Okay, you win, Increase Mather. You are the worst person on Salem—no matter how many devil-worshipping witches are about. But we really didn't need to see the rapey torture methods you use to expose witches.
Salem is stepping over the line, and not in a good way.
Each week, I find myself asking: What is Salem really about? Is it a comment on the evils of Puritan oppression of women, suggesting that women are totally justified in selling their souls to the devil? Is it a recasting of the battle of two powerful forces not as good vs. evil but as power vs. power—with the truly good and innocent trapped in the middle? Is it mindless entertainment that is trying to play its dark historical context for fun?
Now, a lot of truly horrific things happened to people accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Giles Corey was pressed to death (as he was on the show). People were subjected to humiliating inspections of their flesh, which was poked and prodded with needles. People were dunked—as we saw last episode—so that they would feel the sensation of drowning. But Increase Mather's House of Pain, which opens for witch-torturing business this episode, is deliberately lurid, a place where Mather can freely abuse anyone who is accused of witchcraft. And that torture takes on an uncomfortably sexual tone when he pulls out the choke pear, a supposed medieval device that has the worst qualities of a speculum without the medical utility
The scene is embedded above for reference, but comes with all sorts of trigger warnings. The fact that the writers felt compelled to introduce this particular device—which may be an urban legend rather than an actual historical torture device—gives me the heebie-jeebies.
The casual introduction of the choke pear, along with the piercings while Tituba gasps and writhes on the bed—that feels like pure exploitation. And maybe, maybe Salem is trying to make the point that Tituba became a witch because she was captured by white men, saw her family members raped, and was sold into slavery and now here she is captured and being sodomized by a white man, only affirming her faith. Satan is certainly the god of the downtrodden in Salem. (Mercy Lewis even has her own little cult going.) But the show hasn't made it clear that Increase is supposed to be an outright monster, nor that his faith has turned him into one. Sure, he's done some pretty horrible things, but with the mysterious Grand Rite hanging over Salem, he really does need to find those other witches pronto. He's a malevolent force, but the show almost seems to suggest that his ends justify the means.
That the other characters spend this episode lost in the woods seems weirdly apt. Salem can't figure out to do with half its cast—we're just killing time until John Alden is accused of witchcraft and Anne Hale finally realizes her father is a witch; so why not just lose track of them for half an hour? There is so much about the real Salem Village that the show could be pulling from—especially the intense paranoia that came with the witch trials—and we're just wandering through the woods, learning extraordinarily little about our characters. (Except that Cotton likes to pee on people from trees when he's drunk. Nice.)
The key point in this episode is Tituba's love for Mary, the girl she was raised alongside. It has been mentioned time and again, but here it's given a bit more backstory, and a great deal of weight. In the earlier episodes, Tituba seemed to be the person manipulating Mary, but more and more it seems that she serves Mary out of a fiercely jealous love. And now that love has turned its fury toward John Alden, whom Tituba has accused of witchcraft. Everyone in Salem has their own dream for America; is Tituba's one where she and Mary can be together?