Salem is a strange show. After all, it takes the Salem witch trials, a period of history during which women were especially vulnerable to persecution, and inserts actual witches. But the thesis of the show may be that becoming a witch—or participating in witch hysteria—is the best option many women in Salem have.
The main battle of wills in Salem so far has been between Mary Sibley and Magistrate Hale, two people who came to witchcraft in very different ways. Hale was born into it, while Mary was seduced by promises of power. Her frustrations and desire for vengeance have propelled her to the top ranks of both the coven and Salem's ruling class. And, while she has stepped on more than a few women along her path to power, her position still holds a fascinating other women in town.
When Mary first approaches Mercy during this episode to threaten her into silence, Mercy didn't dare to hope for the kind of power that Mary holds. It's only when a group of girls swoops in to fawn over Mercy and her "sway" that Mercy begins to wonder what it would be like to be more than the ordinary girl she was before her possession. What Mary did to Mercy was horrific, but what Cotton Mather did to her was also humiliating, leading her through the market like some kind of demonic dog on a leash. When she learns that one of her peers is used and beaten by her father and in danger of being sold to the brothel, she's surprised to realize that she can voluntarily don the bondage gear in order to get what she wants: justice for another young girl.
The thrill of harnessing the witch suspicion sends the girls into the woods, where they semi-jokingly try to summon the Devil. Mary, displeased that she has lost control of the witch accusations, approaches Mercy again, but this time Mercy has demands of her own. She's had her taste of power and she likes it. Mary, it seems, will have to take on an apprentice; we'll have to see whether she proves a protégé or a rival—although Mary could use all the friends she can get right now.
The plot about the girls is much more interesting that the episode's mystical plot, which is a shame since Salem went to all the effort of animating Mr. Hooke's dead face. John Alden has come into possession of the Malum (a bad apple), an object the witches need for their Grand Rite. The coven's cast is growing as well—in addition to Mary, Hale, Rose, Tituba, and the ghoul, we now have a group of deformed crones who speak to Hale in another language. The show is so coy about so many things—the nature of the various magical characters, the goal of the Grand Rite—and the effect is that it never feels quite cohesive. Sure, we can't have a witches' sabbath every episode, but it's hard to care about what happens when the stakes are so unclear.
Perhaps we're supposed to care mainly about Mary's soul. When she learns from Tituba that John Alden is a murderer, Mary seeks him out, partially out of anger and partially out of desperation. Mary's refusal to drive off John Alden isn't just a threat to the coven; it's also a sign that she isn't fully committed to the witches. She want Alden to tell her that his supposed murder of 20 men was a terrible choice built on terrible choices, because maybe if he can absolve himself of the evils he has done, he can absolve her, too.
But after this episode, I'm far more interested in seeing what happens to Mercy, who has finally peeked from her pitiable cocoon and emerged as an intriguing character. There is also going to be a trial for the drunken batterer father. If he ends up hanging from a noose, whom will the girls decide to accuse next?
Plus, we have to deal with the sudden competence of Alden and Cotton, which has ensnared Rose. It's already weird enough that we have a TV show featuring an earnest Cotton Mather; now we have a show where Cotton Mather has caught himself an actual witch.