Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – Part 3 (2020)
Cheerleader by day …
No, not Season 3, as you may have thought, but Season 2 — Netflix split the spooky Archie Comics adaptation’s first season in twain like a freshly-sawn magician’s assistant, and it’s the same dealio now: this second season is being released in two chunks of eight episodes each, making this dose of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season 2 Part 3. Yes, the numbering convention is a little counterintuitive.
Not the episode-naming convention, though, which cleaves to sly genre references and deep horror cuts designed to clue us in to the fact that series honchos Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale (2017), and Greg Berlanti (almost the entirety of DC Comics televisual output) Get It. This time around, we have chapters entitled ‘The Hellbound Heart,’ ‘Drag Me to Hell,’ and ‘Sabrina Is Legend,’ and more, which should put a smile on the dial of discerning horror heads.
The references run thick and fast in the actual narrative as well, and it’s impressive how quickly the production team can react to contemporary horror icons, given that one forest-set witchy ritual owes a clear debt to Ari Aster’s 2019 pagan power punch Midsommar, what with all the white dresses and flower crowns. Elsewhere we get a big ol’ tip of the pointed hat to the great Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (and why isn’t Disney’s 1983 film version on their streaming service?), as a dark carnival sweeps into Greendale, bringing with it promises of revelation and damnation because that’s what dark carnivals do.
It also expands the magical world of the series, being populated by Pagan witches and warlocks who hail from a different mystical tradition than the explicitly Satanic crew at the series’ Unseen Academy. Later on, we also get introduced to Hedge Witches, the series’ riff on Margaret Murray-style wise women and what-have-you (I could burn a lot of words unpacking the real-world occult stuff Sabrina weaves into itself, but we could be here all night; go have a Google instead).
The Pagans are antagonists, and the audience is more or less encouraged just to accept that, so we’re in the odd position as viewers of rooting for straight-up Devil-worshippers (and not groovy, politically active, free speech Hail Satan!-style Satanists, let us not forget, but human-sacrificin’, black-robe-wearin’ cultists) while viewing the racially-mixed, obviously outcast, nature-worshipping Pagans as evil interlopers. We’ve had a bit of time to build up our empathetic links with the main ensemble, so it’s natural that we’re going to side with the familiar characters over the new when the battle lines are drawn. Still, at times it feels like the series is willfully but subtly appealing to some anti-Romani sentiment and not just cherry-picking Romani culture for set-dressing and costuming (which still ain’t great, let’s face it). It’s not a deal-breaker for me, at least, but based on the episodes released, it seems to speak to a cultural blind spot in a show that otherwise has pretty impeccable woke bona fides. Will there be a big ol’ reversal/ revelation in the back half of Season 2 that makes me eat my words? I suspect so, but for now, based on the episodes at hand, it niggles.
Elsewhere, plot lines that were established last season continue to unfurl: Cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) and Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) are off in New Orleans in pursuit of the renegade Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), former head of the Unseen Academy. Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto, who is so ridiculously great in this role) is attempting to rebuild the Unseen Academy into something not under the heavy thumb of the warlock patriarchy. Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) is still doing her voice of reason thing and pursuing a relationship with Doctor Cee (Alessandro Juliani). Harvey (Ross Lynch) and Roz (Jaz Sinclair) are still an item — and get a little sidelined this season — while Theo (Lachlan Watson) is still negotiating being a trans person in spooky but, let’s face it, conservative Greendale.
Of course, the big dangling story hook left hanging off the last episode is the fact that Sabrina’s new beau, occult fuckboi Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), was condemned to Hell, and rectifying this requires Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) to contend with the political hierarchy of Hell with some assistance from frenemy Lilith (Michelle Gomez, great). The diabolical storyline runs through the whole first half of the season and, I’ll tell you, I am here for it; there’s a very Clive Barker tone to the way Hell is portrayed, the demon designs are great, and Sabrina’s new rival, demon Caliban (Australian actor Sam Corlett) is a fun addition, even if he’s just doing the rote brooding fallen angel thing.
Thematically, season two is not as strong as season one, and it seems like the creators are more concerned with tangible knots of plot and world-building rather than digging into anything meatier but less concrete. Nature vs. nurture still gets a look in, particularly in regard to Sabrina’s specific arc, and the struggle of women against patriarchal power, but these elements are not as sharply defined as they were previously. We do get some interesting commentary on PTSD and addiction a few episodes deep, but the exact circumstances are spoilery, so I guess that’s all I can say about that.
Still, the whole show feels less transgressive and provocative than it did last year, and maybe that’s just the cost of familiarity — everything bold and new becomes comfortable after a while. Or perhaps there’s been a deliberate pulling back from the more in your face elements of season one — less orgies and cannibalism, less polyamory and perceived perversion, more mystical mumbo jumbo. Is it simply less sexy? While there are sex scenes and innuendoes aplenty, the impact feels lesser this time around, the focus not as tight, the voice less clear.
Which is not to say the whole exercise collapses in a heap. Plenty of winning elements are still in play, not the least of which is the great cast in general and Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina in particular. It’s clear that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is heir to the crown that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) once wore, a sharp, funny, aggressively cool genre show that explores teen identity with impressive depth and dexterity, and if this latest batch of eps wobbles a little, it’s only because the standard is already set so high.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson