Freeform’s saga of military witches has themes ranging from societal to sexual, but so far it just scratches the surface.
Motherland: Fort Salem has more gay energy than it knows what to do with. That is not a bad thing. It’s just that it should be way better.
In fact, Freeform’s new witches-in-the-military drama is a phenomenally strange version of the sexy teen drama. When you tell me that a bunch of attractive young people are going to witch boot camp to train their voices to be weapons, you’ll have my attention. However, when you follow up that statement by saying that it isn’t a gay thing, I will call you insane—and I will be right to say that.
The lore of Motherland: Fort Salem, is, unfortunately, skin deep and can fit into a few sentences. When Sarah Adler (Lyne Renee) is about to be hanged during the infamous Salem Witch Trials, she enacts a deal with the United States government, promising that every witch will serve in the US military. Flash forward to modern-day and most of the nations across the world have witch militaries. They are fully integrated into modern society; they wear a lot of sashes and act kind of WASP-y. There’s a vague pagan undertone, but there aren’t any mentions of gods or depictions of sacrifice.
There is, however, reference to The Spree, a radical witch terrorist group that functions as the show’s boogeymen. The organization provides one of two interesting pieces of lore that go unexplained. The other is a large swath of witches in the American Midwest known as The Cession. The show doesn’t make it too clear why they have that name, but it still seems to be a part of the United States.
It’s an interesting creation that, disappointing enough, the show doesn’t explore. The Spree are witches who choose to live outside of the forced combat roles that Adler forced them into in the 1800s. To express this political stance, they pop balloons in populated places, something that leads to mass suicides. Other than that, they remain a mysterious, faceless evil.
It all takes place in a military school/boot camp setting where we follow the small team of Raelle (Taylor Hickson), Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams), and Tally (Jessica Sutton). Hickson is the most charismatic of the leads and her character is the most interesting: her mother’s death during a mission has cast a chip on her lonely shoulder. In another positive, Raelle is also the only one who gets to mine the show’s queerness. She’s in a relationship with mysterious necromancer Scylla (Amalia Holm) who has a lot of the answers to all the lore questions that I have.
It should be utterly weird, yet it settles for a performative weirdness that leaves you wishing they’d stepped it up.
But the problem isn’t just how it tiptoes around its blatantly queer dynamics at the center of it all. The main issue with Motherland is its failure to fully commit to the inherent strangeness of its own world. It only slightly starts to get at the pagan lifestyle inherent to witchcraft and—other than a woman making extended frog noises during what seems to be an important military meeting—ignores the idea that these witches use magic simply by verbalizing. It should be utterly weird, yet it settles for a performative weirdness that leaves you wishing they’d stepped it up.
Williams’s performance only captures the show’s imagination when she’s with her counterpart, the wonderfully snotty Libba (Sarah Yarkin). As competing high-class witches with families in a century-old rivalry, their spirited, haughty swiping is delightful. But while the show seems to bask in its characters of color being high-class witches, it doesn’t really connect. Why? Because witches and high society aren’t two things that anyone thinks as being connected. Motherland: Fort Salem just happens to be selling that, and it hopes you’ll buy it. Personally, I just hope they can go deeper into analyzing how deeply strange and complex it all is.
- Who do the witches answer to? There’s little discussion of people who aren’t witches other than that they are really scared of witches.
- I want a whole episode about the lady who was making frog noises. It only happens once and never again, but I need to know more.
Motherland: Fort Salem debuts tonight on Freeform.