It’s a tale as old as scripted television: a program garners enough attention to last a few seasons too long, and as a result, exhausts all momentum. The plot burns out, hot and fast, leaving little room for a creative conclusion. Instead, all fans are left with is a disappointing coda, a rush to the finish line that feels simultaneously insatiable and bloated, as if its writers chose to include every idea in their bag of tricks instead of cherrypicking the very best ones. I am, of course, talking around the fourth and final season of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a chapter viewers might want to choose to skip for fear of tainting an otherwise enjoyable show.
In 2018, when Chilling Adventures of Sabrina first premiered on Netflix as both an edgy reboot of the ’90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch and an adaptation of the dark comic-book series, it carefully and considerately presented a magical world where even witches fell victim to patriarchal oppressions while avoiding “the #feminist possibilities of witchcraft, ready to be conveniently ironed onto your next Women’s March t-shirt,” as my colleague Hazel Cills expertly described in her review of the first season. As she writes, Sabrina went “beyond tired narratives of teens coming into their own power through magic, one which takes an introductory but smart approach to conversations about girlhood and defending your own bodily autonomy.” The seasons that followed played off those ideas, eventually culminating in a striking third season. In it, protagonist Sabrina broke off into two women: Sabrina Morningstar, Queen of Hell, and the Earth-bound Sabrina Spellman, forcibly resolving herself (herselves?) and viewers to the understanding that with great power comes the great inability to acquire a healthy work/life balance. She couldn’t really “have it all,” because “having it all” doesn’t exist—even for the magical. And the show could’ve very well ended there—a fantastical series grounded with its realistic cynicism and criticism of the systems that belittle women. Instead, it closed with an unnecessary final chapter, which undermined the promise of its start.
When season four of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina begins, Spellman is unmoored—she’s grown distant from her friends, no doubt the result of many weeks spent in Hell. Her BFFs are all in committed romantic relationships now, and she is single, finding herself isolated. But Sabrina’s lack of direction lasts only a few minutes—soon, her mortal town of Greendale is plagued by villains called the Eldritch Terrors, eight of which promise to appear and decimate all three realms of existence: Earth, Heaven (or “The Celestial,” as it is named on the show), and Hell. The structure of the eight remaining episodes is then made crushingly obvious: in each, she will defeat a new terror, her personal life be damned.
From there, the formulaic season fails to delight—it is clear how each will end, conflict arises only to be resolved minutes later, and save for the inclusion of the original aunties from the ‘90s Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Hilda, portrayed by Caroline Rhea, and Zelda, by Beth Broderick), there are few surprises. The pacing, too, is all over the place—some battles consume too much time, while in other scenes, months go by in minutes. The two-part finale episodes feel like amateur fan fiction come alive—too much action explained by too much exposition with too little emotional effect—until the final moments, when Sabrina sacrifices herself to save, well, everyone. In some ways, it is a brave choice: elsewhere in the season, Sabrina was able to accomplish the impossible, imprisoning Eldritch Terrors that had confounded much more accomplished witches than her for generations. But in the end, she had to make the ultimate sacrifice. For a season that primed its audience for the expected each episode, that twist was fortuitous and deeply reasonable; even for those rooting for the show’s protagonist. Killing the hero could make up for an otherwise painfully predictable season.
And if it were to end there, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina would’ve been heralded for its courageousness, a jolt of originality (keep in mind—this is a program for teens and children, and offing the main character is still an unusual choice.) Except, of course, this was the season of doing too much, and yet another scene was thrown in at the end after her death: Sabrina is seen in some divine prism, her “Sweet Hereafter” heaven designed to look like a bright, limitless art museum. She’s all in white, and reading, when Nick Scratch, her boyfriend in life, appears. He tells her that he went “swimming in the sea of sorrows,” and was pulled under by “a wicked undertow,” resulting in his own demise, and they would now be together forever. I suppose the ambition wasn’t to glamorize suicide as a means of rejoining those lost, but that was the outcome—and for Nick, who literally went to Hell and back, being unable to pull himself out of an undercurrent seems uncharacteristic.
And yet, after eight hours of dizzying television, Sabrina still got her happily ever after—just in death, and to the grief of all her living loved ones. If that’s the best a witch can do in a misogynistic, magical world, then what was the point?