Witch hunts have become an enduring concept in our cultural lexicon.
Once a term used to describe a literal search for and subsequent execution of suspected witches, the words have now evolved into a meaningless euphemism for political leaders (usually men) who feel persecuted by simple oversight or observation. “Witch hunt” has lost some of its rhetorical power. That’s why Freeform’s modern military witch drama Motherland: Fort Salem is coming along at a useful moment in our history. You see, these witches hunt back.
Motherland is set in an alternate version of the United States where the witches of colonial-era Salem cut a deal with the U.S. government to avoid that whole witch hunt ordeal by agreeing to join the burgeoning country’s armed forces. That deal, known as The Salem Accord, persists to the present day where three young witches, Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson), Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nicole Williams), and Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton), find themselves enlisted in the Fort Salem military training facility on their 18th birthdays a.k.a. Conscription Day.
While the world of Motherland may be unusually big and complex for a show aimed at young people, the series trusts its youthful audience and makes sure the themes therein are just as formidable.
“It’s like ‘wow Freeform let me do a teen show about slavery and genocide,’ I feel very lucky,” creator Eliot Laurence says.
Since Motherland charts the beginning of its alternate universe back to the Salem witch trials of the 1600s, addressing all the social issues of the time is unavoidable for the show. In the reality of the series, witch general Sarah Alder’s early successes fighting America’s wars made the government realize they needed a bigger pool of witch soldiers…which turned their sights to the victims of America’s original sin.
“Much of the early military ranks were filled by black people and black women in particular. And these women became military heroes,” Laurence says.
The success of black women in the colonial armies hastened the ending of slavery and led to an alternate future in which black dynastic families known as The High Atlantics are among the most powerful people in the country. One of Motherland’s three main witches, Abigail Bellweather hails from one of these powerful families and views her induction into military leadership as a birthright.
Motherland’s social and political commentary continues out from there and blossoms further in its present day, which has some startling similarities to our own world. While witches’ status as decorated soldiers have led to a more equitable and at times outright matriarchal society, there is a growing sense that young witches lack meaningful choices in their lives. Or as a pro-witch terrorist organization is fond of putting it “conscription is slavery.”
“I mean it’s somewhere between utopia and dystopia, right?” Laurence says. “I always want to make things kind of gray and complicated. I don’t ever want (the show) to be monolithically good or evil.”
As a result, when the show picks up with Fort Salem and its military witch training exercises, there’s a sense that one of the most powerful institutions in the United States has begun to decay.
“It’s an institution that has an illness within it,” Laurence says. “We haven’t really unpacked that yet, but there’s a bit of a genetic crisis in terms of witch birth rates, particularly with the guys. There are male witches, but there are so few of them that they’re not even allowed to be in combat. In general, fewer and fewer witches are born every year and later in the series we’ll find out why. There’s a reason.”
“You think the show is going to reverent towards the witch-military complex. And that’s not true,” producer Kevin Messick adds.
While the slow crumbling of our society’s most important institutions is certainly heady stuff, Motherland is able to make social statements in subtler, more personal ways as well. The concept of female sexuality is important to the show. As matrilineal lines of succession matter most for witch status, women’s sexuality is embraced more easily in Motherland.
Laurence and the show even co-opts a real aspect from the Salem witch trial era into a more modern, empowering light. During the Salem witch trials, any moles or blemishes upon a woman’s skin could be deemed by witch-hunters as “witches’ marks.” These were believed to be marks a witch received when she pledged her allegiance to the devil. In Motherland: Fort Salem, witches marks are not only real, they are celebrated as a marker of witches’ sexuality as they glow after they’ve had sex.
“I wanted to reclaim that and flip it on its end and make it something kind of fun,” Laurence says. “For these ladies, their sexuality is not something that complicates their life or, or labels them in a certain way, but in fact it gives them power. The witches’ mark is the symbol of that.”
Two Motherland actresses are given an opportunity to examine this aspect of the show’s empowerment narrative early on as Raelle (Hickson) and fellow Fort Salem trainee Scylla (Amalia Holm) develop serious chemistry in the pilot.
“Jessica, who plays Tally, gave us a great tool. She said ‘pick something that you truly do love about the person in real life.’ It’s something that you can engage with and think about consciously as you’re acting in the scene,” Hickson says. “For me, it was obviously (Holm’s) eyes because she opens her mouth and any person just stops and listens to her. She’s incredibly engaging when she speaks.”
“We both really try to be generous and present with each other,” Holm adds. “I think it’s so hard to put words to because to me it’s something that just happened. First time we rehearsed a scene together, it was like everything just ticks in.”
Ultimately, chemistry will come in use for all the actresses involved in Motherland’s all-women cast. It’s up to them to communicate the show’s most important theme above all else.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything on TV that has shown an all-women cast, and women in charge, women in power. (Motherland) tells women in general that it’s cool to be powerful,” Williams says.
Motherland: Fort Salem premieres March 18 at 9 p.m. ET on Freeform.