Salem Series Finale Review: Black Sunday

Salem concludes in a celebration of subversive triumph.

This Salem review contains spoilers.

Salem season 3 episode 10

Serious SPOILER ALERT – this analysis includes the very last scenes so watch the finale of Salem before you read one more word. Abandon Hope All Ye who venture further.

Salem reaches a fulfilling and satisfying conclusion by affirming that it is a show about witches, not puritans or fallen angels. Everything comes round in ritualistic circles and Adam Simon and Brennan Braga let the bad girl win every once in a while.

Salem can’t get enough of throwing around John Alden. Last week Beelzebub played in-court basketball with the rugged frontiersman and now Baron Sebastian Marburg (Joe Doyle) throws him into wall full of medical supplies with an offhand backhand before the opening credits roll. Thomas Dinley really doesn’t care who wins the battle between Mary Sibley’s (Janet Montgomery) suitors. Each time one of them gets the boot in he gives a little smile. But it’s Dinley’s underplayed “ouch” that makes the fight scene between Sebastian and Alden sting. When Dinley suggests “prayer” as an answer, it is a double punch line.

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The transformation of little John Sibley, played by Oliver Bell, into Samael, The Devil, is a bit cheesy, but great fun. I see stiches of Jason and the Argonauts in the fabric of his being. Midnight on Black Sunday heralded the dawning of a new world and the kid invited gods and monsters for his wedding day.

The Devil, played by Jon Fletcher, doesn’t think much of himself, does he? Not only is this guy god’s unwrapped gift to the world, he also presumes that he’s god’s gift to women. On a day god wasn’t giving up a thing, the late great Gil Scott Heron once sang. If applied to Salem, this goes straight to the heart of the celestial rebellion and fall. Samael is vain, and Mary can feel it in her veins, which ooze pure unadulterated Essex Witch blood. She can’t lay with someone who has the same DNA, regardless of how many commandments she’s broken and conventions she’s flouted. Her son is a pussy grabber and she won’t have any part of that.

Mary gets it. Destiny foretold that she will inevitably sleep with the devil, but can he shower first? In a rare blood continuity offense, Mary’s face is clean by the time Anne Hale escorts her to the stairs.

Countess Marburg, voiced and eyed by Lucy Lawless has no problem with getting down and a little dirty, she’s bathed in oceans of blood in her time. She savors a Van Gogh-inspired offering on her way to the bedroom. Janet Montgomery nails Lucy Lawless’ Countess impeccably quite a few times. Spirit transference is a modern horror adventure TV staple. Dark Shadows played with it in the 60s. It was done the time Callisto and Xena switched bodies on Xena the Warrior Princess. People are often amazed at how one actor can capture another actor’s mannerisms, body language and vocal quirks. But they should know, this is really just one way for producers to pay one actor for two parts.

Isaac the Truthteller (Iddo Goldberg) has his very best moment in this episode and he’s had quite a few. Usually we see Isaac filled to the brim with the treacle of justice for the lost dollies and Dorcases (Dorcasi? Emma Claire Wynn) of the world. Here we get his first true comic unveiling. When the whole town freezes in the midst of self-destructive chaos at one plaintive scream Isaac, for just one second, thinks “what the fuck did I just do?” Goldberg plays it so absolutely straight and with such utter conviction you can’t help but laugh. If you didn’t stifle a giggle, it’s your fault and a shame because it adds so much more color to Anne Hale’s emergence from the crowd.

Godfather Anne Hale takes care of all family business. She’s not only Michael Corleone, she’s Clemenza, Al Neri and Luca Brasi all wrapped up in one. Hale’s ascension to the boss of all bosses of the Marburg family is littered with as many bodies as Sonny had bullet-holes in him at the toll booth.

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Anne puts on her battle face and gives out a rebel yell when she trades in her matriarchy, ushering in a one-woman American revolution. She silences the all-seeing Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) and locks her up in a frighteningly dank cell. You can’t say Anne doesn’t have a sense of humor. She gives Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle) and Hathorne (Jeremy Crutchley) each enough rope to hang themselves in one last embrace of loving erotic asphyxiation. This is apropos in the cathouse.

After a few choice rejoinders about preferring hell’s bells to the wedding bed, Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) consigns himself to it. I think Bugs Bunny put it best when he said don’t go down there, it’s dark. Really, Cotton, stay at the top of the stairs. The devil and your eternally-soon-to-be ex-wife only told you to go through the door. Going down the stairs is optional. The design team creates a vast canvass for their vision of Hell. Spiritual masterpieces of art and architecture inform every stone. The images barely have time to register before they infect the very soul of Cotton, the good man who gave his soul so others could live, and drive him mad. And he’s not going to cheer up any time soon. Not that it matters because time means nothing in Hell. The last thing we see of him, he is joining the anguished screams of the damned in a chorus of cacophony.

“How did we come to be here,” Mary asks her loving savior just outside the legal perimeter of the town of Salem, and what happened to your ear? Mary wasn’t herself and did and said some terrible things she can’t even remember, like a werewolf who wakes up with a rabbit’s foot in its mouth after a full moon. But in the end you have to love the witch, whether she gets her powers from the goddess or the earth. Alden’s got her back, in all senses of the phrase. Even if he sometimes runs a little late, he never actually misses a deadline.

Thank you, Brannon Braga and Adam Simon, for finally ending a series about villains on the wrong note. For too long have anti-villains triumphed over villains and in Anne Hale you give us a villain for the ages. Her innocent routine fools everyone and is a testament to the generations of subversive films she rose from. Anne Hale may say nay nay, but there is Suspiria in Tamzin Merchant’s eyes. She is merciful enough to John Alden to make up for Mercy Lewis’s transgression. She’d eat her own mom if it would give her any more power and has the beautiful audacity to preach against witches at the very pulpit her damned husband performed.

Merchant has been wonderful throughout the series but the last two episodes have really been a tour de force. She captures the gallop of the true dark horse in a race of purebreds with grace and a few charms. Throughout the series, we’ve been manipulated to root for Janet Montgomery’s love-conquers-all delivery. Merchant’s coup de tat is a subversive acting triumph. Some of her moments are very subtle, my favorite came a few weeks ago when she swallowed some corn bread before kissing Cotton. Others are a full blast of fury. But the most furious is when she pounds the witch drums on the floor in the astral ritual.

The series finale is actually open-ended and could continue in two ways. Salem could follow the world under Anne Hale’s rightful reign and show us Braga and Simon’s interpretation of how history was forged in these forests. Or Mary and John can lead an uprising from wherever they’re headed and the battle can continue. I would prefer we just lean into the Hale future and ride that broom.

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 “Black Sunday” was written by Brannon Braga and directed by Adam Simon.



5 out of 5