This show is batshit crazy, and I absolutely fucking love it.
The premise is simple enough: what if the Salem Witch Trials had included real witches? But the show then takes that and runs with it, adding original characters and completely altering historical figures to suit its own needs.
The best aspect of Salem, and therefore the aspect that I will center my discussion around, is the character work. Personally, when it comes to TV shows, I find that it is the characters that determine whether or not I will keep watching a show. The plot can completely derail, but if I have a soft spot for characters, I’ll watch them eat breakfast. I hadn’t expected such nuanced character work from Salem, but nuanced character work is what I got! It helps that we’ve got a stellar cast.
First we have John Alden (Shane West), who in many ways is the prototypical white male lead. He’s handsome, honorable, loyal, respected, and has a morally gray past. But he’s also long-suffering, snarky, very reserved, private, and has the best eye roll of anyone on the show. He also develops a very interesting bromance with another character, the Reverend Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), a relationship which, though not the focal point of the show by any means, nevertheless eclipses all others.
Let’s talk about Cotton, who is a very intriguing character. In the first couple of episodes, you think he’s an archetypal fanatical religious leader with a side of hypocrisy, but that characterization devolves very, very quickly, as Cotton is revealed to be somewhat of an incompetent, whore-mongering drunk with daddy issues. But even though he’s what you might call a tortured character in many ways, he’s earnest and kind. He is the epitome of a character who Tries His Best but fails comically nearly every time, and it is incredibly endearing. He’s also a nerd who reads a lot of books, an eloquent speaker, and a romantic who falls in love with a prostitute. When his father Increase Mather (Stephen Lang) comes to Salem, it becomes very clear why Cotton is the way he is, and Increase fills the role of the fanatic, while Cotton becomes the voice of reason. It’s sometimes difficult to know whether Cotton is supposed to be a sympathetic character or a comical one; his drunken fits of melodrama and depression are hilariously exaggerated.
Why is Cotton in Salem in the first place? Why, he was summoned there by the linchpin of the entire show: Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery). And what a character Mary Sibley is. She starts off as a young girl in love with John Alden. When John Alden leaves for war and Mary finds herself pregnant with his child (in 18th-century Puritan society), she goes into the woods with her servant Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), who performs a strange ritual that makes Mary’s baby bump disappear. Fast forward seven years: John Alden has returned from war, but Mary is now a powerful witch and the wife of one of the town’s selectman, whom she has rendered completely ineffectual using her powers. Essentially, she is Salem’s most powerful woman. She also happens to be leading a coven of witches hoping to bring about something called the Grand Rite, which requires thirteen innocent sacrifices. Mary comes up with the brilliant idea to utilize the Puritans’ suspicions to obtain these sacrifices, and stirs up a witch panic to get the sacrifices she requires.
For much of the first season, Mary is a near-complete enigma. Nothing about her is clear: her motivations, her history, or even her personality. Montgomery plays her with a stoic air that hides a deep vulnerability. But it still leaves the viewer uncertain: is she hero or villain? Are we meant to despise her or sympathize with her? Though clever and often ruthless, Mary shows compassion and mercy when she thinks she can afford to. But sometimes it’s unclear whether she is truly being compassionate or simply playing the puppet master, such as in her manipulation of Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), whom Mary at first utilizes as a pawn to stir up the witch panic, but then loses control over her after bringing her into the fold as a witch in her own right.
Mary is the light to whom everyone is drawn. She is the grand puppetmaster, and as a result she has complex relationships with every single character on the show. She’s still in love with John Alden, which not only complicates her grand plan but also weakens her standing in the eyes of her fellow witches. Unfortunately, this relationship is my least favorite part of the show; I’m convinced that West and Montgomery have absolutely no chemistry. Mary also cares for but is not above using the hapless Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg), a sweet cinnamon roll who has never done anything wrong, ever, in his life. She has a somewhat uneven relationship with Tituba, who I would argue is the one character done a disservice by the writing. The show doesn’t seem to know what to do with Tituba; she doesn’t have much of a story or background outside of Mary. Their relationship swings from supportive to tense to hostile. Mary also wields great power and influence over fellow witch Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley), who is a sympathetic character in his own right, but is far eclipsed by his daughter, Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant).
I don’t quite understand how I came out of this with Anne Hale as my favorite character, but here we are. Initially nothing more than a vivacious young girl with a crush on John Alden and a mother who wants to marry her off to Cotton Mather, Anne grows into the show’s moral backbone. She is fiercely righteous, perceptive, and critical of the ongoing witch panic. Over the course of the first season she grows increasingly suspicious of her father, which leads her to make a shocking discovery about her own true nature. Her relationship with John Alden goes from crush to – if not outright friendship, then at least mutual respect. She also develops a familiarity with Cotton Mather. There is one truly delightful scene when John and Anne are both dragging along a drunk Cotton back home, and I got such Golden Trio vibes! Sadly the show has yet to capitalize on the amazing chemistry these three have together.
At the close of the season, Anne‘s arc takes an explosive turn, with her ensuing character arc having the potential to be either amazing or absolute crap a la BBC Merlin’s Morgana. Anne has such a core of goodness to her that I really hope doesn’t go away as her arc develops. Even if her moral compass does skew over the second season, I hope that she at least still does things in the pursuit of justice, even if her pursuit itself is not necessarily righteous. I look forward to her developing relationship with Mary, which season 2 looks like it is going to strengthen, but I sincerely hope Mary’s influence doesn’t eclipse Anne’s disposition, though I suppose Anne cannot possibly have escaped the season finale mentally unscathed. Also, I ship Cotton/Anne, just putting that out there.
Where the show is a tad weak is in the plot. It’s never really quite clear just what the Grand Rite is or what exactly it is supposed to do, or why. It’s also not clear what the witches hope to gain from achieving this Grand Rite. It’s also unclear how and why Mary has become the leader of this coven full of witches much older and more experienced than she is. Why is she the linchpin? Why is she pulling all the strings? Why did these other witches orchestrate her into such a powerful position? I’m not sure if these gaps are intentional or not; there are, after all, still two seasons left to this show, and there is a chance that these questions are yet to be explored. Overall the gaps don’t hinder my understanding too much, but they make it difficult to grasp character motivations, and for a show that’s done such a great character work, it’s a very obvious flaw.
Salem also really leans into the supernatural horror genre. They’re not shy about being gory or gross or violent or outright terrifying, which suits my aesthetic perfectly. The historical stuff is fun if not always entirely accurate. There’s some uneven commentary about female power and female sexuality that I won’t comment on until I wait and see what the show does with it going forward. Overall, it’s a Fun Time.