Thursday, June 26, 2014

Salem, Season 1, Episode 10: The House of Pain

Setting the theme for the episode – Increase prays by torturing himself and telling god what a terrible, wretched person he is

Well, Increase finally said something I agree with.

Mercy’s little coven disposes of the body of the town drunk they killed, they’ve turned Mercy into an almost deified figure. Mary is also focused on finding Mercy after she threw Tituba to the wolves last episode – and finds Mercy cowering under her dining room table. While telling Mercy it wasn’t her decision to make, she crushes a tarantula lurking under the table as well.

At the Hale household, Anne decides to explore her dad’s creepy office and finds a creepy mask. She looks through the eyeholes and sees the forest – and then it latches on to her face. She struggles with it and it teleports her to that forest. Well, there’s one form of transport- creepy mask wrestling.

Hale himself is not bothered by Tituba being captured, he’s sure the awful life she’s lead will ensure she can handle torture and use the situation to their advantage – Mary is outraged that he is looking for a bright side to Tituba being tortured.

Increase has turned the brothel into his torture chamber (the house of pain). Mary speaks up on behalf of Tituba and how she’s not just a slave, but a friend which Increase takes as further evidence of a bad thing and considers Mary herself in his chamber – something even Cotton feels the need to object to. Increase makes it clear he is very suspicious of Mary and refuses to release George or Tituba. He makes a further comment of Mary living in George’s house.

In the torture chamber, Increase shows all his evil toys to Tituba while Cotton, reflecting on how he once pressed a man to death, begs for a different method also adding just how pointless torture is for getting the truth. Unsurprisingly, Increase doesn’t care, not even when Cotton points out he’s using the tools the Inquisition used against Puritans. He tortures Tituba and Cotton runs, holding his hands over his ears to try and block her screaming. The torture continues even as Tituba gives up names because Increase discounts them, basically until he gets the ones he wants, now turning to a choke-pear, an implement of dubious historical record.

Tituba demands to at least give the reason for why she serves her masters: Justice. she denies being a witch or a puritan. She says she’s of the Arawak tribe and describes the horrors and abuses the slavers brought to her and her people but rather than add any kind of drive of vengeance of freedom, she adds glowing red eyes that claimed her which Increase naturally calls Satan.

Increase asks when she sold her soul – and she talks about all the times she has been sold as a slave. And even if Mary treats her as a sister (since when?) she was still a slave. It was only in the woods around Salem when she met a blood stained man who was there to “save her, save all of us.” He gathers all those who hurt. Tituba lashes out with Biblical quotes, people who were slaves calling out in the wilderness to a god that answers.

After more torture Tituba again says she won’t give up the leader because she loves them – but Increases asks her, honestly, if she thinks the witches love Tituba as much as Tituba loves them (which is a good hit, given how Mary treats her). She whispers a name to Increase

At the Hale household, Hale and his wife have noticed Anne is missing and that she put Hale’s mask on – something his wife knows all about and she is finally willing to stand up to (and slap) her husband over their daughter. Unfortunately only one person can use the mask at once and Anne has no idea how to use it to get back – Hale destroys the mask and heads to the woods himself to find her – and he better or his wife will deliver him to the pyre herself, even if she ends up burning as well.

Hale decides to recruit John (the writers have realised his true value to the show and quickly removed all his shirts from the costume department) to help

Anne is trying to convince herself it’s all a dream and runs into a Native American. Oh… dear… there is no way this is not going to fail.

Interlude for Cotton and his daddy issues. Whatever. After drunkenly rambling around the woods, he finds a skull the witches have hung up with a butterfly in it – which he considers the face of god – or possibly more drunken rambling. Can he be eaten by a Wendigo or something?

Sadly no, instead John and Hale tracking someone erratic and lost in the woods find Cotton. Who has lost his trousers somewhere. Wisely, they decide to leave him and his drunken rambling.

John picks up the real trail and they come across the Native Americans. Who… sniff them. John tells Hale to keep quiet and speaks to them in their own language (Hale gives horrified outraged-eyed to John for being a linguist). They saw Anne but left her alone because they thought she was “crazy” which, to them, is synonymous with holy.

Anne wanders around the forest, in the dark and the rain until she sits and hears a demonic voice say “at last, you found your way home”.  She sees the blood stained man and runs screaming from him. She’s chased until she runs into John’s arms and the arms of her father. She gasps “how” several times to her father before remembering herself and asking how they found her. John himself is astonished at how far she managed to get in the forest without leaving a trail; she makes up a story of running into the woods in a fit of petulance and blames her lack of tracks on the rain.

At Mary’s house, Mary is weeping when Increase arrives. He talks about love, of Tituba’s head witch being her lover and of Tituba realising she was loved less than she loved in turn. Tituba has accused Mercy. He draws out the accusation for a ridiculous long time before leading her outside where they can get a good vantage point for the arrest

Which is when Anne, Hale and  John return home to find a torch wielding crowd waiting for them. Tituba has accused John Alden. In her cell, Tituba smiles.

So Tituba finally has her past and her story examined – turning her into more than Mary’s slave. But it happens during some torture porn for half of the episode. Which she is, in part, enduring due to sacrifice for Mary, her owner.

One of the themes Salem has always maintained and it’s actually something decent they’re exploring, is that the witches (except Hale) are all people who have been driven to seek power because they are powerless. Powerless and hurting and lacking any freedom – this has been shown time and again with the girls and Mercy. In some ways it’s a very powerful message of the desperation that those who are persecuted so cruelly can be driven to – and ultimately casts the Puritans as the true villains, especially with Increase’s arrival. But that doesn’t work for Tituba, because one of the people she is actively empowering with her magic is Mary, her owner. In fact, even in witchcraft which everyone else is finding so freeing and empowering, Tituba is still the slave, still following Mary.

Even outside of Tituba – this vengeful protector the oppressed are calling upon. wants to death of several innocents before starting up the dubious and worrisome Grand Rite. While we can say that all of the witches have faced dire oppression and it’s reasonable for them to seek any freedom, justice or vengeance, equally the show has shown them as evil. It’s all well and good for Tituba to talk about people being harried and tortured simply because they’re “not you”, but then we have to remember Mercy’s torment and the death of the midwife and Giles.

And this could work. A fictional society where the tormented and oppressed turn towards dark forces in a desperate attempt for some kind of protection could be a nuanced, morally difficult and thoughtful story with lots of food for thought and shades of grey and confronting what we would do in these situations

But this is not fictional. The misogyny of this time and place is not fictional. The persecution of the Arawaks is not fictional. Slavery is not fictional. And the Salem witch trials are not fictional. Tituba herself is not fictional. These are actual people, an actual time, actual events and actual oppressions that are being appropriated into this story – these are actual victims who are having their stories twisted to make them part responsible or deserving of their fates. This is an actual atrocity that is not only being used – but then twisted to suggest that, on some level, the Puritans were right to do what they did.

There’s also a badly mixed message - the idea that “the witches have a right to vengeance” kind of falls apart when we consider the deaths they have inflicted. It’s more an almost support for Cotton’s methods rather than Increase’s. But even then – increase has actually found 2 witches with his methods, which is far more than Cotton ever did; depending on how awful the Grand Rite is/could be, could we actually be expected to support Increase for saving the town/country/world using desperate measures? (A plot line hardly without precedence)