The perfect spell to craft a horror-fantasy story requires a relationship between aesthetics, allegory, mythology, and character. I’d argue that there has to be strong interplay between at least three of these categories in order to make something watchable, but to be truly successful, all four are important. By the time Part Three of Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina comes around, the only one of these that’s truly intact is the aesthetics. The show has always had a clear look and stylization, full of blood and body horror and gothic settings and theatrical costumes. It’s not a period piece per se, intentionally ambiguous about time, but it similarly pays extreme attention to the details of dress and space. That remains true in Part Three, but while there’s clarity to the show’s visual landscape, it’s far from enough to distract from the lack of clarity everywhere else.
For a while, Sabrina did have a strong allegory to its story, Sabrina Spellman’s coming of age complicated by her crisis of faith and her realization that the church she was brought up in is built on patriarchy and gender roles. Her questioning and eventual outright confrontation of her faith makes for a compelling and grounded story, one that provides a meaningful thread. Increasingly, the show has lost that thread. Sabrina has always had to pull double duties in her coven world and mortal worlds, and the smashing together of those two things makes for an already overloaded story.
In Part Three, she’s pulling triple duty as a normal mortal high schooler (on the cheerleading team!), a witch in a decaying coven trying to rebuild itself, and the newly anointed Queen Of Hell. The eight episodes here struggle to bind all of these roles together into a cohesive arc for Sabrina. Sabrina and her aunts are still determined to undo the patriarchal foundation of their coven, but the show’s feminism is also increasingly boring. Hilda and Zelda decide to pray to Lilith instead of the Dark Lord in the premiere, signaling a shift, but it’s the kind of surface-level shift that reminds me of people who think a woman as president is simply the answer to America’s deeply ingrained misogyny and sexism. And I wouldn’t be so stuck on this if the show weren’t so hellbent on positioning Sabrina as some sort of beacon of Girl Power.
Perhaps the biggest mess of Part Three resides in its mythology though. Sabrina has always cobbled together Bible stories, fables, fairy tales, and other stories (like an extremely dark take on The Wizard Of Oz in the Part Three premiere) to frankenstein its own mythology. Its villains are genuinely scary. The Dark Lord a.k.a. Sabrina’s father deeply traumatizes Nick when he takes over his body and mind. Some of the monsters of the week reminisce of Buffy ones, like a mortal but truly monstrous ice cream man who pops up in one of the stronger episodes of Part Three. But Sabrina’s mythology never feels fully thought out. The magical solutions come too easy, and I still don’t really understand how any of the spells work or even what the limitations or extremities of Sabrina’s powers are.
Part Three also introduces voodoo magic in Prudence and Ambrose’s arc that rather blatantly relies on a lot of racist imagery and stereotypes. There’s also a Pagan coven that moves into town (who are also carnies…sure). They want to eradicate the New England witches like they were eradicated during The Unholy Wars and so on and so forth. Sabrina’s history and mythology are both perplexing, and it makes watching tedious. The show has it roots in comic books, and in comic books, every frame counts.
The show on the other hand overstuffs itself with overly complicated rules and quests and spells and curses. The mortal and magical worlds have completely bled together at this point, which does make the show less fractured, but it also makes the little reprieves of normal teen life feel totally out of place, like that cheerleader storyline and also completely unnecessary scenes of Harvey, Roz, and Theo performing covers as part of their new band? These are meant to be fun interjections, but they don’t really add much, and these episodes are already way too long.
So then there’s the issue of character, which Part Three also struggles with. The show is still technically very queer. A lot of its characters are pansexual, including Nick, Prudence, Ambrose, and probably more (Part Two pretty much implied that all witches and warlocks are pansexual). And yet the relationships the show chooses to prioritize — with the exception of Theo and new kid Robin — are kinda boring! Nick’s relationship with Sabrina is the least interesting part of either character.
There’s initially some riveting stuff going on with Nick’s arc as he deals with the trauma of having his girlfriend’s father inside of him (the show really leans into the Freudian nightmare of this situation, which I for one find very entertaining). He uses drugs, alcohol, and pain to cope. But then the show just makes this all about his relationship with Sabrina, decentering Nick from the story about his trauma, and it unsettles. There’s a lot of psychosexual imagery in Sabrina without much engagement on what it all means, so it feels instantly gratuitous. The show likes to shock with its visuals, but it shies away from delving much deeper on a story or character-level.
(While we’re here, I will say that there is a very last-second lesbian kiss in the finale, but I don’t want to spoil it entirely!)
Sabrina so often martyrs herself and also has selfish motivations, even when she claims to be helping others. Zelda calling out Sabrina for craving power is actually one of the most self-aware moments of the series. Sabrina’s anger has always been a strong driving force for the character and show, and I love the power of her rage, but in Part Three, that anger is all over the place, and she verges on being an unjust and manipulative leader. It doesn’t make much sense on a character-level. There are moments throughout Part Three where it’s unclear whether Sabrina is meant to be seen as a worthy hero or a failed leader corrupted by power, and that uncertainty doesn’t seem like the point of the story so much as just confusing writing.
Prudence and Ambrose’s arc similarly loses clarity almost instantly, and the two are kept separate from much of the main story despite being two of the most powerful characters. An attempt at a new love triangle for Sabrina never finds its footing. The intersecting conflicts involving separate sects and interests are messier than they are suspenseful, amounting to a lot of plotting without much payoff. Part Three is never quite sure of what story it wants to tell, and that ultimately is an issue of character. It’s captivating to look at but difficult to watch, a fleshy thing without the bones to really support it.
In the end, Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina delivers an exciting finale, but it isn’t enough to justify the disorder that precedes it, and it also feels like show repeating the same story it has done before. Sabrina hasn’t grown. It just keeps piling stuff onto a shaky foundation. It would take a full on demolition and rebuild to marry its aesthetics, allegory, mythology, and character in a way that makes sense.
Thanks for this insightful discussion of S3. I basically gave up on Sabrina after the first season; I found it frustrating that it had SO MUCH POTENTIAL for great feminist and queer storylines, but its witchcraft mythology was pretty muddled even back then, and, as you noted, the primary romantic relationships have always been the hetero ones, even though there are multiple queer/fluid characters.
Happy to keep passing on this even though Netflix keeps recommending it to me!
sorry? this comic book’s primary characters were always hetero.. why should they have to change that? and they’ve already introduced quite a few queer main characters, zelda, theo, prudence, ambrose..
and it’s not required to have a feminist storyline, it’s pretty great that there are instances of it in the show. lol i don’t get what you mean at all.