“Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina”: The Chaos Ends But Not Without, Well, Chaos

Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina comes crashing to its end in Part 4, the final eight installments of the sprawling Netflix series that so often gets in its own way. A Frankenstein series of many genres—teen drama, musical, gothic romance, high fantasy—Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina often feels like a cauldron of chaos, and that’s absolutely true for Part 4, a season that doubles down on much of what the show does, meaning that if you love the previous seasons, you’ll probably love it, and if you hate it, well, these episodes aren’t going to win you over. They’re probably just going to make you mad.

Some of the show’s chaos delights me. It mishmashes folklore, Biblical stories, classic literature, and various other mythologies to a dizzying and occasionally thrilling degree. I love that its pop culture references run the gamut: Alien, The Little Mermaid, The Sound Of Music, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Cabaret, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” and many many more pop culture touchstones get shoutouts in Part 4. But if there’s one thing these final episodes drive home with certainty, it’s that in all of its wild threading together of different worlds and myths, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina never really built its own mythology over the course of 36 episodes. It borrows from other worlds to spin its own, and its own is a goddamn mess.

Which is, in a word, EXASPERATING. Almost every episode in Part 4 clocks in at 58 minutes long…or longer!!!! And yet, the same information gets repeated over and over, sometimes as many as three times, within the span of those 58 minutes. To say that the show needs a sharper knife when it comes to editing is an understatement; it needs a meat cleaver. It’s confusingly overstuffed and underbaked, blazing through plot too quickly at times, too slowly at others. There are literally two Sabrinas now, and while the season does have some fun with its Hell-based and Earth-based doppelgangers, it’s also an overt metaphor for the problems that plague this show: There is too much.

Maybe that overstuffing would be easier to swallow if it weren’t coupled by the fact that Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina can never commit to its own rules. Some problems are solved too easily by magic (for example, minds are very, very easily erased); others seem to stump the witches completely. There’s no consistency. No scale. Blackwood’s thirst for power and his unleashing of the eldritch terrors—ultra powerful sources of evil that signal the end times for all realms—makes for much of the season’s magical conflict. Those terrors take some compelling forms, like that of spectral miners, manifestations of the miners who died in darkness, alone, in Greendale long ago. A historical haunting brought to life. When Blackwood perverts the world and creates a new one in which he is Emperor of Greendale and has convinced everyone that witches are evil and that they cannot leave the town because the rest of the world has been consumed, Sabrina and Roz have to fight literal fascism. Some of the episodic conflicts are a little campier, like a Satanic rock band from Hell that (literally) slaughters other bands during a Battle Of The Bands. But one conflict swallows another, swallows another, swallows another, so that CAOS doesn’t have propulsive narrative momentum and sprawling mythology so much as it has narrative confusion and bloat.

The rules of the eldritch terrors—and the various realms in general—change constantly, usually just to make things convenient. There are a lot of sudden plot developments that just feel overwritten and strictly plot-serving. For example, Roz is a witch now. We’ve always known she’s powerful; her cunning makes it clear that she isn’t strictly mortal. (Also, it seems like mortals can practice or at least assist with magic, soooo what ARE the rules exactly?) But Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina decides to name Roz officially as a witch, mostly to link her up with Prudence for, well, plot reasons. It feels like a cheap attempt to make Roz a bigger part of the story without actually giving her much of an emotional narrative. And it also just feels like one entry in a long list of instances when CAOS makes chaos of its own mythology—a mythology so persistently changing and muddled that it means pretty much anything can happen at any time to anyone. And that does not make for very urgent stakes.

But for a show that’s constantly breaking its own rules and writing new ones, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina struggles to break out of conventional narratives. Its teenage love triangles often feel played out and boring. There are queer and trans characters and yet their storylines are reductive and peripheral. Aunt Zelda is now dating Mambo Marie, but we only get a couple glimpses of romance between them before their tragic ending. Theo and Robin are sweet boyfriends, but they get about as much screen time and depth to their relationship as Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz do in the most recent seasons of Riverdale, which is to say, hardly any at all!

So much focus is given to the love life of Sabrina, who has absolutely the most boring love life, and that’s not just me being heterophobic! Sabrina’s arc over the course of the series and especially in this season lacks emotional urgency. The strain of Sabrina’s many commitments (some of them completely her own choice…why is this girl running for student council on top of the one billion other responsibilities she has!!!!!!!!!) and her exasperation about not having space for love amid it all is a major thread of this final part. But Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina lacks the emotional depth and devastation that its predecessor Buffy The Vampire Slayer had on that very subject. Buffy Summers’ turmoil over maintaining a fulfilling life with family, friends, and loved ones and answering her responsibilities as the Slayer is palpably felt through the series, touched on with nuance and specificity even among some of the show’s more over-the-top storylines. Despite featuring approximately one hundred candles in every scene, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina frankly can’t hold a candle to Buffy. Mainly because it has no idea how to balance its multiple worlds, the conflicts within its characters, its own mythology!

One of the best subplots comes early in the season when Sabrina and her friends—collectively known as the Fright Club—have to work together to banish Bloody Mary, the latest ghoul to show up at their high school. The twist: Bloody Mary didn’t just show up by happenstance. Sabrina manifested her, tricking her friends into working together on a magical quest because she just wants to spend time with them. It’s a little goofy, but it also feels like a real teen conflict—manufacturing drama for attention—dressed up in magical garb. The subplot checks all the best boxes in CAOS’s vault of tricks. There’s horror; there’s a wicked sense of humor; there’s tension between Sabrina’s humanity and her witchness; there are believable and interesting character relationships and dynamics. But it’s just a subplot. One small part of a—it needs to be said again—way too long episode. Neatly tied up in the end. It’s grounding moments like these that CAOS lacks.

Another season highlight comes near the end, in the penultimate episode, a mind-fuck alternate reality trip for Morningstar-edition Sabrina that serves both as an homage to the original Sabrina The Teenage Witch series of the 90s as well as an effective horror story. Here, Sabrina is trapped on a television set, portraying a fictionalized version of her life but also…living the TV show. That TV show is a laugh-tracked sitcom starring original aunties Beth Broderick and Caroline Rhea. Again, it works as a tribute. But there’s also an eerie feeling throughout that there’s nothing to laugh about in this parallel universe. The show-within-the-show replays things that actually happened…on the show that we’re watching. CAOS has a lot of fun with the meta chaos, and it lands surprisingly well. It’s also genuinely frightening in its deep-dive into the uncanny. Morningstar-Sabrina opens sealed off doors, can’t find a world outside the TV show she’s stuck in, encounters facsimiles of people from other Sabrina’s life. What happens in the show happens to the “actors” for real.

But even in this standout episode, some of the cracks in CAOS’s foundation show. The TV show version of Roz remarks that she’s pleased that her character is going blind because at least it’s an arc, which is a grating joke given that Roz’s whole arc at the beginning of the series is merely that she’s going blind. I don’t know that poking self-referential fun at narrative weakspots quite makes up for narrative weakspots. TV show Roz also remarks that the writers room would never give her a romantic plotline, another tongue-in-cheek joke that also falls flat because it feels like the actual CAOS writers room is patting themselves on the back for the bare minimum character work of giving Roz a boyfriend in Harvey.

So even at its best, CAOS is a bit of a mess. It spooks; it lands some laughs; it has a consistent and clear visual landscape. But that’s one of the only consistent things about it. In its final season, CAOS spends too much time delivering information only to blow that information up and give new information. There are both too many answers and too many uncertainties. Above all else, the episodes are too damn long. Watching a show with this amount of frights and over-the-top bits shouldn’t feel like such a drag.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 300 articles for us.

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