The teenage witch & pals continue to maintain a successful balance between horror & everyday heartbreak.
In a show that features magic, monsters, and mystical dimensions it’s important to make sure the protagonist is relatable to a regular audience. Fortunately, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina manages to have an everywoman as its titular lead. Despite her magical prowess, Sabrina still has to deal with typical teenage problems: juggling her school work, extracurricular activities, and her social and romantic life all while maintaining an afterschool job as Queen of Hell.
Okay, so maybe Sabrina isn’t completely relatable, but she is still a compelling character, and the third season pits her in her most harrowing adventures yet. Previously, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) and her cohorts managed to thwart Lucifer’s (Luke Cook) plans of creating a hell on Earth with Sabrina (who is his daughter) as his queen. The group manages to trap Lucifer inside Sabrina’s boyfriend, Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood) and together he and Lilith (Michelle Gomez)- who has been crowned Queen of Hell- go to the nether realm to keep the mortal realm safe.
The new season starts out with Sabrina and her friends venturing into Hell to save Nick, there they find the underworld in chaos, as the other demons are challenging Lillith’s right to rule. To prevent an uprising, Sabrina accepts the throne as Lucifer’s rightful heir. However, she is quickly challenged by a prince of Hell, Caliban (Sam Corlett), and must find three unholy artifacts if she is to keep her crown.
In the mortal realm, the witches of the Church of Night have found that their powers are waning due to falling out of the Dark Lord’s favor. As they search for a way to restore their magic, a new threat, one older than Satan, has come to Greendale in the form of a carnival.
While the previous season kept the show exclusively centered on Greendale, Sabrina is finally ready to create a more fleshed out universe. Not only in locations (besides Hell, the characters also go to New Orleans and Scotland) but also in the mythos. Previously, the only cosmology has been between Christianity and Satanism, but now Paganism and Voodoo have been added to the mix. Not only does this expansion give this season dynamism, but it also raises the stakes. These new elements help put the characters in situations that become increasingly dire, and as a result, will have you binging the season in one sitting.
The returning cast is also evolving their performances, while still keeping their characters consistent. As always, Shipka is fantastic, imbuing Sabrina with spunk and sass underlined with true goodness. Admirably, she also leans into Sabrina’s selfishness and saviour complex, giving the performance more nuance. Sabrina’s aunts Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis) are also growing in complexity. The previously fanatical Zelda is now lost without her faith in Satan but must lead what’s left of the coven. Otto manages to keep Zelda’s take-charge personality but underlies it with vulnerability. Conversely, Hilda has begun to assert herself against her sister, and Davis does a great job adding an edge (and even some nastiness) to Hilda’s sweet nature.
Out of the supporting cast, Michelle Gomez as Lilith is the clear standout. The word “anti-hero” is thrown around carelessly these days, but the duplicitous and morally ambiguous Lilith fits the bill perfectly. It’s clear that Gomez relishes the role, giving a commanding performance that demands attention every time she’s on screen. Gomez also plays Ms. Wardwell, who Lilith impersonated in seasons 1 and 2 but is now back. This could have been confusing, but Gomez gives both characters completely different body language and tonal inflections, creating characters so different that you’d never confuse the two.
The biggest appeal for Sabrina is its ability to manage the balance between supernatural horror and teenage melodrama. Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is best known for his work on Glee and Riverdale, and he keeps the spirit of these shows alive while also injecting some truly dark stuff. An episode can feature court intrigue, scenes of sweet romance, child murder, and a frothy cheerleader routine all without any tonal dissonance. It’s a bubblegum goth drama that manages to push the boundaries of camp without becoming overly ridiculous.
While previous season kept the show exclusively centered on Greendale, Sabrina is finally ready to create a more fleshed out universe.
Sabrina has also managed to integrate its more progressive elements into the plot more seamlessly than in previous episodes. The show’s feminist leanings have always been a draw but often times the messaging felt didactic and heavy-handed. However, this season decides to explore rather than preach by having the Church of Night Coven search for a new religion. For all its posturing at being liberating, the Satanic Church was just as patriarchal as many Christian denominations; but with Satan out of the picture, the witches are left to search for a more equitable source of magical powers. This allows the show to explore feminist themes without feeling like an after school special.
The show also expertly handles its queer characters as well, most notably Theo (Lachlan Watson, who is nonbinary). While trans characters are gaining some prominence in mainstream media, trans men are vastly underrepresented. In this season, Theo is given a love interest with newcomer Robin (Jonathan Whitesell). Not only is this subplot incredibly sweet, but it is also devoid of any fetishization of trans bodies that so often occurs in mainstream media. Allowing a trans character to have a life outside their trans identity without ignoring it is refreshing, and we need more of it.
Production designer Lisa Soper has upped the ante in the third season. Greendale keeps its timeless charm with sets, props, and costumes that are a mix of mid-century and modern. The Pagan carnival adds to aesthetic by feeling like it stepped out of the late 1800s. Hell is also a mix of the gory and the gorgeous. While the infernal denizens are disgusting to look at, Hell itself is often beautiful. Most notably Lilith’s throne, which is shaped like a clawed hand, and the Shore of Sorrow, where the damned are trapped in overcrowded boxes to drown for all eternity. Who knew Hell could be so #instaworthy? The anachronism of the mortal realm and the beauty of the nether world help keep the more dissonant tones in the plot feel more consistent.
While Chilling Adventures of Sabrina may not be to everyone’s taste, fans of the series will be pleased with the direction it takes in its third season. As the series expands outside its original premise, we’ll find ourselves in new territory in the fourth season, but as long as we have Sabrina with us, we’ll be fine.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina returns for a third season of toil and trouble starting January 24th.