SALEM, WGN America’s historical horror television series, comes across in its initial episodes as an unholy hybrid of THE CRUCIBLE and THE SCARLET LETTER, lacking the sophistication of either, but with just enough dramatic interest to hold attention. Moody and sinister, with eruptions of sex and gore (apparently obligatory on cable series these days), SALEM is effectively horrifying at times and occasionally compelling soap opera entertainment, if one can overlook the egregious liberties it takes with the historical record it pretends to depict. However, those disturbed by the show’s assault on the truth, which often plays like pandering to the fever dreams of the religious right, will find much to fuel their outrage.
As envisioned by creators and executive producers Brannona Braga (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) and Adam Simon (THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT), the Salem Witch Trials were not merely the product of superstition, ignorance, and Puritan fanaticism; there really were witches, seeking to get a toehold in the New World and make it their own. Religious ravings about a Satanic war for the soul of Salem turn out to be accurate, though the fanatics espousing the views are corrupt and vile in their own right. Meanwhile, the secret coven members, far from persecuted innocents, are devious conspirators, manipulating the witch hunts to advance their own agenda, using their powers to target victims who stand in their way.
With this “plague on both your houses” setup, there would be little rooting interest if not for the presence of John Alden (Shane West), a soldier return from war to find Salem in the midst of hysteria and hangings. Agnostic, at least initially, on the subject of witches, Alden is tagged as the good guy by virtue of a sensibility that sounds more appropriate to the 21st century than to 1692 Salem.
On the other side of the aisle is Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), who was in love with Alden before he left for war. Since then, she aborted his unborn child with the aide of her Mephistophelean servant girl Tituba (Ashley Madekwe); in exchange for the rendered service, Mary has surrendered her soul and now presides as the head of the coven. Also, she has married former nemesis George Sibley, who is now a mute and paralyzed wreck of a man, involuntarily allowing Mary to wield his considerable political power to her own ends.
SALEM’s dramatic tension flows from the relationship between Mary Sibley and John Alden, who still love each other but now find themselves antagonists (though Alden is initially unaware of this). Though eager to crush her enemies and see her coven take over Salem, Mary yearns for John and sometimes contorts her plans to avoid hurting him. Alden, meanwhile, seeks her help because of the power she wields, gradually realizing that her intervention is counter-productive.
Also on hand is witch hunter Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), who resolutely believes in his purpose, though occasionally he doubts whether those he has hanged were truly guilty. In a sense, Mather and Mary are the true warring parties in SALEM, with Alden caught in the middle, at various times forming alliances with either of them as he tries to stop the rising hysteria.
The problem with SALEM lies in its confused point of view on the subject of witchcraft and witch-hunting. Witch-hunters, whom we should rightly regard as at least misguided, turn out to be correct in their basic belief, even if their methods are faulty. The witches are even worse, if not in an absolute moral sense, then at least in their ability to do harm.
To some extent we are supposed to sympathize with Mary Sibley, because she was driven to her fateful decision by the patriarchal social order that would have condemned her, had she brought her unwed pregnancy to term. We can almost see witchcraft as the shadowy alter ego to the Puritanism of the Salem elders – an outgrowth they have unwittingly brought into existence by their belief in it. Unfortunately, the existence of Tituba and other witches, even before Mary went to the Dark Side, undermines this interpretation, validating the fears of the Puritans.
Typical for contemporary horror, Evil is portrayed as a real, supernatural force, but there is no counteracting supernatural force for Good. (As Chris MacNeil noted in THE EXORCIST, it seems the Devil keeps a higher profile.) SALEM is somewhat cagey about the exact nature of the sorcery on display; some of it could be hypnosis or hallucinations, perhaps psychic power erroneously designated as Satanic. Whatever the source, it is definitely used as Black Magic, resulting in the deaths of innocent victims.
There is an unpleasantly reactionary attitude in the show’s depiction of “Evil,” which often seems to be associated with lesbian sexuality. Mary’s abortion, with Tituba rubbing oil on her skin and lips, plays out with orgasmic intensity; shots and staging often emphasize the intimacy between the two women, and a later ritual involves a large black phallus. Charitably, one might assume that these images are intended to tweak viewer sensibility, to make us identify with the sensuous females as opposed to the uptight males running Salem. More likely, they included as gratuitous exploitation, serving to excite prurient interest while simultaneous conforming to a conservative view that non-traditional gender roles lead inevitably to damnation.
Unlike Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which understood both the benefits and harm in Puritanism, SALEM is one-dimensional in its depiction. Even the occasional apparent voice of reason turns out to be a hypocrite or, worse, an agent of the Devil. The result pushes the show in the exact opposite direction of Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, which sought to condemn witch-hunting hysteria. Here, the message seems to be: all those not for us are against us, and someone expressing an interest in finding the middle ground is probably an enemy in sheep’s clothing.
Fortunately, the show manages to maintain interest thanks to its depiction of innocents caught in the crossfire. The situation is not dissimilar from that seen in Hammer Films’ TWINS OF EVIL (1971), which also showcased religious fanatics in a spiritual war with genuine supernatural evil. That film resolved its dilemma thanks to an agnostic but educated protagonist, who managed to find a middle ground that exonerated the innocent while dispatching the guilty. John Alden has been set up in a similar role. Hopefully, as the show progresses, he can rise to the occasion and find some way out of the sordid sorcery and morbid melodrama plaguing SALEM.
SALEM (WGN America, debut on April 20, 2014). Created by Executive Producers Adam Simon and Brannon Braga. Cast: Joanet Montgomery, Shane West, Seth Gabel, Tamzin Merchant, Ashley Madekwe, Elise Eberle, Xander Berkeley, Iddo Goldberg, Stephen Lang.