The Magic of WGNA’s Salem

In the fall of 2015, I was a new graduate, living at home and holding down a part-time job. Between the constant string of job applications, anxiety about adult life, and customer service, I found solace in television as so many of us often do. It’s easy to get sucked into a fictional world but, there is nothing like the almost gravitational pull of a captivating story and visceral characters that make you keep clicking that “next episode” button.

For months, I kept seeing the show Salem in my “Top Picks For” section on Netflix. I have always loved magic and witches since my childhood and after I finished the first and only season of the Secret Circle for the fifth time (don’t you dare judge me), I figured I would finally give this terrifying yet intriguing looking show a chance. By the end of the pilot episode’s opening credits, I the show’s run. Between the opening song and the ferocious female characters, Salem had burrowed itself into my thoughts. I easily blew through the first season in a matter of days (if it wasn’t for my work schedule I’m positive it would have been shorter) and I was itching for more. 

I had so many questions! What would become of Mary and John? Would Mary and Tituba’s relationship continue to disintegrate or would they be able to repair their sisterly bond? How long would Cotton be able to stay away from Salem? And what the hell was Anne Hale? By the end of the first season, the characters had truly found their footing and so much had been revealed yet the writers had left me wondering about even more.

Life got in the way for a few months before I could successfully start and finish the second season. Of course, Salem kept its core, its base: suspense, love (both platonic and romantic), morality, deception, and fantasy. However, season two was more than I could have hoped for. Salem itself was reeling after Mary, and the Essex witches completed their Grand Rite, and as plague ate Salem from the inside out. The eyes of Boston were pointedly looking away, and the eyes of our initial characters were put through the ringer. Mary was in mourning after completing the Grand Right, Anne was discovering the depths of who she really was, John was transforming and deteriorating all at once, Mercy was quite literally a vengeful monster, Tituba was in and out of the shadows controlling whatever she could get her hands on, and Isaac was once again being subject to the tortures of being a witch’s play thing. We were also introduced to the snake like magic of born witches, the slightly incestuous Marburg’s, and the misogynistic Magistrate Hawthorne.

This week, Salem fans were given the sad news that this season, the show’s third, will be the last. Over the past two seasons, we’ve hidden under blankets, yelled at our television screens, cried over the losses, cheered when villains were defeated, gasped when they went farther than we thought they could, and watched the pull between good and evil play out on the gray Salem streets. 

Salem’s magic is going to be an everlasting force and should be what television pushes itself to be. It’s very few times that viewers find a show that doesn’t use its period as an excuse for problematic themes. Yes, Salem’s puritanical setting does hurt for diversity, but you see brown faces and even have a main character that isn’t Anglo-Saxon. Salem delves into how Tituba came there and her bitterness towards those that stole her away. What’s even better is that they don’t make her apologize for her rightful feelings. Even the way they portray the occult is unapologetic and genuine.

When one first starts the show, witchcraft has a very satanic worship feeling to it though the motivations that each witch had to join the hive are understandable and usually heartbreaking. However, at the end of season one and throughout season two, we delve a bit deeper into how the Essex witches function and it’s extremely scientific and natural. Yes, they derive their magical prowess from the Devil but, the actual practice of the craft is played out through animals, plants, astrology, and other natural forces. You find yourself sympathizing with these women who made a deal with the devil to get a better life.

Though the writers and producers could have stopped there, they took magic a step further when they unveiled Anne Hale’s history and introduced the Marburg family. Before this, we had only seen witches who were gifted their power, not born with it. The dichotomy and tension between the two are palpable and added yet another layer to Salem’s overarching story.

One of the biggest draws of Salem is the fierce femininity that fuels the show. The majority of the cast are female and come in all different attitudes. You have Mercy Lewis who was used and abused her entire life, but then you see her navigating her rage, powerlessness, spite, and ultimate contentedness when she finds a home in her bird’s nest. Tituba is not only a primary player behind the scenes in Salem, but she is unapologetic in her selfishness. Again, given her background, you cannot fault her for her strong sense of self-preservation. We even have the naivete of Anne Hale, pure and obedient in season one, pushing back against Salem’s need for her to stay ignorant and docile. Come season three; we see Anne truly finding herself in witchcraft and winding her way through the treacherous roads of what it means to be a woman in love. 

We have Mary Sibley, our main heroine and, at times, our greatest evil. Mary Sibley is everything a woman is and aspires to be: intelligent, dynamic, resilient, vulnerable, creative, and utterly human. Every single actor on Salem deserves a standing ovation for the parts they’ve played, but the MVPs of the show are the lovely, ruthless ladies. You rarely see women acting of their own accord in period television, but Salem barged right through that wall and said, “Hey! This world was misogynistic, patriarchal, racist, and cis-gender centered but, here are how these women survive and how they resist their society in their own ways.”

From the initial reunion of John Alden and Mary Sibley to the birth of the Devil, the Salem family has always given us their all. The cast has spoiled us with their portrayals and the growth of their characters. Janet Montgomery has given such humanity and complexity to an incredible character who literally has been to hell and back; Shane West, our favorite reluctant hero, can’t seem to let Salem die and has given John Alden so much complicated purpose beyond his love life; Oliver Bell’s  captivating performance as Little John bodes well for the career that he has ahead of him; Seth Gabel has given us the ride of a lifetime as Cotton Mather from the bromancey detective work with John Alden and his deep personal struggles with never quite being the man he set out to be; Tamzin Merchant floored us so many times as Anne Hale throughout the seasons, showing us every side of the witch’s innocent curiosity to her unstoppable determination; Ido Goldberg has taken Isaac the Fornicator all the way to Isaac the Truth Teller as he found his place as Salem’s guardian angel, determined to protect the innocent from the powerful so there are “no more Dolly’s”; Ashley Bell’s Tituba has been a character you find yourself reluctantly rooting for and an actress I’ve truly enjoyed seeing improve and thrive; Elise Eberle has played the character you either love or love to hate and she and Mercy have grown in strides over the three seasons. And to think, we still have more episodes for this cast to take us by surprise and push our favorites even farther! This cast, the crew, writers, and producers have created an almost living, breathing thing that every fan is reluctant to let go of (see: #RenewSalemWGN) and stories that will surely be some of WGN America’s best.

So take heart, dear heathens, the true magic of Salem is in the vitality of its characters and the crafting of detailed story lines and character arcs. The themes that run deep in the heart of this WGN America original run parallel to our current world whether it be Salem’s refugee crisis, the conversation of love, battling your inner demons, or the struggle of the women to be seen as equals. These things are not easily forgotten, and they are aspects that have inspired and possibly haunted all of us over the show’s run. This may be our final ride but, Salem is a show that will always stick with you; it is something you can continue revisiting to find yet another hidden message or a storyline that will help you push through your own similar struggle. This news may have you feeling like you just went through a reckoning but, let Salem’s imminent departure inspire you to have the faith of Cotton Mather, the courage of John Alden, the empathy of Anne Hale, the honesty of Isaac, the self-preservation of Tituba, the resilience of Mercy Lewis, and the fire of Mary Sibley.


Catch Salem in its final season on WGN America, Wednesdays 9/8c

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