With “All Fall Down,” Salem ends its first season living up to expectations of over-the-top depravity. This is an episode of television where a girl uses her unknown witch powers to blow up her mother’s head and also stake her father in the head. There’s not a lot much to ask for, and it makes WGN America renewing the show after only three episodes a pretty smart idea, in retrospect.
It may take a few more seasons for the network to be taken seriously (and even then, it might only be on the level of The CW in terms of that type of consideration), but the smartest thing WGN America did when it decided to do original programming is book names. At the time of Salem’s announcement, as soon as names like Janet Montgomery (Dancing On The Edge), Seth Gabel (Arrow), Ashley Madekwe (Revenge), and Shane West (Nikita)—names that were all relatively hot of the heels of recent television shows—came into play, it made a statement that, even if the show wasn’t the best one television, it would at least have a cast worthy of watching.
American Horror Story: Coven got all the press, and Witches Of East End got all the eye candy, but Salem went for something else. It’s the type of show you watch when the novelty of Coven quickly wears off and the fluff of Witches Of East End doesn’t satisfy your crave. It’s an insane show. No one is arguing against that point. It’s full of historical inaccuracies—it’s an complete re-write of history, in fact—almost gratuitous nudity, and inconsistent accents. But it is most definitely a show worth watching. Mission accomplished.
In fact, Salem’s biggest flaw is its need to redeem the character of Janet Montgomery’s Mary Sibley.
Like the other witches on this show, Mary Sibley is selfish, only concerned with her own personal gain, no matter what the cost and what innocent lives are spared. In order to make all of Mary’s decisions forgivable—her torture of her rapist husband, her making a young girl both a “witch” compass and then her insane sidekick, the deception and fear she fills the town with—she has to have at least a little humanity. Unfortunately, that humanity comes in the form of her endless love for Shane West’s John Alden, and it is the most boring aspect of her character.
In order to make Mary the anti-hero the show so desperately wants her to be—instead of an unrepentant villain a la Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent—this love looms over the entire series like a dark cloud. Despite building to a plague upon Salem, “All Fall Down” still spends a good portion of its time reminding the audience that, when all is said and done, Mary and John’s love can conquer all. Eventually. Until then, it’s roadblock upon roadblock. And all of these roadblocks are due to Mary Sibley’s actions, never Johh’s, despite the fact that nothing nothing about John’s character—especially the ridiculous late introduction of his friendship with the Mohawk Indian tribe—really works.
John is supposed to be an audience proxy, as he is the most “normal” character in this series. However, he comes across as so bored with the insanity that happens around him, that he doesn’t even pay attention to it. He instead focuses on his love of Mary, but when he’s not being bored. He’s essentially the Aria Montgomery of Salem, unaware of the show that he is actually on and not understanding the type of stress everyone around him is living with. While chaos bleeds throughout this finale, John’s biggest problem is that Mary doesn’t show up to meet him (because she has things to do, like see her literal devil child for the first time). The moon is blood red at one point, and all of Salem is in peril, but John’s struggle simply comes from Mary being too busy to keep her promise.
Being on a different show, however, John’s blasé nature doesn’t affect the other characters, and that allows the season finale to mostly build on the momentum the past few episodes have achieved. It says a lot about Salem that it makes it so easy to root for Devil-worshiping witches, but the most cathartic moment of the episode (and season as a whole) is perhaps Mary finally outsmarting Reverend Increase Mather (Stephen Lang, Avatar) and having him killed by his own son. Episode ten really turned a corner for Salem with regards to who exactly who the villains of this series are:
Tituba: “There are no witches. Only poor people like me. Hunted and harried, tortured and murdered. And for no reason other than they are not you.”
The witches on Salem turn to the Devil because society has made the outcasts, and for that, they want their vengeance and for their oppressors to get their comeuppance. That is why Mary eventually becomes the dark queen that she is, and it’s the vicious circle that does the same for Mercy in this season finale.
In fact, the Hales are supposedly the only witches in this universe that haven’t faced the type of adversity the others have, which is what makes the Anne character so frustrating. While every other character has to deal with immense loss on a pretty regular basis—witch or not—Anne’s got it pretty easy, and yet finds a way to complain about it every episode. The character coming to terms with her new-found witch powers will probably be an interesting part of the second season, but with her closing out the first season essentially with a magical temper tantrum, it’s doesn’t come across as the best sign. What does work, however, is Anne being genuinely terrifying during the scene, finally allowing Tamzin Merchant to step up to the plate and prove that she can hold her own in scenes against Janet Montgomery and Elise Eberle (who steals the show in the few scenes she has in this episode) from now on.
Overall, Salem’s first season probably deserves a C+. A few of the episodes after episode two really dragged, and it wasn’t until episode six that the show bounced back in a big way. Closing this first season, the series very clearly has a vision for the second season, and that should do well to improve the show. Salem will never be an accurate depiction of the Salem Witch Trials—and probably not the best show on television—but that doesn’t make the story any less enthralling.
The short version of all of this: Salem is adult Reign, only with more historical inaccuracies and Mary Sibley’s wardrobe (especially the hat collection) probably surpassing all of the characters’ on Reign. Also, dressing like Mary Sibley on a regular basis in 2014 may not be practical, but no one would deny that I would be the most fabulously dressed person around if I did.
Outside of its insanity, Salem’s strength really comes from its female characters, with most of the men on the show being an afterthought. A bastardized depiction of Salem Witch Trials being a pillar of girl power sounds strange, but that’s what it is.
Isaac the Fornicator is simultaneously the most likable character on the show and the most unsettling. He’s just so twitchy that he can be uncomfortable to watch. His poor mind.
Next Sunday, WGN America is doing a marathon starting at 9 AM EST, if you’re into that sort of thing.