During its first season, as Salem went on, and the intrigue in the storylines and characters grew, it became apparent that the show’s eventual downfall could be as simple as a lack of reaching its true potential. The show, for the most part, has a competent cast—with Janet Montgomery and Xander Berkeley being the glue that held it all together in that first season—and clearly comes from a place of love and devotion when it comes to the writing, directing, production and everything in between.
This second season has been off to a solid start, but the show still had yet to reach its potential, as intangible as that may be to truly explain. But the step in the right direction was definitely to cast genre television royalty, Lucy Lawless, as Countess Palatine Ingrid Von Marburg and someone who could up the game of anyone with whom she interacts.
With “The Wine Dark Sea,” that game-upping comes in the form of her long-awaited scene (as long as a scene can be long-awaited with only four episodes in the bank) with Mary, as they both stake their claim as queen of the witches. Janet Montgomery regularly puts in fantastic work as Mary Sibley, but she’s really at the top of her game when she is able to go against another actor at the top of his or her game. It’s what’s been happening in her scenes with Jeremy Crutchley this season, with their intense game of verbal judo or fencing or ping pong or what have you. This episode builds and builds to that confrontation between Mary and the Countess, and by the time it finally happens, it’s much deserved and well-received.
What’s so impressive about the scene is how confident Mary is in it, dangerously so. Mary spends the whole episode cool, lacking the usual momentary betrayal of her true emotions, and just being the witch boss that she always claims herself to be. The assumption is that her ill-advised trip to the Countess’ ship will put an end to that, but it doesn’t. In fact, it signals that maybe Mary is getting too big for her faux Puritan britches at this time:
Countess: “Careful. Your next word may be your last.”
Mary: “Your words are nothing but air.”
It’s that confidence that allows her to keep going, to even suggest a buddy team-up—as the only thing that really matters is that they achieve the “noble cause” of freeing their dark lord, and it’s that cockiness that allows the Countess to woo Mary with talk of how “naturally superior” she is to those “Essex whores” who constantly lied to her. That’s the very thing she always complains about, though Tituba makes it clear in this episode that Mary also never concerned herself with learning the history of the hive or all of witch-kind in the first place. However, it is that new burst of supposed internal power that leads to the shock at the end of the episode, with the Countess’ “token of [her] appreciation” for Mary being George Sibley, drowned from the inside, at what has to be the worst time possible.
This comes off the heels of an Mary having completely broken her husband to her will in this episode, to the point where he no longer begs for the sweetness of death but instead believes in her promises of rewards once he’s done all of her bidding. George’s speech to the town Selectmen—where he calls Hathorne out for his pride being “worthy of Satan himself”—is pure fire, the truest glimpse of why the town feared and respected him before his “ailment” and why they still listen to Mary’s words that supposedly represent him. He was a force to be reckoned with, one that Mary broke and molded for her own, and now (presumably) he’s no longer a tool that can be used for such situations.
As “The Wine Dark Sea” is an episode that, for the most part, just fits as a pieces of a macabre puzzle, George’s death really does come at the worst possible time, and it makes sense as to why. Mary herself tells Anne the way a man like George (or, in Anne’s possible situation, Hathorne or Cotton) is a necessary evil:
“‘Tis the way of the world. For now. We women are utterly defenseless without a man. A women’s beauty is her only power. So for us, a man’s power must be his beauty.”
So essentially, this is the Countess making Mary utterly defenseless, and to make it clear that she will be queen, not a lowly Essex witch.
You know who also won’t be queen? Mercy, who’s quickly gone from a character I feel sympathy for (back in season one) to an upsettingly blind vengeance monster. There’s no entertainment to her scenes at this point, except for in the case of Dollie and Isaac who (at least for now) have escaped her clutches. It actually rings slightly false that neither Mary nor Tituba would sense her possible revival and that there’s any really chance of her rising above them—unless she teams up with the Countess eventually, in the case of the latter. But sadly, it mostly feels like Mercy’s time as a worthwhile character has passed, especially as Anne Hale becomes more and more interesting in her magical and sexual awakening.
- Countess (re: Mary): “She’s hardly what I’d call a wise woman, but she’s no fool.”
- Tituba (re: the ties on Mary’s chair): “ If you wanted to know how it felt to be a slave, you had but to ask.” Ouch.
- Mary really is pretty sassy in this episode, especially when it comes to Anne Hale. She’s also dead on when she points out that Cotton Mather, while definitely husband material, is married to his books, bottle, self-pity, and the memory of his dead prostitute.
- This episode also has John commit to being terrible at planning but being the ultimate stunt queen, as he bounds and gags Cotton to go through his book collection, instead of just asking him for help with his book collection. He did learn, however, that the spawn of a witch is a witch, so now he’s tracking poor Anne Hale. He also knows that Mary still loves him and is heart-broken.
- “Fought fire with fire. I got burned.” “This time, I work alone.” “Who said I’m alive?” John Alden is out of control in everything that he says.
- More Dollie and Isaac, please. Less Mercy and Reverend Lewis, please.
- I will also say, I’ve found that Tituba is a character who, when she’s offscreen, I always want to know more about what she’s possibly up to. Especially since it must have had a hand in John Jr.’s entire twisted behavior. He’s quickly on the path to being like the Countess’ son. Not great, Bob.