Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Salem, Season 1, Episode 13: All Fall Down

John has just got the stunning revelation that Mary is a witch. When he asks her why, she simply answers “survival.” They talk about love and being together and sadness – and Mary agrees to run off with him. Just as soon as she’s fixed something in Salem (stopping the Grand Rite, I assume) she will meet him and they can run

On her way back to town she runs into Mercy. Mary has a bad case of the guilts for what she did to Mercy and Mercy herself is furious because her friends, her followers, are dead because she trusted Mary. Mercy seems to be even more unstable than before – and more powerful. She leaves Mary with a threat

Mary confronts the hags who seem to head the witches and tells them she’s done – whatever they want to do when she leaves, fine, but she is going and wants not part of it any more – even if she is the Chosen one. The hags have a Plan B, which involves Tituba.

And it’s Tituba Mary finds in her home – and she dares to call Tituba a traitor. Tituba is rightly not putting up with that! She suffered torture to protect Mary and now Mary is abandoning everything she suffered for. Tituba shows her plan B – a box with a lock of hair in it. Mary’s child lives. For now. Mary completes the Grand Rite or the child is sacrificed. Mary swears vengeance on Tituba but agrees to complete the rite.

At the Hale household, Hale has gathered lots of supplies and kills a bird to open a secret passage in his house. His wife accepts this and goes alone, Anne is all kinds of confused. The room is a safe room to protect them from the effects of the Grand Rite – a plague that will kill everyone but the witch blooded. Anne still denies she is but Hale shows her around the room, the room he brought her too when she was a child so she could grow up knowing art and music even in the Puritan town. Including a statue Anne once made dance with her power (her memories were obscured by Hale and now come back).

In town Cotton is moping away. He has decided to rejoin his father – and the condition of that is all his books, his knowledge and reason be thrown out leaving him only with the Bible. It seems Cotton can never escape from under his father’s thumb. Isaac shows up to be the wise and compassionate soul he is (which is kind of his role) and tell Cotton that the least he can do is say goodbye to John before he is hanged – before it’s too late.

To find him gone. Increase arrives to explain everything – he doesn’t think John is a witch, he’s always known John wasn’t a witch. But he knows Mary is a witch, finally confirming his suspicions of several episodes. John is just bait for the trap – he has a scent trail in his pocket and Increase orders men to run John down and kill him and anyone with him on sight. Cotton calls for a trial, he is ignored.

Isaac rushes to Mary that night to tell him that John is gone and isn’t it wonderful that Mary saved him! Mary has the Mallum (a bad thing that needs to go to a bad place) and Isaac volunteers to carry it for her. She gives him a vast sum of money so that once he has dropped off the Malum he can then live a good life – a life he deserves.

She also has him deliver a message to Cotton before she visits Increase to point out his little plan of killing her with John is going to fail, because she’s not with him. She also lists the thirteen sacrifices they needed – innocent sacrifices the Puritans gave her. He keeps trying to kill her – but she keeps using he magic to vanish around the room out of reach.

While they fight, John is cornered by the men of Salem and their dogs

Isaac goes to deliver the Malum – surrounded by skulls and to a tree that is bleeding. Even Isaac sees that this is all wrong.

Cotton runs in on Increase – and sees Mary, her face cut, blood stained and she tearfully cries that Increase has gone mad. She uses magic to chain herself into his chair, crying what a devil Increase is. Increase tries to protest his innocence but it doesn’t look innocent – and it’s exactly what Increase would do. There’s also the problem that increase insisted to Cotton that Mary would be in the woods saving John – which she clearly isn’t doing. When Increase starts hitting May and declaring she isn’t even really there Cotton says his father has lost his reason (he had it?). Increase calls Cotton a pathetic failure – and daddy issues reach maximum; as Increase prepares to kill Mary, Cotton stabs him through with a sword

About time! Does that count as the 13th sacrifice? Increase dies. Cotton frees Mary – Mary reassures Cotton that for the sake of his name and family she will tell no-one what Increase tried to do or what Cotton did; though he has to flee the town. Oh, she’s good. Cotton gone, Mary stabs Increase being sure he’s truly dead – their 13th victim

And Isaac, preparing to bury the Malum, sees it open. Inside is a glass vial. The sky turns red as he opens it and as Mary pulls her spike out of Increase’s chest. Isaac pulls something out of the vial – and it explodes, he falls back, clutching his eyes.

In the Hale sanctuary, a rotting apple tells Hale the Grand Rite has begun. Anne learns that Mary is behind it all – and blames her for killing all the people the Puritans killed (she was one of the few people in town holding the puritans responsible for their own actions and now she blames it all on Mary the witch?) Anne is furious that they hide and plan to “tend the survivors” rather than helping the afflicted. She tries to leave but the door is sealed without more blood to open it. She becomes overwrought, banging and desperate to leave, she almost cuts herself – but Hale takes the blade and slaps her.

She becomes calm before yelling “I am not a Witch!” and sends all the furniture flying around with telekinesis. I beg to differ there Anne. She destroys the windows, brings in the ceiling  and makes her mother’s head explode. She slams Hale across the room – and then impales his head on a stake

Dramatic. Powerful. Gory. Not very probative on the whole “I’m not a witch” thing.

