The Witches of WGN’s ‘Salem’

Generally, I’m not a fan of the way Witches are portrayed in media. The producers of film, books or games assign to us one of three personality types:

* The evil, Satan worshipping hag/young woman

* The evil seductress

* The powerful novice

Enter WGN* and their first scripted series, Salem. The first five episodes are available here. What they’ve done here is take all three commonly used concepts regarding Witches (the third develops in episode five), put them all together and place them in Salem, Massachusetts during the hysteria of the famous trials. The names of actual historical figures are used. Don’t expect a historical account when viewing the show, however. For that, watch The Crucible, which is probably as accurate an idea of what occurred as we are likely to get without a TARDIS. In Salem, not only are there Witches, they traffic with the Devil and control the trials.

Salem‘s Witches are all on the town board of selectmen and are preparing for the ‘Great Rite’, which will open a portal and bring Satan to earth. All seems to be going according to plan until John Alden returns from war and begins looking into what’s actually going on beneath the town’s Puritanical surface. We see a very different Salem here, one that has a pub, a whorehouse and is likely on any given day to produce some rather brutal violence. To keep things interesting, the producers of the show created characters that are (likely) polar opposites of their namesakes. Mary Sibley is a powerful Witch. Cotton Mather is a clergymen by day, by night a drunkard who keeps with prostitutes. Mercy Lewis is at first a puppet of the Witches, then a willing vessel. Tituba is a slave in appearance only; her true purpose is to steer Mary Sibley in the direction the rest of the Witches direct. The truest representation is perhaps the character of John Alden, who is cynical, war-weary and intelligent. He comes into town sure that the goings-on are the product of fevered minds and religious hysteria, then later becomes convinced that there is something sinister afoot and sets out to expose it. He is the monkey wrench in the works, primarily due to his past relationship with Mary Sibley and her refusal to do anything to harm him or drive him out of town. Indeed he has almost no reason to stay. The woman he loves has married someone else, he has no family left in town and his closest friend (Giles Corey) has been pressed to death after a speedy trial. The town he has returned to is not the same place he remembers and he is both confounded and fascinated by the collective path the people have taken. In Cotton Mather he finds an unlikely ally and the two begin working together to strip away the layers of flesh that hide the dark heart pulsing beneath.

Technically, the show looks great. The locations they’ve chosen in Louisiana look very authentic to the time period (though I do wish they’d actually gone on location in Salem) and the costumes are excellent, if sometimes a tad over the top. The show goes about as far as it can with frank depictions of sex and violence without becoming tossed off of the network to find a home on Showtime or HBO and there are enough scenes of frightening imagery to make it unsuitable for the kiddies. The effects and makeup appear to be primarily practical and are so well done, if there’s CGI used it must be seldom indeed because I have yet to spot it. The cast is similarly excellent and I give them a lot of credit, due to the fact that it can not be easy to make these characters believable. The show is well written and engaging and avoids going into the melodrama that it would be reasonable to expect with the complex relationship between Mary Sibley and John Alden.

Is it an accurate depiction of Witches? Hell no. It is however a delightfully fun watch. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I do. Admittedly, it had to grow on me, but once I got over the ‘Oh shit, not this again!’ way that Witches are painted, I started to appreciate the entire canvas with all of it’s layers of gore and strangeness. Salem is some wonderfully weird stuff. It’s also good tv in a ‘guilty pleasure’ kind of a way, and I’m thrilled that it has already been picked up for another season.

* Footnote: WGN America is not available on all cable systems, and if your system doesn’t carry it, forget about seeing the show via OnDemand. Though WGN’s website doesn’t post episodes, they can still be seen either via the links I posted above or may soon be available via Watch32. A big thank you goes out to the person who recorded the episodes and posted them on CouchTuner – if not for you, I wouldn’t have been able to see the show until it hit DVD/Blu-Ray.

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