By the second episode of Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, I was all in on the show. Not because it’s perfect, which it’s not; Sabrina can be clumsy and messy, and over the course of its 10-episode first season, which premieres on October 26, it never quite figures out how to establish a tone and stick to it.
But the second episode contains a moment so campy and smart and dark and gorgeous to look at — all the things that Sabrina’s first season proves the show can be at its best — that the moment I saw it, I knew the show had me by the throat.
It comes when titular teenage witch Sabrina Spellman (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka) gets into an argument with fellow teen witch Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) about exactly what they can reasonably expect from the world, both as witches and as teenage girls. Sabrina is trying to decide whether or not to pledge herself to Satan and come into her full powers as a witch in exchange, or to reject her witch heritage and live her life as a mortal. Ideally, she’d find a way to have it all: As she explains to Prudence, she wants both power and freedom.
It’s a tricky, chewy dilemma, one that animates the thematic core of Sabrina throughout its flawed, stylish, thrilling first season: Is magic a tool of empowerment for women? Or is it just another trap?
Sabrina is optimistic enough to believe that she will find a way to get everything that she wants. But Prudence has already signed the Book of the Beast, and she knows better.
Satan will never allow Sabrina to have both freedom and power, Prudence tells Sabrina, because Sabrina is a girl. And as for Satan, well: “He’s a man, isn’t he?”
This is a show that’s willing to both revel in the witch fantasy and to think about its limitations in a way I’ve never quite seen a TV show do before, to examine about what kind of women are allowed to be powerful, and what kinds of boundaries are put upon them in consequence. And it has an incredible amount of fun while it does so.
Netflix’s Sabrina is a messy show, but it’s best when it goes dark
Besides the basics, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has very little in common with the Sabrina the Teenage Witch that aired on ABC and The WB in the ’90s. Now as then, Sabrina is the daughter of a warlock and a mortal woman, and now as then, she’s being raised by her two witchy aunts as she struggles to juggle her mortal life as a regular high schooler and her magical life as a witch-in-training.
But where Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a wholesome family sitcom, the aesthetic of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is pure joyous horror.
Sabrina shares a certain amount of visual DNA with its sister show, The CW’s Riverdale. (Imagine a Cheryl Blossom spinoff with magic and you’re on the right track.) But Netflix’s higher production values are apparent in every frame, and the result is gorgeous.
Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has been lavish with the witty little background flourishes; be sure to keep an eye on the cemetery in the front yard of the sprawling gothic mansion/mortuary where Sabrina and her aunts live, as well as the tiny, vicious-looking cigarette-holder wielded with deadly insouciance by Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda (a terrific Miranda Otto).
It’s when Sabrina commits to a blood-drenched gothic aesthetic in its storytelling as thoroughly as it does in its visuals that the show is at its most thrilling: Its strongest elements all seem to come with a gleeful, lip-curling, witchy grin.
Is most compelling relationship is the co-dependent sisterhood of Sabrina’s two aunts, Zelda and Hilda (Lucy Davis), which involves severe Zelda repeatedly murdering bubbly Hilda and then Hilda dragging herself painfully through a resurrection. (“It’s a game!” Zelda protests weakly. “Punch and Judy!”)
And its strongest performance comes courtesy of Michelle Gomez, who steals every scene she’s in as the red-lipped and enigmatic Miss Wardell, the mysterious witch who at times seems to help Sabrina and at times hinder her.
Miss Wardell sees Sabrina’s central dilemma — Should she become a witch or a mortal? Embrace power, or freedom? — and she badly wants Sabrina to choose the side of the witches. Accordingly, she works throughout the show to convince Sabrina that her dilemma doesn’t really exist, that power can be its own kind of freedom despite its obligations.
But the glimpses we get of Miss Wardell on her own, when her smirking facade drops and she becomes trembling and afraid, shows us just how much she’s lying. Because in the world of this show, whenever anyone tells Sabrina that signing her soul away doesn’t come with a downside — that the male figure who is offering her power is just doing it out of the goodness of his heart, and that he isn’t using it to further subjugate her — they’re always lying.
The high school stuff is the weakest part of this show
When Sabrina turns its attention to the mortal world, however, it’s decidedly weaker. There’s a ghost of an interesting idea in Sabrina’s best friends Susie (Lachlan Watson) and Roz (Jaz Sinclair) — struggling with gender identity and psychic abilities, respectively — but the show never bothers to flesh them out in interesting ways.
And it handles Sabrina’s sweetly clueless boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) with an almost palpable disdain. Clearly no one involved in making this show was interested enough in him to give him a personality or even so much as a meet-cute with Sabrina — but for some reason they still decided to make him a central character who will motivate Sabrina to make some of her most important choices.
Even Sabrina herself is left to fall a little flat. Shipka has a radiantly likeble screen presence, but throughout the first season she has little to do besides be determinedly plucky and also sometimes sad. While the show seems interested in Sabrina as an intellectual construct who can act out an allegorical dilemma between power and freedom, it doesn’t seem to be fully invested in her as a character, and never bothers to give her the psychological complexities it grants to her aunts, to her cousin Ambrose (a smoothly charming Chance Perdomo), or even to mean girl Prudence.
Moreover, Sabrina struggles to figure out exactly what its tone is, and how to balance its darkness and its campiness. Most of its eeriest effects come from good old-fashioned creepy dolls and flashes of darkness and are genuinely scary, but there are times when it builds an episode around an actor in a rubber mask doing a funny voice, and then it’s as goofy as old-school Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Doctor Who.
It also can’t figure out exactly what kind of a value it wants to put on life: When minor characters die, the rest of the cast sometimes reacts as though the death is funny, sometimes as though it is tragic, and sometimes as though it is no big deal at all. But the disparities in reaction don’t seem to reveal anything about the characters, because it doesn’t feel as if Sabrina’s writers thought them through.
Still, for as messy and as inconsistent as Sabrina can be, the moments that work are more fun and more stylish than anything else on television. And when it takes the time to really delve into the complexities of the witch power fantasy, to think about what it means when the fantasy gives women power from a male source, and that source has its own agenda, when it begins to play out its ideas about power and autonomy and obligation and gender — well, then, just like the title promises, it’s downright chilling.