This Motherland: Fort Salem review contains spoilers.
Motherland: Fort Salem Episode 9
In Altai, soldiers find 15 Tarim, dead, with their vocal chords precisely removed —the same way the Bellweathers were— and arranged into a pentagram. The Spree never took responsibility for the Bellweather murders, and they haven’t taken responsibility for this one, leading Petra Bellweather and Izadora (the Necro teacher) to question whether the Spree are even involved. They ask Alder if it could be the Camaria, but she denies that possibility, saying she wiped them out ages ago.
Introducing a new element this late in the season must mean the writers are confident in a renewal. The prospect of another entity, a different kind of antagonist with perhaps a more unique motivation, is an exciting one. The Spree are formidable but they’re also one-note. The real world is post-9/11, post-Charleston, post-any number of terrorist attacks or mass shootings. The Spree are shocking at first because of how they kill, but magic or no, it is easy to be desensitized to their particular brand of violence, and barring some regular and drastic changes in strategy, the Spree would get old fast. The Camaria could be thrilling additions.
In the previous episode, the cadets were ordered to strike Spree vehicles carrying weapons —and innocent civilian hostages, unbeknownst to most of them— which they succeeded in doing, losing one of their own in the process. Now, Abigail is tasked with honoring her formal rival and fellow High Atlantic, Libba, while the rest of her unit copes with the decisions made by their higher ups to dismiss innocent civilian’s lives.
When Abigail, Raelle, and Tally share information about Scylla with Petra, she uses that as ammunition to take Alder out. Nevermind that they told her about the civilian hostages first, which she didn’t think warranted further scrutiny. Alder a) sent half-trained cadets on a priority mission, b) ordered those cadets to take out an enemy vehicle with full knowledge that there were civilians hostages on board, then c) lied about it to everyone, blaming the Spree for deaths she was responsible for. Apparently, unwittingly allowing the Spree to infiltrate Fort Salem is the bigger sin, and that’s what pushes President Wade to dismiss Alder.
Alder: You are the 45th president I have served.
Wade: And no one deserves retirement more than you.
The magical military has several issues, and there are not enough characters examining them or calling them out. Tally, as expected, is having trouble reconciling her long-held beliefs about the righteousness of the military, and the behavior exhibited by its highest officer—”what we did to those people, this is not why I came here.” But she has no power here. And, save for Adil and Khalida, there are no outside points of view, no dissenting voices that aren’t framed as distinctly Bad, like the Spree. What the show needs are characters who are respected by the audience, and by other characters, who give validity to the criticisms aimed at Alder and the military as a whole. Anacostia is being positioned for this, but she hasn’t done enough to solidify herself as opposition. Alder needs to be checked, but also, her way of thinking needs to be challenged.
The writers haven’t gone so far as to offer up a counter to Alder, someone who would do things differently in her place. Khalida and Adil are Tarim, powerful witches, who refuse to use their songs for war. They are an ideological counter to Alder, and possibly equal to her in magical prowess, but they aren’t competition. Even as their people are whittled down to a dozen or so, they refuse Alders protection, choosing to perish rather than share their seed sounds or use their songs to fight. Petra Bellweather is the obvious choice for Alder’s successor, but she comes with the same attitudes that allow Alder to consciously kill innocents. There are no better options, just different ones, and the story stalls here if the writing isn’t conscious of this. Petra replacing Alder is not a victory, dismantling the current power structure is.
Motherland: Fort Salem surpasses my expectations in a lot of ways because it mostly manages to avoid the kind of melodrama one generally associates with stories about young, magical, women— tragic romance between Raelle and Scylla not withstanding. There are obvious elements of that, especially and almost exclusively with regards to romantic relationships, but it is not the foundation the show is built on. And even where the story leans more into the “soapy”—like, in this episode, when Gerit’s wife catches him and Tally in bed and asks to join them—it doesn’t take away from anything else. Anacostia allows Scylla to see Raelle one last time before being transferred to what sounds like witch Guantanamo. It’s Extra AF, and aimed at shippers—people who invest in character relationships—but it also serves the story well.
Fort Salem has substance. It may not be as deep as it sometimes thinks it is, but the characters move about the world in a way that feels honest, and the story touches on things that are current, and relevant, even as they operate in spaces there are no real-world analogs for. I was prepared for this show to be vapid, but it does at least try to say something about power, about legacy, about violence and war, and sexuality… it feels purposeful. This episode cements that, bringing us to the place where all narrative paths converge.
President Wade makes a national address to announce the change in military leadership, but Alder “puppets” her, making Wade instead express full confidence in her. Alder doesn’t just cross a line, she tap dances right over it. Anacostia recognizes Alder’s language, and when her suspicions are confirmed, she gathers the Bellweather unit to warn them that Alder is on one, and that they might not be safe. Alder’s actions will have consequences and for not just her. Witches are accepted, but they are still met with fear and suspicion. If her actions become public knowledge, any trust in witches will be broken. What happens when the people they’re sworn to protect turn on them?
There are so many possible places for the finale to go, what do you hope to see?