If you’re looking for something to binge in time for Halloween, then you’re in luck. As of October 26th, Netflix’s series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been available to stream, and we couldn’t recommend this show more if we tried.
The show follows the adventures of teen—and half-witch—Sabrina Spellman as she tries to navigate high school, her moral compass, and the forces of evil in the small town of Greendale. With the help of her aunts Zelda and Hilda, her best friends Susie and Rosalind, not to mention her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle, Sabrina will learn to navigate both the human and witch world, avoid giving her soul to the Dark Lord (aka Satan), and finally discover where she belongs.
The show, which is meant to serve as a companion series to Riverdale (2016), is based on the 2014 comic series of the same name, which is itself is a re imagining of Archie Comics’ Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which first appeared in 1962. The show is a dark, modern, take on the traditionally lighthearted series. Although the bulk of the source material comes from the 2014 comic series, the show does a great job of referencing the original iteration of the character, as well as the 1996 television show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, starring Melissa Joan Hart as the titular Sabrina.
THE SPELLMAN FAMILY
The focus of Netflix’s series is the Spellman family. It’s made clear early on that they’re a renown family amongst their coven, the Church of Night, thanks (at least in part) to Sabrina’s parents. Edward Spellman (Georgie Daburas) was a warlock and the High Priest of the Church of Night, who – despite the rules and societal conventions amongst witch kind – fell in love with Diana (Annette Reilly): a human and the mother of Sabrina. Unfortunately, the two passed away in a ‘plane crash’, and Sabrina has been left in the care of her two aunts: Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto).
It’s through the characters of Hilda and Zelda that elements of the 1996 show bleed through. Hilda’s a fun, compassionate, and wildly loving aunt to Sabrina. Much like Caroline Rhea’s version of her, this embodiment of Hilda is wacky, eclectic in her style, and often depicted as less intelligent than her sister (despite having powers and arcane knowledge in her own right). Zelda also feels like a re imagining of Beth Broderick’s rendition. Stern, mindful in her speech, and dignified in her appearance, she’s the serious compatriot to her more whimsical sister.
Unlike the ‘90s show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina explore a deeply uncomfortable, problematic, but ultimately loving relationship between the sisters. Zelda berates, belittles, and delights in the failures of her sister. Her dislike and resentment runs so deep that, at the first sign of annoyance, she murders Hilda and leaves her buried in the yard to eventually be resurrected. Over the course of the show it’s revealed that Zelda mercilessly harassed and hazed her sister during their shared time at the Academy of the Unseen Arts, however we see how deep her regret and remorse for her actions runs, once Zelda realizes the extent to which her sister has been hurt. After she witnesses Hilda’s deep seated resentment for her, she’s able to start making amends and the two are finally able to being healing.
Another addition to the family is cousin Ambrose Spellman (Chance Perdomo), Sabrina’s close friend and partner in spellcasting crime who—after being caught in a plot to blow up the Vatican years earlier—is imprisoned in the family home. His character takes on a similar role to that of Salem from the Sabrina the Teenage Witch television show. In the original program, Salem is really a warlock who’s been sentenced to live in the Spellman home as a cat for his attempt at world domination. However in this iteration, Ambrose is the one punished by the Witches Council and Salem is Sabrina’s animal familiar (something all witches have in this series).
Much like other versions of this character, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) is young, blonde, and a half-witch, a fact that sets her apart from everyone else in the universe. Unlike her previous TV incarnations, Sabrina is a capable spellcaster, a strong-willed young woman, and a vocal feminist. Her character is assertive, is fiercely protective of those she loves—namely her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch, My Friend Dahmer)—and isn’t willing to accept her supposed fate. While previous media has depicted Sabrina as an eager witch, Netflix’s version has her fighting tooth and nail against her supernatural destiny, since she needs to sign her name away to the Dark Lord in order to access her full powers.
