Salem, Seasons 1-3 (2014-2017)


Reviewer: Charity Bishop


Salem. Just the name brings to mind horror stories of relentless witch hunts, the death of innocents, incredible paranoia, and religious fundamentalism. Surprisingly, this blight on American history receives minimal attention from film, which may be why Salem goes all out to twist the actual events into a dark story of murder, mayhem, and unbridled evil.


One windy afternoon, young Isaac (Iddo Goldberg) is placed in the stocks and branded as a fornicator. His friend Mary (Janet Montgomery) empathizes with his plight but can do nothing to stop it. The same evil clergyman who committed that atrocity forces her lover, John Alden (Shane West), to go to war, to avoid the suspicions of the townspeople. Aware that she is pregnant, and fearful what it might mean if she is caught, Mary listens to her slave-girl, Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), and performs dark magic to rid herself of the child in the wood.


Many years later, Mary is an advanced witch, married to the man who made her life miserable; she controls him with her "familiar," turning him into a drooling idiot, so she can control the town board. She intends to unleash a plague upon Salem that will soon spread throughout America, and grant her incredible power. But to bring this about, she must sacrifice thirteen innocent souls before the moon rises. Thankfully, she has Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), the fornicating hypocritical pastor / witch hunter to help her. All she has to do is spread a little paranoia, and he will arrest, imprison, interrogate, and set on fire anyone she chooses. But not everyone in town is enamored of her; Anne Hale (Tamsin Merchant) has her suspicions that Mary may not be what she seems, and her latest demonically possessed victim, Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), is not a willing subject. She has a mind of her own.


Over the course of three seasons, Mary unleashes hell on earth, trades her greatest desire for a reunion with her child, sets out to destroy that child when he becomes demon spawn, and struggles for power against a powerful, immortal witch who has waited for the resurrection of her "Dark Lord" for a very long time. Mercy descends into greater depths of twisted evil. And Anne discovers she is a witch... and also that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


I did watch this series all the way through, despite there being nothing redeeming in it; perhaps because I want to understand the nature of evil, and how the entertainment industry perceives religious beliefs. Everyone of faith here is either weak, easily manipulated, or a hypocrite. Cotton does get called out on his behavior toward the end, but sees no inconsistencies in his whoring and his Bible-thumping. His father justifies horrific torture against witches with scripture. Perhaps more disturbing, though, is Anne's descent into evil; the implication that she has no choice in the matter, that her witch blood condemns her to evil, and her surrender is inevitable. It is "good" that the evil in this series is never attractive; it is hideous, disgusting to look at, repulsive in its implications, and sometimes sickening, but we are left rooting for "the lesser of two evils."


Production-wise, the costuming is gorgeous (though often inaccurate) and the writing is solid, although it becomes tremendously rushed in the final few episodes, once the show received a cancelation order. At least the writing team resolved their major plots, even if one character's descent into evil is sped up. The one and only beacon of purity in the series is Isaac, who remains a largely benevolent, compassionate man until the end. Many truths spill from his lips about hypocrisy, human kindness, and love, but it founders amid a series based on manipulation, extreme acts of cruelty toward people and animals, and incest.


Sexual Content:
Averages 8 graphic sex scenes per 10-12 episodes (21 in total); all contain movement, and moaning, some contain backside / partial nudity. Frequent partial nudity (since it aired on FX, there's no bare breasts, but the show comes as close as it can). The witches derive their power from "arousal"; some of them have incestuous relationships with one another; the demon's intention is to copulate with his mother (he believes he succeeds).
Profanities. Abuses of Jesus' name. A half dozen uses of sh*t.
The witches abuse animals mercilessly; they snap cat's necks, drown them in sacks in wells, squeeze mice and rats to death, stab frogs, and twist the heads off roosters to open magical doorways (and squirt the spewing blood all over the room). They dispatch people in vile ways -- blowing their heads apart, using trees to rip them in pieces, impaling them after throwing them thirty feet, etc. Mercy tries to eat a man alive, and is shown carving off pieces of his flesh. A woman is burned almost beyond recognition. One witch kidnaps girls and women, ties them to the ceiling, and slices open their necks so she can bathe in their blood, to remain young and beautiful. Graphic hangings, throat-cuttings, impalements, and burning of innocents. The witches sacrifice innocent souls to raise the devil, bite off their own fingers, and accuse others of witchcraft.

Tons of spells, dark magic, interactions with the devil, talk of the apocalypse, exorcisms, raising the dead for evil purposes, and the eating of other witches' body parts, in order to "see" through their eyes.