This Motherland: Fort Salem review contains spoilers.
Motherland: Fort Salem Episode 1
Motherland: Fort Salem imagines a world where Salem witches offered to use their powers to fight America’s wars in exchange for their lives and freedom, sealing the deal with the Salem Accords. In this alternate universe, witches — all women, as far as I can tell — are treated with reverence. These women fight our country’s wars using their magic, in return for a seat at the table. Whether women are equal in all parts or society, and not just those with powers, is yet to be determined.
In “Say The Words,” three young witches are conscripted to fight against a magical terrorist cell called The Spree. Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nicole Williams) is the latest in a long line of Black witches who have served. The Bellweathers are a distinguished military family, and Abigail was raised a patriot. Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton) is an idealist who enlists, against her family’s wishes, out of a need to do something in the face of the Spree’s apparent evil. Finally, Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson) is the angsty girl from the “wrong side of the tracks” who enlists, despite her apparent hate for the military. The three girls have to work together, as a single unit, toward the common goal of graduating to War College, where they apparently learn advanced skills denied those who fail basic training.
Abigail has been drinking the proverbial kool-aid her entire life. It has been ingrained in her that serving is her duty, and there is immense pressure on her to live up to her family name. Her insecurity is only barely hidden behind her resoluteness and bravado, and being put up against other naturally powerful witches may test her resolve in a way that nothing has before.
Tally comes from a matrilineal community, where there are no men at all. She is sheltered and idealistic. She isn’t drafted like the others, she enlists voluntarily. For her, it is an honor to serve, and it is her —perhaps naive— belief, that the military is there to do good and to stop “evil.” It’ll be interesting to see how her beliefs change as she progresses through basic training.
Raelle is the daughter of a medic who died in combat. She resents the military and enlists, more so out of lack of options, than a sense of duty, or desire to do “good.” Unlike the others, she has no desire to graduate to War College. She wants to barely make it out of basic, be put on the front line, and die. It is only when she meets and falls for fellow rebel, Scylla (Amalia Holm), that she is convinced to work hard, “the way out is in.”
Fort Salem offers an interesting premise, but one that requires an enormous suspension of disbelief. I’m supposed to believe that witches were being hunted, hung, and burned at the stake, and instead of using their immense power to retaliate or protect themselves, they laid down in front of their would-be murderers and offered to die for them in foreign wars instead? Seems unlikely. But if we put aside the preposterousness of those establishing facts, we are left with what appears to be an all- or at least majority-female military, with women in places of power almost exclusively assigned to men in any other circumstance. The larger governing body has yet to be revealed, but it wouldn’t be a leap to assume women are a huge presence, and hold a lot of structural power.
Witches perform their magic by using different vocal sequences and harmonies. A witch’s power comes from her voice, “your voices are your weapons.” Like real life, the ability to make noise, to speak, to be heard, is the power to force change. In Fort Salem, that power is literal, it is tangible, and it is how wars are fought and won. But in a world where witches are involuntarily drafted into military service, it is no wonder why there are those who oppose the system, and want to dismantle the establishment. The Spree are radicals. They unleash magical weapons that compel thousands of people to climb to heights then leap to their deaths. They are evil, but they aren’t entirely wrong, even if their actions are. Raelle is our surrogate in this world, and through her, this ideology will be examined.
This show has the opportunity to explore and critique the notions of patriotism and exceptionalism, and examine the role of the military in fostering radicalization. I am skeptical, however, that Fort Salem will dig deeper than surface level on any of the topics it broaches. As an example, Abigail is Black, and the first Bellweather to serve was an enslaved woman. She is her ancestor’s “wildest dreams,” but how would her foremother feel about her descendants willingly joining a fight she herself was forced into? I doubt we’ll get answers, or that the question will even be asked, but this is the kind of fact I suspect will be thrown out and left unexamined.
That said, I enjoy the spectacle. Magic, when done right, is a beautiful and powerful narrative device. And because magic is so intrinsic to this world, the potential is there for amazing visuals, and unique displays of power. This show already sets its magic apart by making the voice itself a channel for that power. What happens when a witch loses her ability to make sound? Is she powerless? Is she discarded? There is so much possibility here, and I am excited by the prospect of those questions being answered. I am also enjoying the performances and look forward to watching the characters, especially Tally, grow.
I am also excited for the gays, for they will be fed. Raelle and Scylla have an immediate attraction and will surely be a fan-favorite ship. The fact that men aren’t a presence at all means, hopefully, that friendships between the women will be given the same level of care and depth as those of two men. And that romantic and sexual relationships are allowed to flourish in the same way they would in a male/female pairing. If I never see a man speak more than a few words the entire season, I will consider that a win. If we can imagine a world where witches use their magic to fight this raggedy country’s unnecessary wars, we can surely imagine a world where men don’t speak.