Warning: This Motherland: Fort Salem review contains spoilers.
Motherland: Fort Salem Episode 2
The series premiere of Motherland: Fort Salem did an excellent job of establishing the lead characters and providing their motivations. It is immediately clear who Abigael, Tally, and Raelle are (as individuals and as archetypes) and there is very little question as to why they are here, and what they hope to accomplish. This episode further explores those motivations, and allows the characters to examine them for themselves.
Abigail and Raelle were both conscripted into service, to their respective honor and dismay, while Tally volunteered. It is not clear how common that is, but it feels rare. Tally is an idealist, and she believes the cause —stopping The Spree— is a worthy one. She runs into a friend from home, Glory, who is dismayed that Tally would choose this. She herself regrets wanting to leave their quiet little life. Tally’s mom also reiterates how terrible it all is, even after giving Tally a battle charm, and Tally, for the first time, is shaken.
The girls ace a windstrike training exercise and earn the privilege of going into Salem Town to experience an unsupervised few hours at an annual witch celebration. There, people reenact the Salem witch trials, which… somehow becomes a positive occasion deserving of celebration? But we don’t see that part because the camera follows Abigail and Raelle who do not stay to watch.
Last week, I said the premise was… implausible. I really would’ve liked to see how we got from a witch, moments away from being hung, to where we are now, where witches are an integral part of the US military. (Granted the reenactment would be a watered-down version of the truth, but still…) The lack of specifics here is irritating. The writers don’t seem to think it’s an important detail, even though it is a vital piece of worldbuilding. The show’s entire mythos is built around this moment. I know why witches are fighting now, I want to know how they came to the Salem accords.
The writers do somewhat address my question of whether women have power in this alternate version of the US. The answer is, the President is a non-magical Black woman, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph (uncredited). I don’t expect there will be a deeper exploration of race politics in this universe, where “witch” is likely a catch-all for “other,” but I hope there are more establishing facts about the world outside of Fort Salem that provide better context for the story.
At the celebration, Abigail and Raelle let their guards down and make a genuine connection. All the girls seem to bond, including Raelle and Scylla, who have gotten very close very quickly. Scylla is, of course, a honeypot. And everything about her is conspicuous. I beg for a derailment of this entire plot. Raelle defecting would be the easy and obvious route to go. Scylla legitimately falling for Raelle, and turning on the Spree would be an equally uninspired choice. My sincerest wish for this show is that they avoid these obvious traps and make choices for the characters that challenge who they are.
By that token… When a civilian releases a balloon —the in-universe equivalent to someone yelling “bomb” in an airport— everybody panics. The girls, still in uniform, try to calm people down, but to no avail. A man says with his whole chest, “it’s your people that are committing these attacks!” Tally takes him down with her newly perfected windstrike, and later wonders if she made the right decision about enlisting, remarking that the people they are protecting hate them. She waffles for a bit before landing on her initial feeling, that it is a good decision. But there was a moment of panic and uncertainty, and exploring that with her would be equally, if not more compelling than digging into Raelle’s uneasiness with her choice.
That moment is also when we reach the crux of things. How do people feel about witches? Is there a national conversation about the amount of power they hold? Are they seen as dangerous? Are they seen as saviors? Do people trust them, outside of their military roles? Until that moment, the show has only hinted at the possibility of anti-witch sentiment in the wider culture. In the first episode, we see a man happily give up his seat on a flight for Tally, and thank her for her service. Others nearby realize she’s a witch, and there are expressions of both fear and reverence. Their reaction to her is likely indicative of the wildly varying feelings people have about witches on the whole. How witches move through the world, outside of the relative safety of Fort Salem, is something I want the show to explore.
The Black woman president (I feel the need to emphasize) questions General Adler about their tactics with regards to the Spree, and she offers very little in the way of concrete things they are doing to combat them. Later, the higher-ups discover where they believe the Spree are currently operating, and send in a squad to confront them. Through a literal looking glass, we see the team walk right into an ambush. When one of the ranking officers expresses grief over losing her daughter (one of the witches on the squad), she insists that more needs to be done. There is an implication here that the Fort Salem witches have more at their disposal that they haven’t resorted to, which I imagine will play into how they respond to the Spree going forward. The question of good guy versus bad guy will inevitably crop up when the military witches meet the terrorist witches where they’re at. I hope the writers do not approach this timidly.
I remain enamored by the magic system this show employs. As a fan of sci-fi, fantasy, (and teen melodrama), I have seen magic that exacts a toll or requires a sacrifice, or magic that requires an affinity for the elements. But this show puts a unique spin on it by adding a vocal element to the spellwork. In this universe Beyoncé would literally be too powerful. I look forward to further expressions of that magic.
Motherland: Fort Salem has the potential to tell a complex and nuanced story. There’s so much to mine from, and so many narrative opportunities. The writers only have to recognize when they’ve created a compelling narrative path and follow it to its conclusion, hopefully avoiding the pitfalls that threaten to hold the show back.