This Salem review contains spoilers…
Salem, season 2 episode 1, “Cry Havoc” jumps right into the action. The first season ended with the final touches of the Grand Rite about to be performed. Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant) pulled a Carrie White on her old wizardly old man, Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley), and a wild witch coven was threatening the authority of Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) from the deep woods.
Salem returns in the dark recesses of Knocker’s Hall. There is nothing scarier than a sad kid warning about death, especially when it rolls off the tongue so matter-of-factly. The little girl doesn’t say it with any foreboding, her young voice doesn’t have the experienced enunciation for that yet, just a profound sadness. This makes it a little more frightening.
The plague has come to Salem and with it accusations and a good doctor. Dr. Wainwright, played by Stuart Townsend is a scientist in a world of creationists. He knows that “a pox on all your houses” isn’t from The Bible, it’s from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Mercurio says it after he gets stabbed. That was the real reason the doctor piped up, it had nothing to do with politics. He was a learned man and knew his pop culture. He saw the movie Outbreak centuries before it hit theaters and is a one-man CDC searching for the origin of the disease. Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg), the fornicator, is of course ground zero for the pox.
Anne Hale is a cradle witch of the oldest and highest order and a threat to Mary in her very home, just like the slave who have enslaved the mistress. Ashley Madekwe’s Tituba is my favorite character. I want her to roll my eyeballs up into my head so my mind is a rearview mirror too. She answers to the old crone witches, who are also natural witches like the Hale family, and yet have a tie to modern left-hand path practitioners. The crone witches sound like they are talking backwards. This is actually goes back to Aleister Crowley, who revolutionized the Occult Law of Reversal through the use of the modern technology of record players. Long before Beatle fans were straining to hear “Turn me on dead man” in “Revolution 9,” Crowley was ruining needles memorizing the Lord’s Prayer backwards.
Cotton Mather (Seth Gabelas) is calculating moral mathematics in the front lines of a religious war, like the Grim Reaper Colonel on M*A*S*H. Banished to Boston and forbidden from returning to Salem by decree of his dear departed dad, the poor, put-upon reverend can’t even get a nut off. Of course, that portrait of his father in his den is no help. Why would anyone sit for a painting and glare that hard at the future? I’m sure the artist who painted it left the sitting a smaller, more frightened person. Look at that painting and imagine yourself having that man stare back at you while your brush worked its magic. It would be enough to put you off art forever.
The council of men deciding that men should rule because they are men and bestowed that manmade right by other men is about right for the time. The idea that Mary Sibley would have that much power is just more proof that she’s a witch. In Salem at the time, the word “witch” was kind of like the word bossy is perceived now, but with a much hotter ending.
Lucy Lawless makes quite an entrance. How could she not? She’s Xena. Even with the mottled scars on her back, it’s hard to avert your eyes. Lawless brings a certain majesty to anything she does, well, maybe not when she blackened her teeth to do the Hillbilly thing with Ares (played by the late actor/musician Kevin Smith). The former warrior princess is true TV royalty. But in the end, the Countess Marburg simply drains me.
Tonight’s episode ranked pretty high on the wince scale. Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant) slices her wrists in the bath. The Seer, Petrus (Christopher Berry), rips out his own eyes. Oh, by the way, after Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) received her foreboding vision, she just left. It’s not just that she didn’t say thank you, but she never returned the Seer’s eyes. As a matter of fact, I think she balled up her hands. That’s going to hurt come winter, as Abe Simpson would say.
I have no problems with the Wince Factor. I look forward to every gasp I can get on TV. It’s a basic rule of horror. Groucho Marx said a basic rule of comedy is if you’re not getting laughs, drop your pants. Stephen King, in his horror-writing tell-all Danse Macabre (a must-read for every horror fan. Not a novel, but a great insight into the genre and maybe one of the beast things King ever wrote), says if all else fails, poke out an eye. If that fails, rip off a nut.
I don’t know about you, but if someone sliced off my balls and replaced them with a rubber chicken, I might not be inclined to listen to anything more they had to say. Elise Eberle, as Mercy Lewis, is turning into quite a commanding presence. Part cult leader, part wounded teen, she knows how to throw down. I hope the allusion to the classic thirties horror movie Freaks is intentional because there’s nothing like being surrounded by an army of unfriendlies in the dark to spark chills. When Mary leaves Mercy’s encampment of the dead, her followers reminded me of the birds in The Birds in the scene where Tippi Hedron is being delicately guided out of a pigeon-filled room, careful not to call attention to herself, lest she be pecked to death.
For a witch show, there’s not quite enough real witchcraft on Salem. Most of what they do is words and gestures. The native American ritual comes close, but everyone else seems to be born with a natural talent for sympathetic magic and telepathic accuracy. In the shadow of a giant dreamcatcher, the tribe throws the best parties. They also have the best native tongue in New England. I’m not sure if the writers are using a real Native American language, but to me it kind of sounds like Sid Caesar doing an Italian dialect on Your Show of Shows.
Getting all the misplaced humor all the way, I only saw a few episodes of Friends, Goon and The Whole Nine Yards, but Shane West, who plays Captain John Alden, reminds me of Matthew Perry. Throughout the whole first season, long after I was accustomed to his character, there was something about his mug that made me think he was about to crack wise like Chandler. West seems to have lost the smirk this season.
Salem is a supernatural soap opera, in the tradition of Dark Shadows. This season’s opener promises a grander vision. The closing shot of the burning declaration of war in the village center bodes happy forebodings.