There’s a moment in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina where Sabrina Spellman is clearly in over her head. To clean up her mess, she goes through hell and back for her friends and boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle, adding new meaning to ride-or-die. But as she is chased out of purgatory after having tried and failed to rescue the lost soul of Harvey’s older brother, it’s made plain that there are limitations even for a witch. “Everything has a price!” Aunt Zelda declares angrily.
Over 10 episodes, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures explores that price in a way that is equal parts campy, gag-horror, and teen flick.
We meet Sabrina Spellman on the eve of her dark baptism which is to occur on her 16th birthday. She likes to do normal teenage things like go to the movies, cuddle with Harvey in the back of his pickup truck and detox in preparation for her dark baptism. The baptism is a rite of passage for every witch but Sabrina (or “‘Brina,” as she’s affectionally called) is half mortal so it’s complicated. In order to serve the dark lord, not only must she say goodbye to her girlhood but also to Harvey and her friends Ros and Susie. The dark lord is a jealous lord, because “he’s a man, isn't he” Prudence, arch-frenemy witch, explains with a shrug. In Chilling Adventures, the patriarchy has recreated itself within the Spellman’s coven, The Church of Night. Their leader, Father Blackwood is determined to have ‘Brina sign her name in the book of the beast and puts all of this creepy pressure on her. The show is about ‘Brina finding a way to subvert tradition to live as both witch and mortal. She’s at her best when expressing her spunk and pep to assert herself for herself.
For the most part, she is successful. ‘Brina only runs into trouble when she attempts to dabble in magic that she hasn’t mastered yet. Ahem, necromancy. Or, when she meets opposition from the weird sisters, lead by Prudence. For having been raised by her two witch aunts, Zelda and Hilda, she knows astonishingly little about the craft. Instead, she must rely on her cousin, Ambrose, on house arrest for trying to blow up the Vatican, for tips such as how to astral project. By the end of the series, I began to wonder how much of actual help he was. He’s fine with giving ‘Brina just enough information to get herself an ordeal.
This iteration of Sabrina is nothing like Sabrina The Teenage Witch of the 90s. Mainly, there are black, queer, and gender-questioning kids all just kind of living. And they are more than just their tropes. Prudence, leader of the weird sisters, is totally compelling in a way that disrupts the black-girl foil for the white protagonist. She is unapologetically evil, devout in her worship of the dark lord, and has a respect for order that will eventually bring her to join sides with ‘Brina. Prudence also gets her own storyline, which is saying a lot because the series always has so much going on at all times. Chilling Adventures multiplies storylines rather than developing them. But, the depth and representation here with Prudence, Ros, and Ambrose is modern and true for a show primarily about young people.
The internet cannot get over how dark Chilling Adventures is. Aunt Zelda kills her sister with some sort of gardening tool as she’s tending to her vegetable patch because she was getting on her nerves. The scene is so unexpected and abrupt that it has a sort of comedic timing to it. And there’s something called the “feast of feasts “ where the witches eat one very “lucky” member of the coven. Throughout the season, throats are split, men are devoured, and PG-13 witch orgies go on while ‘Brina tries to get sleep. But the stakes never feel real because ‘Brina is mostly an observer until the near end of season 1. The finale indicates that could change in season 2.
Sometimes, Chilling Adventures dips into the realm of silly. I basically skipped over the entire dream episode 7 where a demon named Batty-Bat is torturing the Spellmans by luring them into an eternal nightmarish sleep. I’ve always despised this device in TV — dream sequences playing out nonsensical storylines while having no impact on the overall plot. Also, the demon is more cheap Halloween mask than actually frightening.
But series tend to lag in the late-middle of the arch. It’s obvious that Chilling Adventures is sort of preserving its energy in this leg of the journey. It stalls until it can go full-witch on us with bloody, hellfire fury. And does it! Episode 10 is sort of the reason to watch the show at all. I rewatched certain scenes for the satisfaction of seeing ‘Brina embrace her power. She becomes Vasilisa - the pre-Disney Cinderella of the old stories - who is covered in cinder and only half-awake. That is until she rises up, learns from Baba Yaga/Fairy Godmother and defeats those harmful forces.
Chilling Adventures is worth the watch while waiting on all those hexes on #45 to pan out. Alas, casting spells en masse has always been iffy. No, better to act alone. Better still if you’re a teenage girl, which, according to Chilling Adventures, is a powerful thing to be if you know how to wield it.