Chilling Adventures of Sabrina S3 is a mesmerizing melting pot of the macabre

 arstechnica.com  01/27/2020 18:35:06   Jennifer Ouellette
Kiernan Shipka stars in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, back with another macabre season on Netflix.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinais back, delivering another bewitching brew of horror, magic, and the occasional high school hijinks. After a slightly uneven second season, season 3 is an expertly paced thrill ride, as Sabrina grapples with romantic entanglements, daddy issues, and an infernal challenge to her hellish birthright. In the process, Sabrina reveals that it is ultimately a show about power: specifically, who gets to have it, and the consequences of not wielding one's power responsibly.

(Spoilers for first two seasons below; only minor spoilers for S3. But there is onemajor S3 spoiler below the embedded video; we'llgive you a heads-up when we get there.)

The series is based on the comic book series of the same name, part of the Archie Horror imprint, and it's much, much darker in tone than the original Sabrina the Teenaged Witch comics. Originally intended as a companion series to the CW's Riverdalea gleefully Gothic take on the original Archie comic booksSabrina ended up on Netflix instead. Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who also worked on Riverdale)has cited classic Satanic horror films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist among his influences. As I wrote in 2018:

Both series are smart twists on beloved wholesome characters, and neither one takes itself too seriously. But Riverdale feels more like a (highly entertaining) primetime soap opera, whereas Sabrina embraces full-blown horror without bowing to the niceties imposed by network television. There are murders, demons, exorcisms, blood rites, cannibalism, spells, misguided attempts to raise the dead, a cloven-hoofed devil, and even a witch trial where Sabrina is defended by Daniel Webster himself.

There's plenty of high school melodrama, too, of course. In the first season, half-human, half-witch Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men) turns sweet sixteen (on Halloween, of course). That's a significant age for a witch: she's preparing for her Dark Baptism, a blood ritual where she will sign the Dark Lord's (i.e., Satan's) book and fully embrace her witchy nature. But Sabrinawho lost both parents in a mysterious accident and was raised by her auntshas some lingering doubts, particularly about preserving her free will. She'll also have to leave her high school and renounce her mortal friends to attend the Academy of Unseen Arts.

Aguirre-Sacasa has assembled a positivelystellar cast. Lucy Davis (Etta Candy in Wonder Woman) plays Sabrina's warmly addled Aunt Hilda, while Miranda Otto (Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) plays her strict, traditionalist Aunt Zelda, and Chance Perdomo plays her warlock cousin, Ambrose. Michelle Gomez ("Missy" on Doctor Who) is Madam Satan/Lilith, whose primary loyalty is to her own self-interest.Jaz Sinclair plays one of Sabrina's mortal BFFs, Roz, with Ross Lynch as Sabrina's S1 boyfriend Harvey, and Gavin Leatherwood as Harvey's rival, hunky teen warlock Nicholas Scratch. Lachlan Watson shines as another Sabrina pal, Theo (nee Suzie) Portman.

In my review of the special Christmas episode "A Midwinter's Tale," I noted the strong parallels the show draws between the patriarchal dominance of both the Dark Lord's "church" and traditional Christianity, predicting that there was a rebellion brewing. That inevitable rebellion makes up much of the main narrative arc for season two, as Sabrinahaving signed the Dark Lord's book to save her friends, family, and general population of Greendaletries to juggle attending both high school and the Academy. She promptly challenges Father Blackwood's (Richard Coyle) authority by vying for the post of Top Boy.

Witchy women

  • Roz (Jaz Sinclair) convinces Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) to try out for the cheerleading squad because life can't be all hell, all the time.
  • Harvey (Ross Lynch), Theo (Lachlan Watson), Sabrina, and Roz resolve to rescue Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood) from hell.
  • Sabrina and Nick reunite in hell.
  • Lilith, aka Madame Satan (Michelle Gomez), relishes her role as Queen of Hell.
  • Caliban (Sam Corlett) is a prince of hellmade of clay, as he tells people ad nauseamwho aspires to the throne.
  • Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) and Ambrose (Chance Perdamo) hunt for her errant father in New Orleans.
  • Mambo Marie (Skye Marshall) offers her help.
  • Meanwhile, a creepy carnival of pagans comes to Greendale.
  • Sabrina's aunts, Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis), try to rebuild their coven.
  • Triple dating at the high school game.
  • There's tension between Roz and Harvey.
  • Theo finds romance with newcomer Robin (Jonathan Whitesell).
  • Roz, Theo, and Harvey sense pagan magic in the woods.
  • The Spellman clan prepares for a fight.
  • Lilith takes a break from running hell to check up on Sabrina.
  • Rule in hell or have a normal high school life? Sabrina must choose.

