The Horror Honeys: Salem: Season 1 Recap ~ Witch Among Us

Salem: Season 1 Recap ~ Witch Among Us

A Head Honey Series Recap by Kat

Salem: Season 1 (2014)

Filed under “Things I’m Obsessed With” is a topic that has waxed and waned in public and scholastic attention for decades: the Salem Witch Trials. It pops up every now and again whenever witchcraft and ‘Witches in America’ are brought up. Sleepy Hollow took a trip back to Salem in its second season and American Horror Story even touched it briefly in the character of Queenie who claimed her heritage in Tituba, one of the original Salem witches. 

Salem begins like no other TV show I’ve ever seen, in Puritan Salem, Mass., where a trial is being held. Trials for the poor have been held in the same way for centuries, especially public ones, accused and condemned in the same breath. In this manner we are introduced to Isaac (Iddo Goldberg), in the stocks condemned and branded for being a “fornicator” and George Sibley, a Puritan “Pillar of the Community” who carries out the sentence with the perverse and sadistic glee you’d expect from a character being set up for some serious shit later on. 

In this same muddy square we meet John Alden (Shane West, who I awkwardly recognized from Dracula 2000), such a mouthy bastard from the get go, he actually got off on the wrong foot with me, coming across as too modern in a very rustic and settled set piece. However, with a prominent father, he is unpunished for his insolence and rabble rousing and instead given the choice to leave Salem and fight in the Indian Wars raging in the territory. Unbeknownst to John, his secret lover, Mary, is pregnant with his child, but soon after he leaves for war, Mary aborts the child with the help of her slave Tituba in the woods nearby. Guided by Tituba, this personal sacrifice ushers Mary into the world of witchcraft and the pursuit of power in the village.

Witch hunting is all the rage in 1690s Salem, and the town bangs and hangs with relish, using all manners of torture device (the water chair is my favorite example in the series) to root out the stain of the Devil. Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), a local girl, is bewitched and the subject of much interest, fear and scrutiny. Taking a page from the history books, Mercy and her circle of teen friends accuse members of the town with stunning speed. The drunken, abusive, father of one of the group, a midwife, all with dramatic results. Dramatic, here meaning ending in a gloriously graphic hanging complete with voided bowels. It may seem like a strange thing to applaud, but I LOVE it when cinematic adaptations don’t shy away from fact.

Mercy’s role in the accusations and trials of the accused witches is carried out with glee, and we soon discover that Mercy is under the control of a very powerful and destructive witch, none other than Mary, who is now Mary Sibley - wed to the Pillar of the Community, who is sadly in a vegetative state after a prolonged illness. An illness brought about by a literal frog in his throat (cue the vengeful snickers). Through her comatose husband, Mary exercises her influence over the town, and builds her coven of witches under the very noses of the Selectmen who oversee the business of Salem. 

Sic 'em, Mercy!
Unexpectedly, and years after being presumed dead in the Indian Wars, John Alden returns to Salem a changed man. Adopted by a Native tribe and living among them for years, John’s return to Salem comes at the beginning of the witch panic as he witnesses the death of Giles Corey, an elderly man crushed to death by a fanatical new preacher, also new to town, Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel). Alden’s return also has a strange effect on Mary Sibley, who finds herself torn between her feelings towards him, and the pursuit of the Grand Rite.

Mather’s character is a pathetic one. Preaching Puritan values by day and tumbling in the whorehouse and alehouse at every other available moment, to Gabel's credit, there’s really nothing about Cotton to like. He sentences and tries witch after witch, believing that he is close to breaking open an ancient coven and the secrets of a Great Evil that he believes is being conjured in the woods. He’s not wrong, as Mary and her coven are attempting to bring about The Grand Rite, a ritual that will put Mary at the forefront of power, not just over Salem, but over other witches as well.     

The arrival of Cotton’s father, Increase Mather (the always amazing Stephen Lang), is a point of supreme awkwardness. The elder Mather despises his son and sees him for the drunken disappointment that he is. Cotton’s character becomes even more unlikeable during this phase as he is revealed to be a nothing more than a coward hiding from his father’s shadow. Increase Mather’s dedication to witch hunting is even more fervent than his misguided son’s and under his influence, George Sibley also begins to emerge from under his enchantment. Increase’s presence in Salem is a direct threat to Mary and all that she is working towards, and only his death will ensure the success of The Grand Rite… 

Salem is a unique series in that it deals with well recorded historical data, the names of those accused are real, and the manner in which they died is also very real. So many times witchcraft is approached with incorrect, or misguided steps. More often than not, it is written with malice, misunderstanding or from a lens that ignores much of the reality of the oppression and suffering women endured at the hands of their accusers. In historical Salem, “witchcraft” was a convenient way to rid oneself of a meddling neighbour, acquire a coveted piece of land, or remove a strange or unacceptable member of society from sight. Disagreements between neighbours, anger at the unexpected death of a young child, or the failure of a crop became fertile ground to plant accusations of Satanic involvement. In a time where religion was a controlling factor in daily life and practice, the threat of Hell was a very real and terrifying possibility. Exiled from their homeland, strangers in a new land with their strange practices and strict religion, the Puritans felt that they were alone in their fight against evil, and Salem highlights that desperate fear in a very effective way.  

Salem’s approach to the subject matter is also unique, and there is enough drama and theatricality to keep casual observers interested as well as those who follow history, and enough gore to keep those of us who root for realism and practical FX work satiated and as pleasantly surprised as I was. 

Extra points: 
  • Mercy Lewis’ prodigious Evil Dead-esque projectile blood vomit during the trial of Bridget Bishop. Cue my stunned gasp.
  • The death of Mab, proprietress of the whorehouse, accused of witchcraft is ducked in the water chair, and then (as she IS a witch in Mary's coven) commits suicide in her cell rather than be tortured by Increase Mather. Upon discovering her death, Mather hangs the corpse and takes special relish in breaking the woman’s neck and leaving her body swinging on the gallows. Unreal. 
  • Increase Mather’s hands: The story of how his hands came to look the way they do is chilling, and I loved how he described the death of the young child. 
  • Torture devices: I had forgotten just how many torture devices were created especially for the punishment of women. Salem reminded me of this in a very visceral way. 
The stage for Season 2 has been set, the Rite is nearly complete. But it seems that Mary Sibley’s activities have not gone unnoticed, and a new power rises to challenge her. Lucy Lawless and Stuart Townsend join the cast, and the Witch War will begin in earnest.

Season 2 of Salem begins on April 9th on WGN.

Salem Season 1 is available via Netflix Streaming, YouTube VOD, Google Play
Amazon Instant Video, & DVD