The first season of Salem has come to close with a good deal of blood and a major revelation, but as we reflect on the season, it's clear that the show missed an opportunity to mine its historical inspiration. While Salem went for gore and the occasional bit of shock value, it ignored the truly terrifying paranoia that ran through Salem Village during the witch hysteria—to its great detriment.
Salem has been strange and uneven ride over these last 13 episodes. Sometimes it has been decent, turn-off-your-brain fun. In some places, there have been hints of something better. In others, the show has made incredibly baffling decisions that have made it uncomfortable to watch.
A lot of Salem has clearly been about women in its fictionalized Puritan world, but its thesis hasn't always been clear. Women chose to sell their souls to the Devil or align themselves with witches for a host reasons: Mary to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy, Mercy to give herself some kind of agency, Tituba to align herself with a powerful god who was with her amidst the abuses of white people, Mercy's followers to get revenge on a violent man and share a little in her power. But witches are still evil in Salem. They're pact with the Devil renders them corrupt, willing to sacrifice other human beings—often other innocent women—to achieve their Grand Rite, which itself results in a red death. Women in Salem made be driven to the Devil by desperation, but once they get a little power, they become evil. Even Mercy, who still feels sympathy for the poor and female, has ambitions to become a queen. And sweet Anne Hale, once she comes into her witchy powers, immediately turns to violence (although, granted, her father probably deserved it). What is Salem trying to say about women and power?
What's also curious is how the invasion of women is treated at various points in the series. Women were especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, and they were subjected to humiliating inspections for the witch's mark, something supposedly concealed somewhere on their bodies—and to add insult to injury, it was often believed that the mark would appear near a witch's erogenous zones. When Gloriana is inspected for the witch's mark in the show, it is presented as a humiliation, a punishment that Increase Mather visits on Gloriana for being the object of Cotton Mather's affections. But when a similar examination is performed on Anne Hale (at her request), she appears aroused by the experience and her witchy side comes out to play. Similarly, when Tituba is tortured by Increase Mather, it's played as titillating. We're meant to be mesmerized by the various torments he visits upon her body, and it's gross.
It's hard to say whether a show about the Salem witch trials could include real, magical witches and avoid making light of the suffering real people involved, but Salem takes the bizarre path of inviting us not only to take pleasure in that suffering, but also to suggest that the abuses heaped on people by Increase Mather (and, to a lesser extent, Cotton) are justified in this case because we're in the business of rooting out witches. Yes, the Puritan preachers were deceived into killing innocent people in the furtherance of the Grand Rite, and perhaps there's a lesson to be learned in that. But Increase and Cotton are not portrayed as inept witch hunters, and it's suggested that anything is fair game (including, in Increase's case, killing a witch in the form of a young girl) when it comes to preventing the Grand Rite. And even if, perversely, I found myself cheering for the witches, the effects of the Grand Rite are truly, brain-explodingly horrific.
Certainly Salem is making no claims to historical accuracy—Cotton Mather ran his father through with a sword in season finale for god's sake—but I can't help but feel that the show would feel less exploitative and spookier if it had, in fact, stuck closer to historical experience of the Salem witch hysteria. The story of the Salem witch trials isn't just one of people who were tortured and executed on suspicion of witchcraft; it's a story about an isolated village that went utterly insane. The people of Salem Village lived in genuine fear of witches, believing that any of the people in their small village might be in league with the Devil. At the same time, those who were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft would have feared the tortures and public derision that could follow an accusation. This was all closely tied up in the Puritans' belief in predestination, the notion that one could be saved only by God's grace and not by one's own beliefs and actions alone. If a person was one of God's elect, then they would behave as one of the saved, doing good works and obeying God's word. Salem pays lip service to this with the idea of a Puritan lifestyle, but does not hit home how important signs of predestination for Heaven and Hell were during that time. People like Anne Hale and John Alden openly flaunt their refusal to conform with little thought that it could result in their deaths.
A TV show set in that world could be marvelously claustrophobic, filled with paranoia and neighbor suspecting neighbor for every little fault or infraction. One of the key flaws of Salem is that so many ills in the show were actually caused by witches. George Sibley takes ill? Witches. A girl gets spooked during her bundling? Witches. Girls go into frenzies at the command of witches and Cotton Mather hangs women on Mary Sibley's say-so. But how frightening must it have been to not know but to wonder if every instance of the milk going bad or a jar falling over or a sickness was actually the work of witches? How terrifying to think that a person you've known all your life, whom you see every day, might be secretly tormenting you? How chilling to find that, no matter how many supposed witches are executed or recant, rumors of witchcraft continue to exist? And how horrifying to be a person who is visibly not one of the supposed elect when those accusations get thrown around?
Instead of mining this rich paranoid terror, Salem opted for gory thrills during its first season. The notions of paranoia and neighbor suspecting neighbor were barely touched upon in favor of the battle of wills first between Mary Sibley and Magistrate Hale, and then between Mary Sibley and Increase Mather. Sometimes it made for interesting supernatural drama (and I'll admit, I'm curious to see what happens between Mary Sibley and her newly recovered son in the coming season), but as horror, it misses its mark.