Over the course of the second season, Blackwood's naked ambition eventually drives him to secede from the Churches of Night and set up his own (highly misogynistic) Church of Judas, until he is overthrown by Zelda, Hilda, and the other witches re-asserting their own power. Before he flees, he takes revenge by poisoning most of his former coven.Meanwhile, Sabrina has inadvertently been fulfilling a satanic prophecy to bring about the end times, enabling Satan/Lucifer Morningstar (aka the Dark Lord) to return to Earth in his angelic form.

Yes, we get Hot Satan (Luke Cook), who is far easier on the eyes than his cloven-hoofed horned beast incarnation in S1. He reveals that Sabrina is actually his own half mortal daughter, destined to rule by his side as Queen of Hell. In the end, Sabrina succeeds in imprisoning the Dark Lord in Nick's body with Lilith's help. (Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned when her Satanic consort throws her over for a teenager.) In exchange, Lilith crowns herself Queen of Hell, taking Nick/the Dark Lord with her to ensure Satan can't escape.

While S2 was entertaining, it was also a bit meandering and unfocused, with too many minor subplots that really didn't add much to the broader arc. S3 is much more tightly plotted, with far less bloat, even though there's still a lot going on.We find Zelda, Hilda, and the remnants of the coven struggling to rebuild, while searching for a new source of power now that the Dark Lord has "withdrawn" his supernatural gifts.

"What are cheerleaders if not a kind of coven?"

The coven is further threatened by a group of pagans coming to town under the guise of a traveling carnival. The pagans are intent on killing the weakened coven members (and all humans) so the pagan gods can return to the realm of Earthstarting with the Green Man. It's a bad time to be a human virgin in Greendale, since the pagans need one as a sacrifice.

Meanwhile, Sabrina is obsessed with releasing Nick from Hell when she's not joining Roz on the cheerleading squad. It can't be all Hell, all the time. Besides, "What are cheerleaders if not a kind of coven?" she reasons, given that the squad is all about chanting and moving in unison to amplify energy. Nick's release is contingent on Sabrina striking a deal: she will assume the throne of Hell, on the condition that Lilith rules as Regent so she can still spend most of her time in Greendale being a witchy high school student.

But her right to the throne is immediately challenged by Caliban, a perpetually shirtless prince of Hell who also aspires to rule. The two must compete to retrieve three long-lost unholy relics: the bowl in which Pilate washed his hands after condemning Jesus to death; the crown of King Herod; and the 30 pieces of silver Judas Iscariot received to betray Jesus.

(Warning: major spoiler below. STOP reading now if you haven't finished watching the season.)

Sabrina sings: when it comes to love, she's going "Straight to Hell."

A bit of a cheat

The entire season builds up to a genuinely gripping, horrifying finale. I won't give away too many details but do want to address one plot twist in particular that bugged me. In the final episode, Sabrina transforms the unholy artifacts into a medieval spiked ball and chain, known, appropriately enough, as a morning star. She uses this to create a time loop, enabling her to go back and correct the grievous errors she made.

Frankly, it's a bit of a cheata deus ex machina device to allow the show to have it both ways: kill off several fairly major characters and milk the viewers' shock and grief, and then under-cut the emotional power of those deaths by simply undoing them. Also: has Sabrina learned nothing from prior seasons about the consequences of cavalierly using powers she doesn't fully understand? Showrunner Aguirre-Sacasahas already said Sabrina's time meddling will have "huge repercussions" in the next season, currently in production.

That said, this is a series that features Hot Satan, Lilith, an incubus, Daniel Webster, a sleep-demon named Batibat, Robin Goodfellow, a child-stealing Icelandic ogre, the Green Man, plant zombies, Circe, Medusa, Pan, Vlad the Impaler, King Herod, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, werewolves, Dorian Gray, angelic witch hunters, the Loch Ness monster, a voodoo priestess, and a sexy prince of hell made of clay. And Aguirre-Sacasa has hinted that S4 will go full-blown Lovecraft and pit Sabrina and her crew against a mysterious creature. (The title of S4's first episode is "The Eldritch Dark"). So really, why quibble too much about a silly time loop ploy?

There's a strategy here of throwing every mythological figure and literary trope into the mix and seeing what sticks, but more often than not, it worksin large part because of the incredibly gifted cast.Ultimately, the best thing about TheChilling Adventures of Sabrina is how gleefully and unapologetically the show leans into its melting pot of the macabre. It's quite the high wire act, exploring serious themes while never, ever taking itself too seriouslyand never descending into outright camp.

Listing image by Netflix

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