*SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS. IF YOU DON'T WANT LAST NIGHTS EPISODE SPOILED FOR YOU THEN DON'T READ*
ETA: Our friend Ghost in the Machine has some good insights they posted before I posted this, read the HERE.
Are witches the new vampires? I can count on my hands how often in the last 15 years or so that witches were the main characters or played central roles to the plot in a TV show geared toward the pop-culture consuming masses. Buffy, Charmed, done. In the last few years? The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, True Blood, Witches of Eastwick, AHS: Coven, and now (maybe) Salem. That's a 300 percent increase, btw.
Salem is a fictional account of the machinations that set about explaining why the Salem Witch Hunt and Trials happened. Long story short? Witches pissed off a Puritan puritanical ways. Short story long? Read on.
I'm going to begin with the fact that I had to watch Salem twice in order to proper recap it. I actually didn't want to and we'll get to that down below in the actual recap review. But I did, because I'm a glutton for punishment.
So the premier episode, The Vow, opens in Salem, September 21, 1685 with a man and a woman in stocks, for the crime of fornication. George Sibley, the main town selectman, is leading the proceedings and sentences that both remain in the stocks over night. The young man, Isaac Walton, receives 10 lashes (as Sibley describes, making them hard ones) and an F (for fornication) branded on his forehead. Before Sibley brands Isaac, Magistrate Hale speaks up and questions the additional punishment of branding. Of course Sibley ignores Hale's reasonable request. Then, we meet one of the protagonists, John Alden, as he too steps forth to challenge Sibley's proceedings over the infraction of fornication.
I shit you not, these are the lines of dialogue that take place:
John Alden, "Judge not lest ye be judged."
George Sibley, "Who said that" (let's keep in mind it is a sunny day, the crowd is not that big, and John Alden has the most American accent out of all the rest of the cast)
John Alden, "Jesus, you might have heard of him."
Ok, show. Fine let's make the introduction of our main protagonist as clunky as possible.
John and Mary, his love interest, meet up under the cover of night for some exposition. See John is going to fight in the French-American war. He rips a silver coin in half (seriously?) and gives half the coin to Mary telling her the war will not last more than a year and he'll be back for her. Then they kiss. Which in this world will get you in stocks over night, 10 lashes (hard ones) and an F branded in your forehead.
The next day we see Mary walking with Tituba (it is not clear if Tituba is her slave or her 'handmaiden' ala the Vampire Diaries erasing slavery from their historical flashbacks) with Mary saying she feels sick. They meet Sibley during their walk where he tells Mary that war is good and it will either build the character of the man she loves or kill him. Either way that will be a win-win for George Sibley because he doesn't like John Alden very much. Tituba tells Mary not to worry because after tonight it will all be over. DUM< DUM, DUM.
Cue to that night. Tituba and Mary are walking from the village into the woods and Tituba is carrying what can only be described as a huge torch to guide the way. Two women walking with a huge torch through the town of Salem into the woods. No way would that ever draw anyone's attention. AN ASIDE: I always thought that the horrific dealings in Salem were because of small town nosiness and petty feuds, how would what I just described not raise the attention of folks? So into the woods they go. Turns out Mary is pregnant with Johns child (they are not married, by the by) and they're in the woods to perform a magical abortion. Tituba is right that Mary can't have John's illegimate child without facing repercussions in Salem. Visions of demons ensue. Then Mary is without child. But at what cost?
And that was just our cold open. Cue the Salem logo.
John has returned from war, as he enters town he comes upon three bodies hanged at the town entrance to town. We learn that witches have become a plague in Salem. John walks through town and Isaac recognizes him but doesn't stop him. John enters his home to be met by the loaded gun of his friend, Mr. Cory. They discuss how Salem is caught up in a witch panic and that Cotton Mather was sent to weed out the witches. Exposition ensues about how Cotton was a dandy when John knew his as a kid, Mary is rich and married to George Sibley now, but John shouldn't worry because Mary will be a widow soon. John's been gone for 7 years.
We then learn George Sibley has suffered some sort of stroke or something and Isaac now works for Mary. Isaac tells Mary that John has returned.
We meet Cotton Mather, who is at the local tavern looking to hire three strong men to subdue the Reverend Lewis' daughter, Mercy (kinda on the nose with a name like that, just saying). John, conveniently, is one of those men. Apparently the daughter is plagues by a witch. John of course 'calls bullshit' (he uses those exact words) and says Mercy needs a doctor and not their prayers. John Alden, man of science. But we find out Mercy is plagued by something whether in her head or not. Guess what, it ain't all in her mind.
Cotton is the guest preacher at the local church. Mother Hale is walking with her daughter Anne, they have this discussion:
Mother Hale, "Don't dawdle child, I want you on the front aisle where Cotton Mather can't help but be dazzled with you charms."
Anne, "For heaven's sake mother why not wrap me in silk and parade me on the auction block?"
And it is at this point that I have found a character I actually like and want to watch more of in Anne Hale, daughter of Magistrate and Mother Hale.
He preaches against the evil of witches. Magistrate Hale questions how Cotton can identify the correct culprit. Of course Magistrate Hale points out Cotton's failings in not following his father's words. To advice caution. Placing doubt on how Cotton operates. George Sibley mumbles to Mary and Mary puts forth that George said there is something worse than a witch hunt. A witch. Enter John Alden, man of reason, who lists other horrible and fantastical things such as ogres, goblins, dragons, and other fairy tale monsters. This is the second time John Alden has delivered dialogue while walking from the background to the foreground through a group of people. Mary invites John to a dinner that evening.
