Salem: Book of Shadows Review

Mary Sibley shares an oral tradition of magic. Here is our review of Salem season 2 episode 4.

This Salem review contains spoilers.

Salem, season 2 episode 4, “Book of Shadows” gets down with some tantric magic tonight. This was one sexy episode. The soap in this operatic horror show was frothy. It even opened in a bathtub.

Now that a direct connection was made between the scary children who have been haunting the opening sequences and the appearance of Countess Marburg (Lucy Lawless) at the close, Salem dispenses with the scary kids and deals with the problems at hand. Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) got a mouthful of the blood countess and she can’t wash the lingering aftertaste out. Like an aftertaste, the first witch’s effects are strong, subtle and distracting. The memory of distaste is like an apparition, and the ghost of Marburg’s kiss is a not a playful poltergeist.

Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) wants Mary to nip her problems in the bud. But, like the stubborn weeds that blind witches to witch-hunters, they refuse to stop growing. Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant) is a born witch, the last surviving daughter of a family of witches that goes back generations in the old country. No, not Brooklyn, Europe. Hale’s powers are growing but still controllable, as long as her urges are out of control. Mary doesn’t nip Anne’s bud as much as nibble at it, but she establishes rapport and dominance.

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The first wince moment comes even before Marilyn Manson and Tyler Bates begin pounding the witch drums. Tituba takes the eyes of the seer with a knife. She doesn’t pluck them out or pry them out, she spears them and pulls them out. She really digs in there and even though the camera’s not directly on it, it’s a major wince induction. Then, to add to the gory visual delight – she eats them. Hakuna matada, slimy but satisfying. I wonder if eyes taste sweet or salty, I promise you I will never find out.

Usually, surgical masks are fine for recuperative units, but not in Salem. The village ambulatory corpse doctors aren’t content to be merely quacks, they advertise it by wearing duck masks. Luckily, Captain John Alden can see through all that. He didn’t learn the ways of the Native Americans to pay for a house call from a witch doctor. But the viewer is left to wonder, if Alden passes a witch on his way to dispatching bodies, will the magician just see a cloak and a beak?

No magic without arousal, Mary says, and the ever-suggestible Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant) goes with it eagerly and quickly. She surrenders immediately into the suggestions the elder witch rubs into her psyche. Mary has gotten completely into Hale’s head, guiding her into an aroused trance by dangling a dull object as a spiritual sex symbol. Once you eliminate all the possible outcomes, the impossible becomes plausible, like Anne Hale fantasizing about local buffoon Cotton Mather (Seth Gabelas). A degree in theology, I ask you, what could be more useless than that? This is a British cinema cliché that goes all the way back to Richard Lester’s comic Beatles adventure Help. There the scientist, played by a very committed Victor Spinetti, decries his assistant’s degree in woodwork. Imagine what he’d say to a magical working. Cotton has some severe daddy issues.

I like the roots growing out of Alden’s body, hiding him in the woodwork. The tribal spiritualists warned him that this earth magic took its toll on the soul, but to see the planet start to claim him was a subtle, yet powerful visual effect, especially when combined with the hazy camera work that gave the POV of the unseen fugitive. Shane West, who plays Captain John Alden, is channeling his totem animal. Much like Anne Hale conjures Brown Jenkins, her familiar, as she pricks her finger to begin her “Book of Shadows.” She concludes with a solemn and teary promise to do no harm, which would make her the first white witch. 

Leech face and lava lady finally meet. Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg) is Mercy’s captive and the poor fuck is in no shape to enjoy it. Elise Eberle, who plays Mercy Lewis, internalized the flames that were supposed to have left her dead in the woods. She is burning everyone around her now with her eyes. Her character wants no one to look at her but really, she’d prefer they not look away. She chided her father for breaking eye contact last week and this week Mercy won’t even afford onlookers a blink. Isaac is such a sweet thing, sticking up for Mary and putting the acolyte ahead of himself. I couldn’t wait to see him flayed.

The ingenious Mary gave Hathorne just enough rope to hang himself and he’s not that well-hung. She notices that he is not fit to lead a beggar’s parade, let alone Salem, and points out that his criminal negligence could even have come from a more felonious source. At least she could respect that, if only he had the imagination to take out his competition. Hathorne is a useless piece of shit, though, isn’t he? A thorn in the side with no real redeeming qualities. Hathorne is kind of like the Joxer in Xena, you don’t quite know why he’s there, but he’s sure to show up. Or Frank Burns on M*A*S*H, he was written to be hated. At least Larry Linville got to utter some of the best one-liners on his show, poor Jeremy Crutchley can only look forlornly away.

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The acting is stylized, gurgling low ripples of the seventies supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, a Dan Curtis Production. When Cotton is standing in front of Mary with the bad apple in his hands, within grabbing distance, Mary’s eyes do a dance of growing suspense. You can hear the incidental music going off in her head, even if there is no soundtrack for the audience. But it could have been the yearning strings of Mary Hartman Mary Hartman music. Janet Montgomery conjured images of Lorraine Newman on Saturday Night Live telling a sick child she’ll be fine to her face and then biting her hand in anguish as she turned around to the camera.

The magic in this episode was of the telekinetic and ritual variety. Last week, Mary and Titube made the runner-up magistrate bite off his own tongue rather than give up his master, the Queen witch of Salem, through sympathetic magic. Tonight Tituba and Mary intoned incantations to invoke the magic of getting the dead guy to give them the finger. Anne Hale’s incantation and sacrifice in the well was sufficiently sad and creepy. Seeing the watered down blood countess contained in a vial was effervessant, but I’m sure all Hale was thinking was that she’d never drink water from that well again. No one should see the plumbing.

What a great pickup line for oral sex: “how would you approach a queen?” Dr. Wainwright (Stuart Townsend) gets on his knees for the sake of science. There are some who say magicians, or at least alchemists, were among the first real scientists. They knew that magical energy flows from the source of all things. Tantra and sex magic both recognize cunnilingus and fellatio as meditative yogic positions.

Zeena Schreck may be the considered a contemporary counterpart to Anne Hale. The daughter of a famous magical name, Anton LaVey, she led three notorious modern occult orders. Zeena was the High Priestess of the Church of Satan and the Temple of Set and was the Female Alpha of The Werewolf Order before she chucked them all in for Tantric Buddhism.

In Zeena’s book Demons of the Flesh, which she co-wrote with Nikolas Schreck, she writes “Vedic left-hand path Tantrikas place great emphasis on the vaginal secretions of the female, ingesting them as the pure distillation of feminine energy in rites venerating the shakti’s vulva. This fluid, called amrita, or ‘elixir of immortality’ is sometimes believed to be vitalized with magical properties. … Erotic statuary in India’s celebrated Khajuraho Temple depicts scenes of ritual cunnilingus that indicate a strong left-hand path influence. In the Chinese sex-magical tradition, the orgasmic flow of the female partner’s Bartholin’s gland fluid was also thought to be a substance rich with yin, the feminine life-force potable in a physical libation granting immortality.”

Mary also says there is no magic without blood. Zeena’s book also points out that a “a well-known rite of initiation for the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club decrees that the Angel must ‘earn his wings’ by performing cunnilingus on a menstruating woman.”

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A doctor is an angel of mercy. Dr. Wainwright, the scientist, could write it off in his ledger as a study in copulins, secreted vaginal acids that theoretically can influence a male’s thoughts. But watch out Mary, psychiatry and cunnilingus took down The Sopranos.

“The Book of Secrets” was written by Brannon Braga.


4.5 out of 5