Sabrina’s character is a feminist through and through, which is a wonderful element to see in a show about powerful, magical, women. She co-creates the WICCA (Women’s Intersectional Creative Cultural Association) club at her school with aims of empowering other young women, to advocate for the rights of all women in the school, and to encourage activism among her peers. She’s a smart, headstrong, witch who refuses to let others be harassed or left behind. Unlike other heroines in media, Sabrina isn’t afraid to make the hard choices, cross the line, or act ruthlessly if it means helping the people she holds dear. In some instances, she’s the embodiment of the expression “the end justifies the means.”
MORALITY, ACCEPTANCE, AND FEMINISM IN GREENDALE
At the heart of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn’t a story of witchcraft, but rather one of sisterhood, and acceptance.
The bulk of the characters are female, and unlike other television shows which depict women as solely being in competition with one another, Sabrina aims to dismantle this trope. Although there is competition between witches, namely between Hilda and Zelda, or Sabrina and the Weird Sisters, there’s also a fierce sisterhood behind their narratives.
Despite Sabrina’s rivalry with Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), the head of the Weird Sisters (a trio of witches at the Academy), she still goes out of her way to save Prudence’s life. Additionally, Prudence frequently watches over—and cares for—her sisters, and all three of them are willing to come to Sabrina’s aid when she needs their help to dispel the bullies harassing a young woman in the mortals’ high school. Although they bicker, Zelda and Hilda deeply care for one another and are willing to sacrifice everything to ensure the other’s safety. Sabrina’s mortal friends are willing to accept and love her, even after learning that she’s a witch. And in the backstory of the Greendale 13, a group of women killed after the Salem Witch Trials, we learn how fiercely they stood by each other, and how one woman helped them travel to the new world when no man would.
A great example of acceptance, and rebellion against gender norms, is Susie (Lachlan Watson). A genderqueer teen who’s in the process of exploring their identity, their gender, and navigating the already tumultuous space that is high school. A member of WICCA, Susie is given the room to explore both their masculinity and femininity over the course of the show, and unlike most programs – the character never has a moment where they come out. Instead, Susie’s given both space and time to explore their gender, and aren’t forced to classify, categorize, or justify their existence in the show’s space. Instead, Watson—who identifies as a non-binary performer—brings authenticity, diversity, and vulnerability to the role.
Before its release, fans of 1996’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and fans of the 2014 comic, were worried by the fact that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was going to act as a companion series to Riverdale. However it’s abundantly clear that the show would be nothing like it’s overly dramatic counterpart.
With its punchy dialogue, and its thoughtfully constructed characters, this Netflix original stands out against the crowd. The characters are sincere, and easy to invest in. The sets and costuming are absolutely gorgeous, and capture both the feel of the town and its unique residents.
The show also does a great job of paying homage to pop culture and history in its ten episodes. The Spellman house could pass as the Jonathan Corwin House from Salem (where one of the judges from the Salem Witch Trials used to live), with it’s blue-grey exterior and its New England architecture. Several episodes borrow stylistic elements from other horror media: the scarecrow from “Chapter One: October Country” looks like could have been pulled from “Scarecrow” in season four of Supernatural (2005), the vines chasing Sabrina through the woods are seemingly from The Evil Dead (1981), the shirt Harvey wears on his bed in “Chapter Six: An Exorcism in Greendale” looks like the one Johnny Depp wears in A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and “Chapter Five: Dreams in a Witch House” is a blend of “Fear Itself” and “Older and Far Away” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996).
While the show is incredible, it’s not without its flaws. At times the dialogue can be a bit repetitive, with inconsistencies in accents and inflections. The show doesn’t follow the “monster of the week” formula, but most episodes do focus on an easy to solve problem (for the most part) that Sabrina can easily overcome. Solutions aren’t necessarily handed to her, but there are times where Sabrina feels a little too lucky. And while the ending of the show is both insidious and haunting, it frustratingly undoes all the work Sabrina has put in to maintain her agency over the course of the season.
Despite its minor imperfections, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does a fantastic job of showing the balance between good and evil, but not by pitting the humans against the witches. Instead, the show asks each character to challenge their beliefs, and make choices which challenge their moral compass.