This review contains spoilers.
1.1 October Country
“In the town of Greendale where it always feels like Halloween there lived a girl who was half-witch/half-mortal who, on her sixteenth birthday, would have to choose between two worlds: The witch world of her family and the human world of her friends. My name is Sabrina Spellman, and that girl is me.”
With those words begin Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, a bold and daring Netflix series inspired by the recent Archie Comics book of the same name. Viewers expecting Nick Bakay feline wisecracks and the genial humor of the popular 1990s Sabrina the Teenage Witch series would be advised to avoid this series at all costs, because darkness abounds in this version of Greendale and it is not for the weak of heart… or anyone offended by blasphemy. Simple put, this is a show that features characters who throw around the words “praise Satan” liberally, so if such things upset your sensibilities, again, watch anything else.
You’ve been warned.
Still with me? Good. Because if the road to hell is paved with series’ like this one, we are more than ready for the sublime damnation that will come from bingeing this.
We first meet Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka, late of Mad Men), her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) and best friends Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (portrayed by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson) as they take in a revival screening of George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. This is fitting, as companion series Riverdale has already fimly established Greendale is a hub of supernatural activity. It seems that this god-fearing community once had its own Salem-esque period where thirteen witches were hanged from a tree, with the community’s coven practicing in secret ever since.
Sabrina’s late father Edward was as powerful of a member of the Church of Night as he was a controversial one – his marriage to a mortal woman, Diana, caused waves throughout the community and, as this episode intones, may have caused their untimely deaths in an accident shortly after their daughter was born.
Subsequently, Sabrina was raised by her abrasive Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) and gentle Aunt Hilda (a never better Lucy Davis). Since childhood, they have been preparing Sabrina to declare her loyalty to Satan at a dark baptism that will occur on her 16th birthday… which just so happens to be on Halloween.
Her unwillingness to commit to the Dark Lord drives the narrative thrust of this debut episode, which like all pilots has the uneviable task of introducing all of the characters, establishing mood and laying out the narrative framework for which the rest of the series will be built upon. (A task that feels especially daunting given Netflix’s binge-reliant culture).
She is assisted in her decision-making process by her Cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), a British warlock who is forced to remain on the Spellmans’ grounds for reasons that become clear later in the season. Sabrina also turns to Baxter High teacher Ms Wardwell (Missy Gomez) for guidance, unaware that her former beloved instructor has now been replaced with a shadowy figure whose allegiances aren’t yet clear but are most definitely evil.
Sabrina wants to have the powers of being a witch without having to cut off ties with mortals, something that is strictly forbidden by the Church of Night. When she decides to tell Harvey the truth about her double life, her plans immediately backfire, and, fearing that she has lost the very thing she loves the most she casts a spell to make him forget and the status quo is restored.
After having a vision of despair that portends bad things if she gets her dark baptism, Sabrina becomes convinced that following in her father’s footsteps may not be the best call. This instalment ends with the arrival of Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyne), the High Priest of the Church of Night and perhaps the series’ most interesting character.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Sabrina admits to Harvey, in a bit of clever doubletalk that also sums up this entire instalment. In a post-Harry Potter world these type of fantasy shows are commonplace, but Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina also has the shadow of its sitcom predecessor to crawl out from underneath and the expectations thrust upon it from Riverdale‘s fanatic audience. If you count yourself among their number it is important to say that this is a much different show than Riverdale in every way, and believe it or not given the subject matter, one that is grounded in reality. Sure, Satan is always lurking about, but the importance of family and friends is the thread woven through this and every episode of the season.
Where will Sabrina go from here? It’s anyone’s call, but if this pilot is any indication – and it is – scary and wonderful things are in her future.