. Episode. You guys, it’s a Christmas miracle.
Mako Mori test: Yes, several characters fit the bill. Mercy being one of the strongest examples.