WGA America is known for their choice re-run roster — How I Met Your Mother, Walker Texas Ranger, and Parks & Recreation amongst others, predominately. As their first original scripted show, they ordered a 13 episode run that was received very well amongst fans that had begun under the working title Malice. Salem’s reception echoes the success of Hemlock Grove as critics didn’t quite grasp what many fans of the horror genre were able to see the first season through. A very good script and a combination of actors that certainly share the grounds of other successes makes this a worthwhile, maybe hidden gem, amongst other giants like American Horror Story.
In this story, we get the historic setting of Salem upon the beginning of an Inquisition, witch trials, in the late 1600s. Magic is real, zombies do some dirty work, and there is a war against an ancient power. We meet familiar characters of American history and The Crucible story line, while a fresher tone is added with twists to the already dramatic tale of love and the devil’s craft.
To portray the leading lady, Mary, is Janet Montgomery (Wrong Turn 3, Black Mirror UK) who is tasked to complete the Grand Rite — a massive ritual that demands innocent blood. Of course you can’t have a solid with story without love and this is found in counter part, John Alden, played by Shane West (A Walk to Remember, L.O.E.G, sprinkled throughout the 90’s). From the opening scene of installment, “The Vow”, we get a scope of the grim environment and a beaten Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg) under trial. His crime? Fornicating with a young woman who, too, is imprisoned in a cangue upon a stage. George Sibley, the castigator, carries out what most in the town have concluded for themselves. Remorseless to those they deem sinners, they lash and brand them for the mistakes. Alden departs for war and Mary withholds the fact she is carrying a child. The fun begins when, through the hands of Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) and her magic in the woods, she rids the life inside her, giving the unborn child to the dark lord to hide the secret. In return, she gets power and access, through the elders, to carry out the highest duties. The demons we see in sequences such as dreams and flashbacks look like satyrs, imagery similar to old works on vellum during the dark ages, a not so comforting feeling. Seven years later, Alden returns well into the dawn of the great witch hunt.
Cotton Mathers (Seth Gabel), tries his best to reason with the accusations. As the son of a revered and feared reverend named Increase Mathers who at this point has yet to set foot in the land, he acts as though a great shadow has been cast over his world. Alden, oblivious to the fact Mary (now) Sibley (after marrying the easily hated George) runs things, trails Cotton in an attempt to sort things out, as well. Everything plays like a gruesome game, accusations fall short of the truth, but because of the distrust and commotion, ends up in execution anyway. Mary, behind the events, slowly assumes the people under her command with a very clever plan to complete her ultimate mission.
There is nothing historically accurate aside from the sets and brutality, yet the message is still clear. Much like the actual horrific trials of the late 1600’s, the torment was actually driven by selfishness and total fear, the fear of secrets being unearthed. Although this show exists in a world where familiars serve their witches and the devil has hoofs, the characters commit actions very acceptable to reality in the name of love and salvation.
Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant) and Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle) well represent what adolescents may go through in realizing their place in the world. Much like Stephen King’s Carrie, Anne shows us in episodes “Ashes to Ashes” and “All Fall Down” that growing into your powers is a very gruesome process. I really enjoyed how we delved into the myth of the witch, as mentioned already with the familiars, when they use these animals to spy and possess. In episode nine, “Children Be Afraid,” we start seeing Mary use her influence metaphysically as her plan is to turn the witch-hunters into innocent bloodspillers, much like the real trials. She uses Mercy to do her work, showing a hierarchy that seems to betray itself. The show does very well with the pacing process as the transformation Mary goes through doesn’t feel like a power shift as much as it did a story of sorrow and pain despite her incredible abilities.
Increase Mathers was by far a favorite of the series, who was played by Stephen Lang of Avatar fame. Acting like much more of a badass Race Bannon, he dominates his part with a very incredible performance of self hate and divine will. He loathes humanity because of their sins, yet carries himself elegantly and slyly amongst the smoke and mirrors being the only one ever to truly see Mary’s plan, all while it’s far too late. Cotton shifts into a much more agreeable character than he initially makes himself out to be in “The Stone Child” and “In Vain,” where he was simply a slave of other people’s perspectives before resolving his own. You are a spectator, knowing far more than any character does at once, but feel the distress of every action. The writers should be proud for writing such likable malicious characters that hurt and, in turn, make you feel for them.
Elise Eberle’s performance, while she is possessed, nails it in the nightmare department, overshadowing many movie performances with the same theme I’ve seen in a long time. Her leadership amongst the other girls in Salem as they revolt from their oppressive situations was a very notable point in the story. The supernatural gives the leading girls an edge over the world designed to belittle a woman. When the wrongdoers get what punished, you are will definitely be rooting.
Television is a generous library with the premium channels naturally having more of a playground with the graphic and violent. However, despite the lack of nudity, naked bodacious babes, and hanging dong, this show was extremely provocative with very clean-cut implications (if you catch my drift) and a whole lot of gore. It’s great to see a show need not rely on only the disgusting, but can entertain viewers with a great story line, as well. Needless to say, as the season comes to a close, these characters have found their place in what is to come after The Grand Rite that reveals itself to be the only way for Mary Sibley to get her child back.
My prediction is that we are going to get a bigger world next season, as the characters will be scattered and new ones will obviously be introduced. Isaac is left in a very peculiar situation after handing the Malum, an apple relic, to the wood. New York and Boston are mentioned, hopefully giving us a look at their witch situations. Being a witch horror fan of the Mario Bava kind and many of the other great 60’s and 70’s cult classics, I will obviously be watching because we will follow very strong female antagonists. The fate of John Alden is still up in the air after being taken away by Native Americans. I forgot to mention that… yeah, war painted Native Americans. So far, Cara Santana and Raul Trujillo are cast for the following season, no word on any returning witches or their mystical, animal nurturing teats.
Salem season one gets a Tony Giallo rating of 3.5 nipples out of 5