Making a fun horror drama is tougher than it seems. You have to give your show a sense of urgency and a lively spirit that will keep people watching, a propulsiveness and sense of humor that can hide seams that start to give way, all the while making sure that dramatic stakes are easily identifiable and filled with tension. That balance, which impacts comedic horror movies in a similar way (and why those that stick the landing are so lauded), is something that not all horror dramas are capable of achieving; those who wobble in either direction can become anything from a humorless dirge that takes itself too seriously by half or a cartoon that leans too heavily on the buffoonery and robs itself of any stakes in the process. It takes a pretty special show to balance those two extremes and find a happy medium where it can be a silly romp with some weight to it.
Akin to historical cosplay on crack, Salem premiered in April 2014, becoming the flagship drama for WGN America’s sojourn into the twisted world of scripted television. The series flipped the lore of the Salem Witch Trials on its head, wondering aloud what would the world have been like had there actually been witches in Salem. Not only that, the series placed the witches in positions of power, stoking the flames of Puritanical paranoia for a greater, more sinister cause, thereby giving itself a pulpy, revenge fantasy bent that played into its id-like thirst for chaos. However, it’s a show that thrives on narrative momentum and throwing as much at you as possible, so the nearly 18-month hiatus was something that caused me to approach season three with a mix of excitement and trepidation. While it’s good that the show is back, could the hiatus have hurt it creatively? Would the show not be as viscerally effective with this type of extended pause?
Thankfully, season three of Salem is as wild and wacky as it was when it left off, though the show does have weightier ambitions to balance out its love of body horror and disorienting imagery. Following the successful completion of the Grand Rite and the consecration that brought the Dark Lord himself to this Earthly plane, the season focuses on the impact that power has and how much (emotional and physical) carnage can be left when those in charge abuse their latitude. The arrival of the Devil has shaken Salem to its very core and through the first five episodes of the season, you get to see plenty of scrambling to try and reverse the course the Grand Rite set the town on. Most interestingly is the return of Mary Sibley, last seen giving her blood to John Alden in order to save his life and free herself from the mess she made; Mary spent the entirety of season two riddled with guilt at the innocents she led to slaughter and the role her son was to play in the beginning of the end of the world, so there was almost a relief in the situation she found herself at the end of season two. She thought she would never have to watch her son destroy everything (and everyone) she loved, that this was her way of paying penance to her sins, but with the Devil asserting his dominance over the witches and refusing to capitulate to their desire for a world of their own, the Essex hive might have no other choice but to bring back their strongest witch for one last fight.
The way Mary’s return is written is one of the heavier storylines of Salem season three, as her journey through the first five episodes of the season plays almost like an addiction allegory tied together with the five stages of grieving. You watch Mary have to work through the loss she feels and somehow try to find a reason to go on, something to give her life the meaning that she continues to seek and some place to derive the strength she used to thrive upon, and Janet Montgomery is more than up to the challenge of playing all the Marys that appear. The character has never had this much range demonstrated and this many levels to play, which makes Montgomery’s performance, always a highlight of the first two seasons, that much more impressive to behold. The other heavy storyline of the season is less developed through the first five episodes and is the first time the show has gone explicitly political in its narrative; the issues of religion, sex, and feminism are some of the bedrocks of Salem, so their presence is embedded in the show’s DNA, while the storyline from this season feels like an effort to make the show more topical. Which is understandable in a way, given that we’re a population that is better informed than ever before and shows that attempt to connect themselves to greater issues in the world tend to have the critical drum beat for them louder than other shows. However, I don’t know if this is a show that needs to go down that alley, even in a minor way, since there are other shows better equipped to explore stuff like this rather than have it be a perfunctory aspect of a bigger storyline.
But Salem isn’t exactly trying to do a live-action sociological diorama, so aside from what little time it spends grazing the political arena, it completely immerses itself in the craziness of the town and what lengths those who reside in it will do for power. Mercy, in particular, has seized the opportunity to make something of herself and taken up the glamorous (but deadly) role left unfilled since Countess Marburg’s departure, as she seeks to use a new business (and a surprising new alliance) in order to leverage herself control of the town. Though not the most engaging of the numerous plates the show has spinning at once this season, Mercy’s storyline is the source of some of the most disturbing imagery of the season (including something I’ve never seen on television before) and intersects with Isaac’s newfound sense of purpose as a night watchman working under Magistrate Hawthorne in an interesting way that should have major payoff down the road. More effective is the push-pull relationship that Anne and Cotton have as a result of him finding out about her witchcraft and subsequently being turned into the new George Sibley; not only does the storyline play into the tortured romantic side of Salem‘s identity, thereby playing into the very solid chemistry between Seth Gabel and Tamzin Merchant, it allows Cotton the opportunity to wrestle with what he once thought were the clear definitions of good and evil. Prior to finding out about Anne, Cotton was a compassionate man who nonetheless had a fairly black/white view of morality, so having him wrestle with the idea that his wife is serving a master he’s dedicated his life to rebuking is a slow burn that does wonders for the character. One of the central questions of Salem has always concerned what you’d be willing to sacrifice to be with the one you love and Cotton is a deeper character for coming face-to-face with that.
Salem is a show where a little boy is possessed by Satan and longs to rule the world with his mother as his bride. It’s a show where the human body is referred to as a “tiny meat suit,” cankerous boils are as common as cloaks and corsets, and magic can come from anywhere (and anybody). It’s a show where blood is commodified, the past never goes away, and even the most evil among us can be lovesick over someone they can’t have. Season three in particular is a rollicking good time anchored by Mary’s journey toward redemption, tests of Cotton’s faith and love for Anne, and former social outcasts Mercy and Isaac fighting their way to the head of Salem society. What’s great about Salem is that it has these bones that can keep the show fundamentally strong and allow it to experiment visually (e.g. a stunning visual representation of Mary’s powers in an early episode, the way Tituba works around her lack of sight, using a lot of deep reds that contrast against its usual green/Earth-toned color palette) and go a little nuts in the process. This keeps the show from overindulging in its excess and ripping down the narrative scaffolding it built for lack of self-editing; instead, it uses every sliced throat, every bleeding eye, and every reanimated corpse as demented decoration, a way of heightening its own reality and keeping things from becoming too dour. Most of all, Salem‘s relentless energy and deep understanding of itself has made season three lean, mean, and deliciously obscene, a show that wears its romanticism on its sleeve and examines what it means to be a hero while offering you funny, flowery dialogue and the worst case of bubble guts in the world.
The third season of Salem premieres Wednesday, November 2nd at 9:00 on WGN America.