It’s gotten quite trendy, over the past few years, to be a witch. Lana Del Rey casts spells on the President, movies and TV shows like The Love Witch and American Horror Story have taken witches to snarkier, sexier places, and even Sephora took a cue from Brooklyn magic shops to sell DIY witch kits alongside expensive serums. Witches, in all their forms, have recently been held up as feminist folk heroes by so many writers, relevant emblems of a society which seeks to disempower women at all costs and fears their collective strength.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, both a Netflix reboot of the ’90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch and an adaptation of the gritty comic-book series of the same name, enters a space in which witches have never been more politically charged and, frankly, played out in pop culture. But rather than take the easy route when it comes to the #feminist possibilities of witchcraft, ready to be conveniently ironed onto your next Women’s March t-shirt, our new Sabrina doesn’t find the dark side immediately liberating. Torn between the mortal world and Hell, Sabrina has to reckon with the fact that even black magic is governed by the patriarchy.
When we meet Sabrina Spellman, played by Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, she’s a horror movie-loving, wholesome 16-year-old with a “dark baptism” ahead of her, during which she will fully become a witch. Doing so means she’ll leave behind her best friends, her nice and nonthreatening boyfriend, to dedicate herself fully to demonology and spell casting at The Academy of Unseen Arts, where the uniform appears to be kinderwhore. Orphaned after her mortal mother and warlock father died in a mysterious accident, Sabrina lives with her aunts, the dry and goth Zelda (Miranda Otto) and kooky Hilda (Lucy Davis), and her cousin Ambrose in the Spellman family funeral home (where they conveniently use the blood of incoming bodies for their witchcraft.) And Sabrina, not unlike Harry Potter’s Hermione, is ostracized by the witch world because of her pedestrian half-mortal life.
The show is styled cozy and twee, like everyone is trapped in a vaguely retro snowglobe where it’s always that week before Halloween and people are bundled up in autumn sweaters, crunching dead leaves on suburban streets. But it’s when Sabrina begins her dark baptism early in the series that things start to get weird. Sure, Sabrina wants to expand her powers, which for now include some rudimentary spells to infest her principal with spiders, erase minds, and turn on the radio with a cute flick of the wrist. But once Sabrina is asked to sign, her name in the devil’s book (just like the one in the 2015 movie The VVitch) she realizes that becoming a full witch also means surrendering your autonomy (and not to mention literal virginity) over to Satan himself, who appears as a hairy and hooved Baphomet-type. “Why does he get to decide what I do with my body?” Sabrina says of the so-called “Dark Lord,” when she flees the ceremony to the protests of her aunts, peers, and Satanic priests.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina may be produced by the same people who brought audiences Riverdale, the steamy, over-the-top adaptation of the Archie comics, but immediately it’s clear that the two audiences might not overlap. Sabrina seems built for a much younger audience—maybe even children. For one thing, Shipka, who grew up before TV audiences, plays Sabrina excellently as a rebellious but deeply earnest character, a Jo March who respectfully hexes her enemies. And nothing that happens between Shipka and her co-stars, who look like actual teenagers, is particularly steamy, which may disappoint those looking for a show like Riverdale populated with extremely buff, horny 20-year-olds. Some will admire the show’s youthful sincerity, but others might find it immature.
What Sabrina lacks in sex, cynicism, and a talking cat (yes, Salem isn’t a jokester here), it makes up for in its surprisingly thorny political approach to not just being a young witch, but a young woman in general. Over the course of the series, Sabrina has to wrestle with what it means to possess power, not just the ability to cast spells, and what she is told she must compromise as a woman in order to get it. It would have been easy for the show to politicize witchcraft as this inherently feminist sphere, but Sabrina sees the Dark Lord and his women disciples as upholding the patriarchy rather than subverting it. When a goth older witch sneers at Sabrina, “You are giving up freedom in exchange for power, it’s an even exchange,” she protests that it isn’t; she wants both. When Sabrina is literally put on trial for abandoning her baptism, you can hear a thinly veiled conversation about consent and victim-blaming after the prosecutor punishes her by pointing out that she showed up wearing a wedding dress (standard for the baptism) but “then at the moment of consummation, you fled.”
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is dark—demons run rampant in the fiery mines under the town, a genuinely scary witch (played by a fantastic Michelle Gomez) tortures teenagers, and Sabrina is terrorized by everything from haunted scarecrows to Evil Dead-style tree bondage. But there’s a charming story here that goes 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. And the next time you mutter “not today, Satan,” be thankful that unlike Sabrina, you don’t actually have to deal with him.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is available to stream today (October 26) on Netflix.