“Salem”: The Complete First Season
In Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1600s there were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people (primarily women) who were falsely accused of witchcraft in various towns in the New England state. These trials resulted in the executions of twenty people. Of course, The most famous adaptation/retelling of the Salem Witch Trials are no doubt the various film adaptations of The Crucible by Arthur Miller who a pointed out the ridiculousness and sheer lunacy of the whole situation with no actual magic and curses involved. Salem, on the other hand proposes the question that what if witches did in fact exist?
The drama is this new series is intense and the portrayals of spirit possession are very disturbing. We see a teen girl contort, writhe in pain, and inflict harm on herself like biting off her own finger. Witchcraft practitioners are doused in blood for group rituals, and capital punishment is exacted by hanging and, in one case, crushing with stones. People are shot, whipped, and branded for various crimes. Sexuality is similarly explicit, showing intense bedroom encounters that obscure only genitalia and breasts, plus hints at masturbation and a link between sexuality and witchcraft. This is not a historical retelling of the events in Salem in the 1690s, but it is based on documented facts which when taken together give us a compelling story for a mature audience.
The cast is quite large and there are four main characters. Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) is the initial witch of the series. She is Salem’s most powerful enchantress and holds a deep secret and deeper desires that may threaten her position and strength in the town of Salem. John Alden (Shane West) is a hardened war veteran and Mary’s one time love interest who returns to Salem to reclaim his love, only to find it consumed in a witch hunt frenzy. Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) is a well-educated local reverend who is regarded as the foremost expert on witches and malice, and seemingly lives a life of upholding the law, despite living a private life that can turn his entire world upside down if it became public. Reverend Increase Mather (Stephen Lang) is Cotton’s much more revered father who has spent his life’s work seeking out those who do the devil’s work and shuffles them off this mortal coil. Increase comes to Salem after hearing about Cotton bringing the witch trials back.
When the first episode begins, Mary Sibley, is making a difficult decision about an unexpected pregnancy, where she loses the baby. Because of this, her lover, John Alden, disappeared to join the war. He comes back to Salem and is hailed as a war hero. He soon learns that Mary has married someone else, a wealthy man, George (Michael Mulheren) who governs Salem. John decides to stay and as he begins to grow accustomed to his new life, he witnesses Reverend Cotton Mather having a woman hanged in public, claiming that she “danced with the devil” by practicing in witchcraft and this created a sense of paranoia in the town of Salem. Over the course of the first 6 episodes of the show, the main conflict is between Cotton and John. While we’re introduced to various characters, each episode has Cotton finding a new woman that he believes to be a witch, John will try to talk him out of it, and Cotton will end up having that person sentenced to death. Cotton and John dominate the story, though Mary begins to make calculated maneuvers to secure her place at the top of Salem.
This summary gives you a bit of an idea of what to expect from the show. I was really impressed with the chemistry between the actors. The show is actually quite bold and brutal and really goes where others have tried to go. There is nudity and some shocking scenes like people being burned alive, a birth taking place as the mother walks around the house and so on.
I actually love the show even though the writing is often choppy and filled with cliché. The acting is uniformly excellent, the sets and costumes are amazing. Again I must mention that is not family viewing due to the intensity and brutality that we see.