“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is a new Netflix-made series based on the characters from the Archie comic “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” but like the new “Riverdale,” this version is not for kids. If you’re into pentagrams, necromancy, human sacrifice and empowering representation, get ready.
The first season follows Sabrina’s struggle to straddle two worlds: the world of mortals and the world of witches. The child of a warlock and a mortal woman, Sabrina has the potential to be one of the most powerful witches ever if she signs Satan’s “Book of the Beast.” But in doing so, she would be committing to serve Satan’s desires for the rest of her life.
I highly recommend committing to the first five episodes before judging the series. The first few could be considered a bit neat, filled with beautifully curated, vividly colored shots, and sometimes stiff interactions between characters who seem very rooted in their comic book origins. However, there is always a looming darkness behind the somewhat straightforward high school odyssey that documents the intensity of young love and the difficulty of finding oneself as an adolescent. By the fifth episode, this is very clearly no longer a story fit for children. (To give you an idea, I have two words for you: fresh cannibalism.) The storyline quickly intensifies into Sabrina’s own fight with the Devil and her unwillingness to trade her freedom for power.
The series is great for its plotline alone: It’s exciting, creepy and, in every episode, dappled with humor. The aesthetics are also fantastic: The outfits are fantastic and colorful; Sabrina’s house is a wallpapered, wood-banistered imagining of an old magical home; and the shots, especially towards the beginning of the series, are terrifically framed. If you get a kick out of the occult, the demons, magic and gore that Sabrina faces is horrifically wonderful. It is everything a Halloween-loving viewer could want. However, the reason I feel the show is one especially worth watching, though, is its broad positive representation of people often excluded from mainstream TV, especially sci-fi shows like this.
The concept of the witch coven is rooted in female power, and Sabrina grows up in a house with her two aunts as matriarchs. The first episode explicitly centers around Sabrina and her friends’ successful attempt to start a club at school for “women supporting women” after one friend is harassed by men in their high school, and much of the show reflects matrilineal power. Even the agent of Satan is a woman, and the power and lives of female and nonbinary characters is central to the series.
Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda is a nuanced representation of an unmarried, close-to-middle-age woman who is very tough, extremely strong and yet also exceedingly maternal and nurturing. Sabrina’s friend Roz is a young black woman who, though not a witch, also inherits special powers from her grandmother: something her grandmother calls “the cunning,” which allows her to see the future and the truth that isn’t visible to most eyes. It comes at a cost, however: her sight. Roz uses the cunning to save her friend Susie and to fearlessly protect the people around her.
“Chilling Adventures” also features queer characters as leads without necessarily making their queerness the defining quality of their character: Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose is a black pansexual man whose sexuality is simply part of his identity, not part of his storyline, and there is some implication that queerness and sexual fluidity is much more accepted within the witch community.
The character arc of Susie, Sabrina’s friend, focuses on their experience as a nonbinary person who’s not yet out and who is already bullied for their identity and appearance. Susie is played by nonbinary actor Lachlan Watson, who told Teen Vogue that it was “nice to be able to almost tell my own story through Susie a bit.”
The representation of people of color and queer people in Sabrina has turned a white-washed, assumedly cis-hetero comic book series into a diverse show without making identity politics the center of these characters’ stories or tokenizing them.
The themes of the series center around othering: Sabrina fears being ripped from the ones she loves — her friends and boyfriend — because she’s half witch, and there is pressure from her family and from the High Priest and Satan himself for her to reject her mortal ties. The history of the town revolves around witch hunts and a lineage of violence, hatred and misunderstanding. Sabrina seeks a world in which mortals and witches can accept one another and even marry, like her parents did, a violation that it is suggested led to their untimely deaths. It is wonderfully suited that a show that highlights these themes in the context of a fantasy world also represents the diversity of our real world, echoing the issues of intolerance in our society and the triumph of acceptance, empowerment and love.