Warning: Spoilers ahead
Sabrina: I want freedom and power.
Prudence: He will never give you that. The Dark Lord. The thought of you, of any of us, having both terrifies him.
Sabrina: Why is that?
Prudence: He’s a man, isn’t he?
This dialogue between Sabrina Spellman, half-witch, half-mortal and Prudence, a witch who despises Sabrina on account of her being a ‘half-breed’ is one of the many powerful and layered statements made in Netflix’s original series, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The show is a dark twist from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a show with the same backstory that aired in the 90s.
Sabrina is the daughter of a warlock father and a human mother. Because her parents died in an accident, she lives with her aunts Zelda and Hilda and a cousin Ambrose who is under house arrest. Sabrina, just days away from her 16th birthday, has a decision to make – she has to pick between her mortal life (which would take away her witch powers) and her witch life (which would involve losing her meaningful contact with humans).
The dark baptism, occurring on the night of a blood moon happens to fall on her birthday. It is on this day that she has to sign her name in the ‘unholy’ book maintained by the High Priest in the ‘Church of the Night’, the coven her aunts are a part of. The saddening thought of losing her mortal friends, Roz and Susie, and her loving boyfriend Harvey pushes Sabrina to ask the question: why does she have to choose between the two; why can’t she have both?
The story revolves around Sabrina’s struggle to balance her mortal life and her witch life that she has kept secret from her friends. She attends Baxter High by day and the Academy of Unseen Arts by night, keeping both her worlds intact. Her daily troubles include dealing with the Weird Sisters – three witches from the academy who despise her for her father’s ‘mistake’ of marrying a mortal, with Prudence causing her the most pain. Through the course of the story, Sabrina’s defiance of the rules of the dark world unravels a series of mishaps that ultimately can be undone by her – and that would come at a price.
The question of Sabrina and her choice, though literal at first, gradually becomes a grand metaphor as the story progresses and delves into the dark world of witchcraft, which is dark not because of its activities but because of the way patriarchy seeps into the life of the witches devoted to the Dark Lord, Satan. The pain of choosing between having mortal friends and having exceptional witching abilities turns into a larger question of choosing between freedom and power – a witch cannot have both.
no matter what the universe, organised religion seems to be based on the subjugation and sacrifice of women and their bodies.
The fantastical portrayal of religion in a parallel universe gives this grand metaphor life. The stark contrasts to the Catholic church make the show much, much creepier, but one essential point does come out of it: no matter what the universe, organised religion seems to be based on the subjugation and sacrifice of women and their bodies. Despite the different customs, the targeted oppression of women remains the same, universe notwithstanding.
This becomes one of the key themes of the series – going into the nuances of faith shows how the witches feel more accepted in the religion by subjugating themselves, but they shouldn’t be seen as perpetual victims – they can also be strong perpetrators and sustainers of this subjugation, as the women around Sabrina have been.
But the show does not get stuck in a black-and-white portrayal of the characters. In fact, witches have historically been the embodiment of transgressions and defiance of the status quo, and the show makes room for the idea of women changing their mindsets and making decisions instead of men. The fact that Prudence knew the patriarchal bias behind witches not having both freedom and power is a stellar example of this idea.
What makes the show exciting apart from the thrill and fantasy is that it forces one to look at feminism as a nuanced subject and not a one-size-fits-all project. The patriarchy in the witch world gets slowly dismantled by a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t understand the status quo to begin with – with the help of the witches around her. As someone who had been told that she had only two choices, Sabrina made a way for herself.
The patriarchy in the witch world gets slowly dismantled by a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t understand the status quo to begin with.
However, Sabrina trying to convince Prudence (played by a Black woman) to not sacrifice herself for the ‘Feast of Feasts’ is an interesting example of a conflict of interest: while Sabrina was naturally against the idea of witches competing to sacrifice themselves every year to please the Dark Lord (a patriarchal concept), she did so in a condescending way. But Prudence wasn’t one to feel victimised so quickly – she dissed Sabrina, asking her an important question about what she had faith in. In essence, the show is run by women with vastly different experiences, and understanding them is the essence of feminism.
Sabrina’s need for answers stemmed from the fact that she had enjoyed being a part of worlds that gave her both freedom and power – something other witches had given up when they signed their names, devoting themselves to the Dark Lord. Sabrina’s refusal to give up either one marks her as the ‘troublemaker’ – a bigger metaphor indicating that men, for centuries have oppressed women because of the fear that women with too much freedom and power can topple the patriarchy over its head.
The best part of the series, undoubtedly, is the character of Ms. Wardwell, or Madam Satan as she calls herself later. Residing in the body of the dead professor of Baxter High, Ms. Wardwell wanted nothing more than to have Sabrina sign the book on her dark baptism, but her reasons were completely different as is revealed at the end of the series.
The Dark Lord’s right-hand woman wanted to train Sabrina to become the greatest witch on Earth, only so she could take over the Dark Lord’s place and make Sabrina her right-hand woman. Ms. Wardwell was the most interesting part of the show because of the ways in which she helped Sabrina get what she wanted. Wardwell’s intentions were the clearest among them all – she wanted a world where more witches would take charge and change the status quo altogether. This somewhat shared goal makes the chemistry between Sabrina and Ms. Warwell dynamic and strong.
The powerful ending of the series gives the audience a lot to look forward to. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn’t flawless – several characters, especially Harvey, Suzie, Roz, and Prudence did not get the treatment they had potential for, but the second season might do justice to them. All in all, the series is interesting because of how it deals with patriarchy in a universe that doesn’t entirely involve humans, and the twist itself lies in the fact that witches have power. How will they use this power to resist the patriarchy? That is the question.
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