Really, Salem? Last week, the show about the Salem witch trials seemed off to a fun start as its witches plotted their revenge against the town's Puritan leaders. But the second episode pushed some of the show's more troubling aspects to the forefront.
After last week's recap of the pilot, there was a lot of discussion in the comments about whether it's appropriate to re-tell the real, historical, tragic story of the Salem witch trials with fictional, fantastical witches. I wasn't ready to call the show problematic because, at least in the case of Mary Sibley, the pilot did a nice job of showing how Puritan culture might drive a powerless young woman to turn to witchcraft.
I'm ready to call the show problematic now.
Here is how the conflict stands right now: The witches of Salem want to live in the New World without getting themselves burned at the stake like their predecessors in Europe. That means ridding themselves of Salem's Puritan leadership—hence Mary Sibley's plot to stir up chaos in Salem with a fake witch hunt, one in which the only people executed are non-witches.
Now, there may be nuanced ways to handle this, to ask what someone like Xander Berkeley's character Magistrate Hale might do as a real witch of ambiguous morality trying to make it in the New World. You could make it clear that the persecution of the witches is unfounded, that they are just trying to live a good life while holding to their long-held traditions and values. You could maintain the historical truth of the witch trials—that powerless innocents were persecuted by powerful Puritans, and that people got caught up in a hysteria that was non-witchy in origin. It would be a difficult thing to do, but Salem doesn't even feel like it's trying.
Granted, we don't know that Magistrate Hale is actually evil, and his daughter Anne seems like a strong potential catalyst for justice. But making Mary Sibley the ringleader of the chaos at the time when she is at the height of her personal power makes the witches' hand in the witch trials seem less desperate and more malevolent. And her scheme against the Puritan leadership is deliberately turned against innocent people who minister to Salem's women and poor, such as the midwife who is executed for delivering a stillborn fetus that Mary Sibley gives the trappings of a "monstrous birth."
The one possibility I do see is that Tituba may be working for some entity that the witches will ultimately fight against. Then again, making Tituba, the only non-white person on the show, a mephistophelean agent is troubling—especially when the historical Tituba was herself falsely accused of witchcraft.
Aside from Mary Sibley, Salem's other big problem is Cotton Mather. The flawed Puritan preacher is actually easier to root for than John Alden, who, ironically, is the more sanctimonious of the two. Yes, Cotton is too naive, too easily flattered, too trusting of people in power like Mary Sibley. But he also seems to be genuinely interested in protecting the people of Salem from witches—and he even feels remorse for pressing Giles to death, even if he's foolish enough to execute a second innocent. He is not completely blinded by his faith, not using the witch hysteria as a means of securing or celebrating his own power, not looking down on his parishioners for being less holy than he. He is not responsible for making a superstitious age more superstitious. He's simply being deceived by Mary Sibley, who is eager to point out the similarities between the items in his book and the portents that she herself arranges. You kind of feel bad for the guy, and I never thought I'd write those words about Cotton Mather.
At the same time, Salem seems determined to focus on the horrors of the witch trials for pure shock value. We get the grotesque hanging of the midwife, complete with the release of her bladder. Along with last week's poor muzzled Mercy, it feels like the exploitation of the witch trial's victims rather than a condemnation of the social forces responsible for it.
That's not to say that Salem couldn't somehow turn it around down the line. Certainly history can be treated, to some extent, as literature, and rewritten with a fantastical bent. Kim Newman does a nice job of it in Anno Dracula, for example, using a historical and literary mishmash while still addressing many of the social ills in Victorian London. But at the moment, Salem feels like it's inverting the lessons about moral panic and religious dogma from the historical Salem witch trials.