Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is definitely not Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The first episode of the new series, “Chapter One: October Country,” sets up creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa‘s Greendale with:
- a retro look so comprehensive that without on-screen titles telling you that we’re in October of this year, it’d be easy to think the series was set sometime in the late 60s/early 70s
- a spunky heroine whose earnest good nature is at jarring odds with her describing the dark arts as “delicious”
- a group of friends oblivious to Sabrina being half-witch (but who would likely understand her being different because one of them is a strong black woman who wanted to start a “Daughters of the Black Panthers” club at school, one is a young woman [played by a non-binary actor] whose androgynous appearance makes her the target of bullying and one is a boy who loves her)
- a devoted family who don’t flinch when they praise Satan or lament how long it’s been since they had “long pig” for dinner
- Missy from Doctor Who
- and Bronson Pinchot.
Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is about to turn 16… on Halloween… during the eclipse of the blood moon. That night, at midnight, she will undergo her Dark Baptism, signing her name in the Dark Lord’s book and leaving everything in her mortal life behind. The daughter of a warlock High Priest of the Church of Night and a mortal woman, Sabrina has been allowed to live in both worlds so far. Once she’s signed her name, though, she will have to leave her friends, her boyfriend and her mortal high school behind and enroll in the Academy of Unseen Arts. As a full witch, she will age slower and enjoy the many delicious gifts the Dark Lord bestows upon his followers, but she will fully renounce her mortal life.
For the most part, Sabrina is sold on the idea. Her boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) and her friends Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson) are the only real sticking points. Those and that she’s starting to feel as though she doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. And that the weird sisters, Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) and Dorcas (Abigail F. Cowen), hint that maybe her parents didn’t die in an accident but as a result of their having chosen to buck witch law to marry.
In the days leading up to her birthday, Sabrina is torn about what to do. Her nurturing aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) is supportive and wants her to feel good about choosing to follow in her family’s footsteps. Haughty aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) is less tolerant, determined that Sabrina will join the long line of Spellmans who have undergone the Dark Baptism under the conditions planned for her. Housebound cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) is sympathetic. Although he definitely seems to lean towards witch life being Sabrina’s fate, he does tip her off to a spell she can cast to get an inspiring peek into what awaits her.
Before she can commit, Sabrina has some business to attend to.
- She needs to have a “familiar” in order to live as a witch, but she doesn’t want to pick a goblin that has taken animal form from the book aunt Zelda’s given her. She’s looking for more of a partner than a slave, so she casts a spell in the forest to invite a familiar to choose to work with her. She’s successful, and a goblin comes to her room and transforms into a black cat named Salem.
- She wants to protect Susie from the football players who torment her, but Principal Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot) isn’t helping. She decides to form a club for women to protect women, like a coven, which Rosalind names W.I.C.C.A. (Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association). She does have to cast another spell, with Ambrose’s help, to frighten Principal Hawthorne so badly with spiders that he’ll take a day off and leave his more lenient Assistant Principal in charge long enough to ratify the club’s charter, but that’s just fun.
- She needs to say goodbye to Harvey… and this she cannot do.
When Sabrina tries to tell Harvey the lie she’s prepared about transferring to a posh private school in Connecticut immediately after her birthday, she falters. Instead she takes him to the clearing in the woods where she was born, and where she’ll soon be reborn. She tells him the truth about her lineage and what lies ahead for her, and he misinterprets it as an elaborate brush-off because he told her he loves her. Before he can walk away, she removes his memory of the conversation with an incantation and a kiss.
On Ambrose’s advice, Sabrina goes in search of a malum mallus, a specific kind of apple that will whisper secrets about the future to her when she bites into it. She invites Harvey apple picking and splits off towards the oldest tree in the orchard on her own while he goes to select pumpkins for his stoop.
Unbeknownst to Sabrina, her favorite teacher, Ms. Wardell (Michelle Gomez), has been killed by a witch dispatched by the Dark Lord to ensure that Sabrina goes through with her Dark Baptism. This witch has assumed Ms. Wardell’s form, jazzed it up with a blow-out and some lipstick, and begun monitoring Sabrina’s activities with the help of a familiar raven. It was she who planted the idea in Sabrina’s head about getting the principal out of the way through his arachnophobia, and when she learns from her bird that Sabrina is after a malum mallus, she sets a trap.
Sabrina enters a hay maze that stands between her and the apple tree, and is soon attacked by a scarecrow/zombie. The creature is being manipulated by Ms. Wardell via poppets in her office, and it’s almost successful in stopping Sabrina from reaching the tree. Fortunately, Salem arrives in time to tackle the monster and thwart it. Ms. Wardell is frustrated in her efforts, and Sabrina reaches the enchanted fruit.
Salem helps Sabrina identify the correct apple to pick (the only red one on a tree full of green), and she speaks her question before biting into it: “Mallum, should I be baptized?”
As soon as she’s bitten the apple, she is transported into vision of a virtual hellscape. She’s standing before a tree full of hanged witches, under a fiery orange sky. Satan emerges from a hollow in the tree and comes towards her, and the apple turns to blood in her mouth and on her hands. She spits the fruit out and comes out of the trance sure that she does not want to be baptized.
When she gets home, she calls out to her aunties and her cousin that she needs a family meeting. They’ve already convened in the sitting room, where High Priest Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle) has come to help convince Sabrina to go through with the ceremony.
Of note: In addition to the super-stylized retro look of the show, the cinematography is extremely atmospheric. The edges of nearly every frame are blurred in a way that makes everything seem a little dreamy and eerie. It’ll be interesting to see if this effect changes as the story progresses.
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