This Motherland: Fort Salem review contains spoilers.
Motherland: Fort Salem Episode 3
On the eve of Beltane, male witches arrive at Fort Salem to participate in the annual ritual— establishing that male witches exist, and are also called to serve. Beltane in Wicca is a spring festival that revolves around fertility. In Fort Salem, the young witches are expected and encouraged to frolic and mate à la A-Maying. Tally, who was raised in a Matrilineal compound, and has never been with a boy, is absolutely giddy. She excels in a vocal training exercise, fueled by her energy and excitement about males being on premises. Abigail, who is a blueblood witch and has been witnessing and participating in these rituals her entire life, takes the opportunity to casually befriend a few young men. Raelle, the resident queer, is unfazed by the male attention, except for Porter, who is Scylla’s questionable ex.
Away from the festivities, Alder convenes the Hague, an international military council of witches, to discuss The Spree’s escalating violence. It is here we learn how broad The Spree’s reach is, and glimpse the relationship between witches of war in different countries. In my review of the first episode, I wrote, “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 expressed skepticism that Fort Salem would do more than skim the surface of these, and other heavier topics. While I am not wholly convinced the writing will delve deep, there is some evidence that the show is willing to, and possibly intends to approach these subjects with purpose.
India’s representative at the Hague challenges Alder’s —and the United States— presumption of leadership, especially as recent efforts have done nothing to stave off the Spree’s attacks. This gives us an idea of how the international community views the United States, as well as establishing a hierarchy of sorts, among the nations with militarized witches. Russia’s (male) rep unleashes a new “seed” sound, said to belong to a recently discovered band of nomadic witches, and debate ensues about what to do with them. Alder appears to be connected to the sound, and is affected by it, which is perhaps why she asks that the witches be left alone for the time being. The others want to obtain the seeds, and don’t trust Alder’s intentions to leave them be.
The discussion of what to do with these witches, who claim no country and fight no wars, is one I hope the show continues to have. We know that the US military drafts witches into service, which means that refusing to enlist is a crime. What we don’t know, and what I hope the show spends some time on, is how witches are treated within law, within religion, and within large institutions outside of the military. How are witches treated as immigrants, or refugees, are they a protected class? What are the rules for those who aren’t drafted, and don’t enlist voluntarily? What is life for an ordinary witch? Fort Salem has an opportunity to tell rich stories outside of the ones the show is centered on.
Still reeling from the seed sound, Alder, and one of her Biddies —a group of elder witches she’s always surrounded by— fall ill, and Alder instantly ages. We learn a Biddy is actually a young witch who gives her youth to Adler. When one dies, another young witch takes her place, and Adler is restored to youth and health while the other witch instantly ages. Alder thanks the dying witch for her sacrifice, but the witch refuses her thanks and says it was an honor. Witches are indoctrinated into this belief that to serve is the highest honor, that to be of use, that to sacrifice, is what gives them value, and purpose. Witches are right to question these established norms and seek to change the status quo, but the Spree use unmitigated violence, which effectively invalidates their grievances. Their terror is what fuels the machine that they seek to destroy, and through Scylla and Raelle, this is something I believe the show will explore in more depth.
In this episode, we learn that Scylla’s parents were dodgers who ran away from their military duty and died in a resulting conflict. Porter, who knew her before that happened, finds it strange that she would enlist, considering, and warns Raelle off her. When he confronts Scylla about being the type of person who would pop balloons, she feigns hurt at the accusation of being a terrorist, then compels him to commit suicide. Raelle happens to be there when he jumps, and she tries to heal him, but he succumbs. Raelle is a deeply caring person under her aloofness, which is proven time and again by her willingness to use her magic to heal people. She is a fascinating character to watch because she occupies a space as both a critic of the system and an active participant, and her navigation of those contradictions is compelling.
Because this show is written from the perspective of American witches, we see Fort Salem through a patriotic lense, where the US military is the pinnacle of magical might. It doesn’t occur to us that there may be other, potentially larger or stronger military forces, also employing witches and fighting against the Spree— which goes to my earlier point about American exceptionalism. The fact that other countries have witches in their militaries is mentioned but the extent of their involvement in international warfare isn’t explicit, until now. How witchkind became so integral to nations security and defense is a question that probably won’t be answered, but I hope is scrutinized in some way or another.
Motherland: Fort Salem is still finding its footing, and has avoided any major missteps. The show treats its young women characters fairly, giving them multiple facets, and definitive traits. They are all distinct and self-contained, and are allowed to be more than their archetypes, even as they fully embody those assigned roles. The show does not shy away from hard topics, and seems to be fully capable of and willing to tread into tricky subjects. My only major criticism is the show’s over-reliance on suicide to incite shock. Twice in three episodes, suicide has been used as a mechanism to express the Spree’s cruelty. This should not become a habit.
If the show continues to flesh out its characters and broaden its purview, it stands to become one of the best depictions of witches in modern television.