It’s comically fitting (and probably intentional) that Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina’s acronym is just one letter off from “chaos.” It revels in chaos, and it flips language in slight ways that nonetheless alter meaning entirely. Up is down and down is up in Sabrina’s world. Hell is good and heaven is bad. Yet its portraits of good and evil aren’t so polar and absolute. Often, CAOS pushes its characters to question the very fabric of their realities, to challenge their beliefs and everything they know in their quests to figure out who they are and what they want. Chaos can be very delectable indeed. But Sabrina breaks its own rules too often to really pin down any clear narrative, its characters changing their motivations on a whim.
In the premiere of the Netflix series’ Part Two, Sabrina rages against the machine that is the increasingly disturbing sex-death-magic cult she has been raised in. The church and her magical private school for young warlocks and witches are part of the same sexist, backwards institution that Sabrina has been trying to undo ever since she first refused to sign her name in the Dark Lord’s book (something she later had to do in order to save everyone she loves, as a refresher). One of the backwards traditions involves the election of a Top Boy at school, and somehow Sabrina is the first student to ever say, hey, what about Top Person? Already, that’s a bit tough to swallow, since Prudence Night is a student here and her entire brand is hating men. But Sabrina is the feminist hero to step up and say no more of this Top Boy nonsense? It doesn’t quite track.
Aspects of Sabrina’s fight in the premiere definitely work, hitting on a lot of the show’s thematic underpinnings regarding power, gender, tradition, agency. Her storyline parallels one in the human realm, where Theo begins his first steps of transitioning, challenging the traditions at TK High by trying out for the boy’s basketball team. Theo’s transitioning storyline continues throughout Part Two and is, as with much of the show’s narratives, an uneven road. The parable he’s taught in the tarot episode (yes, there’s a tarot episode — more on that later) bears the lesson of… not stealing? And yet, its implications seem more sinister than that, forcing Theo to choose between magically-medically transitioning and his limbs.
But where is Sabrina’s righteous and rightful rage come episode three, which takes place on the magical holiday the Lupercalia, a dark spin on Valentine’s Day, and essentially a multi-day celebration where the moon makes everyone super horny? It seems that pansexuality is pretty common and even normalized at the school.. .and yet when it comes to the Lupercalia, the traditions are once again patriarchal and extremely heteronormative. The teens are paired off in opposite-sex couples and end up “hunting” each other at one point. Instead of Sabrina bristling at this entire convention, it turns into a story about her contemplating having sex for the first time with Nick, a character she often has blinders up about. Also, the school faculty here is way too invested in their students’ sex lives… which is more disturbing than some of the more demonic magical happenings on the show.
The sexism of Sabrina’s environment runs deep; her religion’s origin story hinges on a relationship between Lucifer and Lilith (currently taking the form of Mrs. Wardwell) — a relationship that’s distinctly abusive and imbalanced. In addition to Sabrina pushing back on a lot of the traditions, Zelda also wants to change the church, attempting to use her union with Father Blackwood to seek power that the coven does not grant its women.
The Spellmans and Faustus are locked in a battle that started with Sabrina’s father. Faustus weaponizes patriarchy, running a “warlocks-only” club and peddling reformations that tighten the coven’s misogynistic laws and practices. He’s a terrifying Big Bad for the series, convincing and lifelike. And when CAOS makes the time to delve into the ideologies of Sabrina’s father, it finally gets at a clear central narrative for Part Two, which hinges on what it really means to mix mortals and magical beings as well as the chasm between warlocks and witches. But CAOS is indiscriminate and inconsistent in the way it applies its witchy allegories for feminism, tolerance, and revolution.
The magic on CAOS is vast and often beautiful in the way it’s executed and shot. A lot of the magic is rooted in old lore and mythology that spreads cultures. But in some ways, the central mythology of CAOS is too broad, the magic too all-over-the-place. It’s hard to lock in on any actual rules or parameters for the magic, which of course makes it easy for the writers to write themselves out of just about anything. A thrilling episode about zealous witch hunters infiltrating the coven has an ending of Biblical proportions… but does it really make sense? It’s hard to determine what can and can’t make sense when the rules and scale of everyone’s power seemingly change episode to episode. The magical landscape of CAOS often captivates, but it acts as a story crutch, too.
A multi-chapter tarot episode employs a fun and somewhat throwback story structure, but it does too much, unspooling a six-act story that has some strong parts but can never really go too deep with any of the major character moments it takes on. A lot of the problems with Roz’s storyline surface here, too, like the way it frames her blindness as something to be “fixed.” CAOS is great at ramping up the stakes when it needs to, but sometimes it does so at the expense of its characters.
At times, inconsistency within CAOS’s narrative makes sense. Sabrina’s own back-and-forth about whether or not to follow the path of night reflects the relentless internal struggles of someone who has been indoctrinated their entire lives to believe in a certain system even if it goes against the very core of who they are. Sabrina’s rebellion is complicated and volatile. Her back-and-forth attitude about Nick does have the underpinnings of an indecisive teen easily swayed by powerful emotions and attraction. There’s a great emotional arc about her distrusting Nick after he lies to her, making her unsure whether she can believe anything anymore. But even that closes too quickly, the tarot episode rushing her toward a conclusion that sucks much of the potency out of what was a genuinely compelling storyline about betrayal within a romantic partnership… only to then bring it back suddenly and in a profound way in the finale, but that would have hit much harder if the psychological impact of the first lie was pulled through more consistently in the episodes leading up to the finale.
It’s not sheer chaos all the time, and there’s a lot to love about the way it does weave some of these more emotional stakes into its dark, gory tale about demons and darkness. Sabrina’s friends don’t trust her — for good reason. She’s literally an operative of the devil, bound to do his bidding, and that makes her relationships with mortals… complicated, to say the least. Part Two does engage with those threads of its narrative fabric, but it makes a tangled mess of them, too. CAOS technically exists in the same universe of Riverdale, though it’s more like a parallel universe with its own set of (oft-changing) rules. But it bears something in common with its sister series: It’s paradoxically at its most enjoyable at its most off-the-rails and also in its more intimate, grounded character moments, and both have difficulty entwining the two.
Sabrina’s story was born of indecision — the tug between her mortal and witch halves. But that indecision seeps into the very framework of the show. Part Two vacillates, losing focus often. The finale, admittedly, is the show at its finest, those two sides of the show’s tone and scope intermingling in compelling ways. Prudence and Ambrose finally get a scene that ties their arcs together and also provides much needed emotional context for their allegiance to Father Blackwood. Family becomes a powerful force in Part Two’s conclusion, but again, those moments would cast a more enthralling spell if they were more explored and stable throughout the series. Too often, CAOS favors parlor tricks over substantive magic.