Salem, season 2 episode 6, “The Beckoning Fair One,” is a dish served cool, but the appetizer and dessert are scalding.
The pieces are being assembled for an upcoming game of dominance on Salem. Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) and Countess Marburg (Lucy Lawless) are lining up all their marbles. Mary Sibley conjured the spirit of Increase Mather from hell to do her bidding.
Increase is not very happy about being in the thrall of Mary Sibley. Stephen Lang recently said in a recent press call that reanimated beings are usually confused. As recognition dawns in Increase’s face, he goes through all the stages of grief. Though he plans to get the better part of the bargain, he accepts that he is knight’s move away from obliteration. He just wants to be dealt in.
It’s not just chess that the two witch queens are playing. They each bring their poker faces. They both discard their low cards, but the witches may sacrifice the queen to save the pawn. Sibley and Marburg suspect each other, but they can’t find any evidence to back up their suspicions. Each are attacking the other, but can’t quite find the other’s weakness. The fun part is watching the actors play the double crosses with each other. Every line is an attack, especially the compliments. Their comedy of manners borders on camp as it looks like the actors are having too much fun.
This episode was directed by Joe Dante, who brought us The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984) and the underappreciated love letter to all things horror, Matinee from 1993. Dante brings a breathless childlike wonder to his projects and some of the fun of their interplay had to have come from him. He also unleashed Salem’s cameramen to play the parts of dismembered spirits, as they did last week with astral awareness.
The actors aren’t having as much as the characters are having. Countess Marburg obviously admires a good adversary. It makes the thrill of the kill so much more sanguine. Lucy Lawless brings a whiff of self-awareness to the role, a wink that the legend behind the actress can’t help but pull. It’s a combination of sticking her tongue out and using her iconic status to add a realistic gravitas to the immortal, so far, countess. We accept that she’s won every battle, even though we know she has to lose the one in Salem. It’s not her show and Anson Williams isn’t directing. But she won’t go down without a blazing finale.
Her son, on the other hand, looks like he’d go down at a moment’s notice, but he pulls away when he finally gets the chance. Baron Sebastian von Marburg (Joe Doyle) is a bit of a hypocrite. He calls out the doctor for his morals when he really should be basking in the diversion. Sebastian is happy to extort Mary’s affection, but when she offers a reach-around he balks. And he does it in a very condescending fashion. His jealousy will be his undoing.
It’s not that Dr. Wainwright (Stuart Townsend) didn’t deserve the call-out, he was begging for it. Invited to the dinner party, the surgeon refuses to dip his scalpel in the roast. The idle chat of the local bourgeoisie didn’t kill his appetite. He appeared to eat as much as the rest of the dinner party, even if he didn’t toil for his meal and only brought a bag of chips. Not even dip.
Hathorne (Jeremy Crutchley) is the third wheel at the party. The only dinner guest without a date, he can only look on imperiously dumfounded as Cotton pops the question to Anne. I wonder if Increase saw how happy Cotton Mather (Seth Gabelas) was in the thrall of Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant). Cotton is such a sloppy, drooling puppy in love, as opposed to the sloppy, drooling drunk the rest of the time. Increase finally gets to throw a little sobriety at his prodigiously prodigal progeny and scares the puritan pants off him.
Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) has John Alden (Shane West) right where he wants her, only he doesn’t realized it yet. The natives warned him that the earth mojo was as strong as an oak, with roots that go deep. Now that he’s gotten a taste of magic, it’s in his vines, I mean veins. He’s only holding out because he knows he’ll never get a chance like that, getting his own bush trimmed.
The young budding witch, Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), who got her first blood spa treatment last week, is turning into quite the glutton. Once again, Sebastian overreacts in the most frustrating way. He really should allow his mother to indulge the ingénue, he has no patience. I hope it turns out to be merely jealousy, his oppressive nature could make him such a boor at parties.
“It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed,” Khan Noonien Singh once observed on Star Trek. As Mary and Marburg circumnavigate the utensils we wonder when they will dig into each other. They have spies chasing spies, agents shadowing double agents, every one of them willing to plunge a fork in the two lovely witches’ eyes without blinking. Secrets are seeping through the cracks but Mary can’t quite put a finger on where the leak is springing. No, I’m not talking about the backwash that came pouring out of George Sibley’s (Michael Mulheren) mouth, though that does prove to be a tender subject in itself.