Over to the woods and the men of Salem have decided to hang John rather than shoot him –until he is rescued by Native Americans (who really should just let the fool Puritans get on with things). John joins the fight – and is shot.

Mercy has gathered her army of the dispossessed and rambles on about Queens of the Night and Roses. She plans to replace Mary.

TIME FILLING MONTAGE! Cotton leaves town, Increase is eaten by dogs, John is taking by the Native Americans, Isaac has some ghastly plague

Tituba leads Mary to the hags where she meets her son.

Well, that was a nicely dramatic ending with lots of gore, some well deserve deaths and a completely different storyline set up for season 2 which may actually be appealing since the problematic issues from season 1 will be less apparent and we’ll be more distanced from the actual events

But the problematic, thematically confused and generally dubious nature of this season have overshadowed the show, which I’ve mentioned repeatedly during the reviews

Ultimately, we have a story where numerous oppressed people, primarily women, are driven to witch craft in a desperate attempt to escape the oppressive and appalling situation they’re in Mary embodies it, Tituba embodies it, Mercy and the girls who follow her are there entirely to make this point. And it is a point to make – that the utterly persecuted and powerless will seek any means they can for power, freedom or protection even when those means are difficult, painful, dangerous or morally reprehensible. If you leave no other doors open, people will take whatever path they can. It’s an important point to make, especially in a world where we tend to dismiss various people as evil without considering the larger context of what drives them – if it is made with nuance and examination. There then becomes other points, also made with Mercy, of people hijacking that fight for freedom and safety to their own ends, even sacrificing the oppressed in the process.

But I don’t think Salem managed that on several fronts. Firstly, we had witchcraft inherently connected to devil worship – these persecuted women are driven to what is widely considered ultimate evil. If religious  evil isn’t sufficient – the witches are effectively using a magical biological WMD to unleash genocide. Their actions go above and beyond what anyone would consider acceptable – their actions are so extreme that anyone who opposes them almost automatically goes into the “good guy camp”

What exacerbates this is that the persecution that causes so many deaths is, ultimately, the witches’ fault. Even Anne who had been blaming the puritans for their evil persecution now places the blame on Mary. Hale confirms the paranoid witch hunt was Mary’s idea. These puritans are being ABSOLVED of the deaths they cause. Through that, even Cotton and Increase are presented as less guilt of cruel torture and killing – but of being manipulated. In fact, Increase, who is more brutal than Cotton, is actually extremely effective as a witch hunter and almost succeeds in stopping the Rite. He finds witches, he recognises witches, he thwarted the witches several times – and has in the past by literally strangling a small child with his own hands. In the end, his brutal methods fail as much because Cotton refuses to follow them as them being flawed! Frankly, it would take little spin to turn Increase into a troubled antihero who is doing what must be done to stop a great evil – because there are no shortage of such heroes out there, or them being willing to resort to torture and murder to stop that evil.

Their targets are also inherently “innocent” victims. And we’ve seen that – the 12 people who die are not , in general, the oppressors. Giles, Bridget – these are good people. The family who wasn’t well liked – they may not be saints but were hardly embodiments of the oppression of the town. The town fathers aren’t targeted, the pastor isn’t targeted, the rich and wealthy of the town aren’t targeted, the people who control and lead the town aren’t targeted – even Cotton and Increase aren’t targeted. The oppressed people are not lashing out at their oppressors.

There is also a vast, incredible problem with Tituba. Tituba sought magic because she has suffered as a slave – but when she becomes a witch she isn’t empowered within that community either. She is Mary’s servant and is never treated as an equal – quite the opposite as this episode makes it clear beyond doubt. She is not respected like Hale, she doesn’t have the power of the Hags or even Rose. Her status among the witches appears to be no different than her status among the non-magical. What oppression has she escaped? What oppressor is she lashing out against? The addition of magic has not changed her circumstances – except give her more push to serve and suffer for her masters!

Then there’s the ultimate basis – Salem is not fictional. Or, rather, the Salem witch trials were not. The actual “witches” of Salem did not make pacts with the devil, they were not involved in dark magic and they certainly weren’t trying to bring about the end of the world. The puritans of Salem were not manipulated into persecuting innocents, didn’t kill innocents in an attempt to save themselves and find the real bad guys. This show present an excuse and a justification for that brutal persecution and, in turn, shifts the blame onto the very victims of that persecution. All potential threads of nuance and depiction and interesting elements to explore are shredded by that simple twisting of history and abuse of those victims.

Imagining a hypothetical where victims of atrocities were actually responsible for them is not ok.

And, in the end, it doesn’t even show empowered women in a particularly good fashion. Tituba is a slave and never has power. Mercy loses her sanity seeking power and is completely manipulated throughout.  Anne, seeking power throughout, when she finally gets it explosively murders her family and focuses her anger and outrage at… another woman. Mary, the most powerful, is eternally torn between love or power (and tell me that’s not a metaphor for family vs career). She eschews power for the sake of a man – and is only swayed when presented with a previously unknown son. Gloriana is raped, stripped, shamed (again, it’s notable that no male witches ever had to undergo such treatment) and banished – she serves only to make Cotton seem sad and mopey and redeemed (despite him raping her).

This show could, probably, have done some interesting things. But only by going back to the very core of it and starting again.