John plays with his half of the silver coin in the tavern when he notices a guy watching him. He takes his gun over to the guy's table, and lifts it up under the table aiming it at the guys junk. Am I watching straight dude gay panic in play? I am right? A turn out the guy is Isaac of the opening in stocks scene. So, technically not a gay dude in Salem what with him having been branded for fornicating with a chick. But still. Seems Isaac knows all about the witches and tells John as much. They talk about Mary helping Isaac.
Back to Cotton and Mercy. We learn witches have familiars, those familiars are in the form of an animal (cat, rat, toad), and familiars need to be feed by a teat.
Cotton talks some fire and brimstone while getting busy with a young lady. It is here that I tell you that Seth Gabel who plays Cotton has a very nice body but with reminds me of Jonah from VEEP when he gives his 'O' face. Then we learn he was frequenting the town brothel. How does that work? Salem punished fornicators, but a brothel is allowed to exist?
Walking and talking, Cotton meets up with John. They talk witch burning and who did and didn't attend Harvard. That same night we learn that Mary is storing her familiar in George Sibley's throat (to make him come off as having had a stroke). It is a toad. She feeds the toad from a teat on her leg then stuffs it back in down his throat. Mary apparently is upset that George stole everything she loves and destroyed everything that was good for her, hence a sham marriage and a toad in the throat. Does Mary actually think John was all that? Has she seen him acting in this show? I mean Mary isn't doing so great on acting as a conflicted person. From good to evil in 30 seconds.
Breaking my own 4th wall: Only 30 minutes through my second viewing for this recap and I'm more interested in watching The Quiet Ones (from Hammer Studios) which sponsored this show.
Sunday night dinner at the Sibley's. Anne is the most interesting of folks at this dinner. John talks about how Indian's have souls. We also learn from Cotton that witches have souls. Mary counters with the fact that women in this time can't enter into a contract without their husbands. Then people start showing up under the table to entice John's penis. John and Mary go to get some fresh air and talk about the how and whys of John being away for 7 years. John found respect for the Native Americans that captured him and wants to spirit away with Mary to New York where he has money in an account. Mary demonstrates betrayal for the lost time and what she felt she had to do. Regardless of John in this scene, I liked it.
Mary confronts Tituba, who had told Mary that John was dead. Tituba says it is more like counting shadows then counting sheep. Tituba asks Mary how does John compare to owning and controlling everything she surveys before her. Tituba may have ulterior motives. Enter Mr. Cory, who proceeds to blackmail Mary because he saw Mary's magical abortion 7 years ago. He'll go to John about it if Mary doesn't because John 'has a right to know'. He refers to Tituba as Mary's "cinnamon girl'. Well, he could have said worse.
Anne Hale is drawing in a graveyard when John comes across her. Anne tells John that the Rev. Lewis says drawing is idolatry, like worshipping nature. Of course level-headed John tells Anne there are worse things to worship. Anne of course says that she'd like to draw him sometime.
Dear Anne, don't waste your time on John. The guy that plays him is a horrible actor
***END TIME OUT***
John's leaving for New York. Apparently Mary is following John and runs into Anne. Anne is plucky. Mary tells Anne she is young and needs an education. Then tells Anne that what kills most women is love while what kills most men is war. Anne replies in snark. I love Anne. Trope she may be, I love her.
Cotton keeps working Mercy for answers as to who the witches are and Mercy tells Cotton that she can only see the heads of animals. Mercy also explains that 'she won't let' her tell Cotton the names. Fast forward to the next day with Mercy on a leash with some hard core S & M headgear on. Cotton is walking Mercy like a rabid dog. Cotton assures the town folk that Mercy will show them the witch. She spies Mary and it is obvious Mary is controlling Mercy's actions. Mercy picks out Mr. Corry and to make it more dramatic bites off her fucking finger to point at him. Seriously, Mercy is going to die of blood loss and/or an infection now, right?
AN ASIDE: WGNA's other new show Manhattan looks better than Salem. Also, the Carl's Jr./Hardee's commercial with the new X-men Quicksilver is dumb.
John's leaving town when Isaac holds him up at gunpoint telling him he can't leave Salem until he sees something first. Cotton is holding Mr. Cory in a cell when Mary comes up to work Cotton as fingering him as the witch. Corry says he'll tell John who the witch is. Mary tells Cotton to 'press him' for his confession.
Cue the Sabbath night! Tituba and Mary enact some clunky same-sex sexiness (not sexy at all, but played that way) using some oil, a clunky incantation, and a wooden dildo pulled from a broom. John and Isaac are out where the Sabbath happens and witness writhing masses in ascending from the Le Brea tar pits. There's a blind toad and someone shots the ear of a pigman. It all sounds more interesting than it actually is.
Mr. Corry gets pressed (by way of rocks dropped on his body). Mr. Cory has the most and best moral fortitude of any character on this god forsaken show other than Anne. He dies. Dies before he can tell John about Mary. Oh and Mary, she brings her coven together and it includes Magistrate Hale. Mary hates the puritans.
Where to begin? This show could have done something really interesting using the fact that women who rebelled against traditional gender roles were persecuted for bucking against the systems in place. Also, how about exploring actual homosexuality in early American history. That would have been cool. I can't abide the actor that plays John Alden as he delivers clunky dialogue and sounds nothing like any of the other actors. The actress of Mary went from kind of relatable to evil and I have whiplash. The only characters I liked were Mr. Cory (now dead) and Anne. I'll keep watching since it is only 13 episodes, but I may hate myself for doing so. It doesn't have the camp of Charmed or Witches of Eastwick or the drama of Buffy.
TROPES IN MOTION
1) Women are evil manipulators
2) Homosexual anything is scary, GAY PANIC!
3) Do a woman wrong and she will cut ya.
4) Magical cinnamon girl
5) Man doesn't believe, but he will
6) Deeply flawed man of morals
What say you?