Oh lord. This has been one hell of a season. This will be a spoiler-filled discussion, fyi. Also, if you’ve watched this show, please come talk to me about it!
Salem is such an odd show – I can never quite tell what it wants to be. I’m not sure its writers know either. It’s such a muddle of things – mythologies, folklore, morality – and it is ever-changing and ever-shifting.
In the very first episode of the first season, in an exchange I cannot believe I missed the first time around, John Alden sarcastically asks the Reverend Cotton Mather: “What do these awful witches want?” And without a trace of irony, Cotton responds, “The same thing we all want: a country of their own.” Now, this certainly illuminates the witches’ motivation, and it makes a terrible kind of sense. They want to carve up Salem as a place of their own, where they can live free of persecution. Unfortunately, they are doing it by way of black magic begotten via the devil, which seems to make them equally miserable.
The second season of Salem seemed to delight in highlighting that particular misery. In early episodes, Anne Hale, having recently come into her powers, whispers to her familiar, “I do not think I like being a witch.” And I don’t blame her. Every single witch we’ve met is either straight-up evil or, at best, morally repugnant. Poor Anne is doing her best to stay good and to stay sane, but she’s fighting a losing battle whilst more powerful forces are jousting her left and right. Then, the show finally cemented what it had strongly hinted at in the first season: magic comes by way of being raped by the devil.
Which, what? This is one of the major problems with Salem: it never established exactly what a witch is, or how they come into their power. At first, it seemed that witches were what traditional Western Christianity had always said they were: women who made a deal with the devil for power. These are “contract” witches, who supposedly sell their soul to the devil (which raises other questions about that what means – are they automatically evil now? how much of their original self remains?). But then the season finale added Anne Hale to the mix: a “cradle” witch, or a hereditary witch, born with powers. So, if she already has powers, why does she need to succumb to the devil’s sexual advances? Did her father, also a cradle witch apparently, make a covenant on her behalf before she was born? Or are the children of witches automatically entered into a covenant whether their parents like it or not? For that matter, why this violent sexual component? Not only is it horrific, it makes little sense. What is the point? The lack of definitive lore is frustrating.
Speaking of the devil: if he already has corporeal form, why does he need to be reborn into a little boy? Is it so that he can move amongst the masses unmolested? But, if the goal is to create a new country with him at the helm, wouldn’t he want people to know who he is? Why does he care about having human form? Or are his other, monstrous corporal forms (the forms he uses to rape witches) unstable somehow? Temporary? And when he finally does find his way into little John, it’s shockingly anti-climactic? The witches kept talking about ushering in their Dark Lord into the world but then…he’s just trapped in a kid’s body? And nothing has really changed?
This season also dropped a major bomb in a shockingly nonchalant way: Anne Hale is apparently the Countess von Marburg’s daughter.
What? How? Why? She told Anne she sent her father John Hale away to protect Anne, but I thought John came from Europe to the New World as a child? Does Marburg mean she sent him away from…Boston? This feels so utterly random, a cheap way to up Anne’s character arc and inevitable foray into ~evil. It’s reminiscent of the ridiculous, retcon in Merlin, where Morgana is revealed to be Uther’s daughter. Unlike Merlin, however, there is no big reveal for Anne. When Marburg tells her, Anne casually says her father hinted at it in his Book of Shadows, and then she just rolls with it. Which is ridiculous. Anne was close with the woman she thought was her mother, and she’s terrified of Marburg. This reveal should have resulted in a short-lived identity crisis, at least, and yet it’s brushed over like it’s nothing of import.
This season also focused on Anne’s developing relationship with Cotton, which only served to torture my shipper heart. Here’s the thing: I shipped Anne with Cotton from the very first season, and GIFS made it seem like they were getting together for real. Unfortunately, it’s a disaster from the get-go: Anne is put in a bind and finds herself with little choice but to cast a freaking love spell on Cotton, to sway his affections (though he later tells her that it was a waste, that he had already loved her but just needed time). When Cotton discovers that Anne is a witch, he’s understandably betrayed, but not so understandably sanctimonious. For a dude who murdered two totally innocent people on trumped up charges of witchcraft, he’s waaaaaaaay too holier-than-thou about Anne having accidentally killed a guy who was literally trying to rape and murder her. Get your head out of your ass, Cotton!
The season ends with Anne shoving her familiar down Cotton’s throat and turning him into George Sibley 2.0, so this is clearly heading down the Lovers to Enemies trope, which makes me despair, because I love these two so much. On the other hand, Anne’s character arc is so fucking fantastic. All of her actions are born out of fear and desperation. She’s constantly being threatened by either Mary or Marburg or Magistrate Hathorne. She’s dealing with some major self-loathing because of her powers, but on the other hand she’s delighted that these powers are finally granting her some measure of power and independence. By the end of the season she seems simultaneously resigned and reinvigorated. The devil has found his way to the world and Anne has little choice but to submit to him – but if so, then she decides she’s going to make the best of it. Because what other choice does she have, in this horrid power scramble?
It is, at its heart, an utterly tragic story of complete and total despair. Supposedly witches turn to the devil for independence and power, but they seem to trading one servitude for another. Anne despises that as an unmarried orphan she has little to no power, but it’s not like the devil is going to give her any sort of independence. He grants her power, yes, but only at his whim, and only if she obeys him. It’s such an utterly bleak assertion to make, that women in Puritan America will never be truly free, even if they turn to the literal devil for help.
From the spoilers that I couldn’t help reading (yes, I was so stressed out about Anne and Cotton that I read spoilers), it seems like the final season is going to be even more of a depressing whirlwind. The one thing I hope for is that they don’t ruin Anne’s character. I can see that they are slowly making her more and more morally gray, but I really hope they don’t make her full-on evil out of nowhere and for no reason. The most brilliant thing about Anne is her nuance; her intentions are always good even if her actions aren’t.
There are plenty of other plot points I haven’t discussed: Mercy, who at this point feels very superfluous; the sadistic Countess Marburg and her pseudo-incestuous relationship with her weird son Sebastian, who seems to be slowly getting a personality transplant; Isaac’s inexplicable attachment to Dollie after having known her for precisely .02 seconds; Tituba and Mary’s increasingly frayed relationship; John Alden’s bizarre and pointless witch-hunter arc that was rather exploitative of Native American history; the utterly fascinating Doctor Wainwright (played by the wonderful Stuart Townsend, why is he not in more things???), unceremoniously killed off for no good reason; the witch pox that feels like nothing more than a pointless distraction.
But, to be frank, the character I am most invested in is Anne Hale, and right on her heels, Cotton Mather. I kind of wish they were the stars and star-crossed lovers of the show rather than Mary and John, who, I will say again, have zero chemistry. Pray for me as I embark on the third and final season, because I think I’m going to be in for a lot of despair and disappointment.