“Motherland: Fort Salem” Is Queer and Witchy and Full of Surprises

Editor’s note: Thank you for your patience with us as we got our coverage of Motherland: Fort Salem rolling. I’ve been off work for almost three weeks fighting COVID-19. The ramp up of my symptoms coincided with the rollout of the show, so I was unable to coordinate coverage on it. This conversation between me and Valerie Anne covers the first four episodes. Valerie Anne will be taking over coverage in Boobs on Your Tube this week, and probably publishing a few standalone pieces as she sees how season one progresses! — Heather Hogan, TV Editor


Heather: Motherland: Fort Salem! It’s been almost a year since Freeform announced this alternate-timeline show about an academy of witches in Salem who have been tasked with keeping America safe ever since the leader of their coven made a pact with the U.S. government to form an elite branch of the military in exchange for no more being burned at the stake — and now here we are, finally, four episodes in! Valerie, you have a long history of interest in witches, both as a person who grew up 15 miles from Salem and as a person whose first real TV love was Buffy, right?

Valerie: Yes! I’ve always been fascinated with witches. And I did grow up 15 miles from Salem (and went to high school just across the town line from it), and I’ve always wondered if the two were related. (My city wasn’t quite as witch-hyped as Hocus Pocus would have you believe Salem is.) I used to read Twitches and Secret Circle books, I loved Buffy and Charmed. Hocus Pocus and The Craft. All of ’em. So yeah, needless to say, I was pumped about this.

Heather: I think I had a lot more trepidation around this show than most queer gals who’ve been hype on it since Freeform teased it at the 2019 Network TV Upfronts. First of all, because my main experience with witches, outside of Harry Potter, is all the research I’ve done on the vilifying of alewives and midwives and lesbians by the Christian church, and how that throughline of persecution and oppression runs from medieval Europe to Salem to the modern day United States. And second of all, I’m really drawn to the kind of fictional matriarchy that’s embodied in Themyscira, where you get a warrior as badass as Wonder Woman, and in fact an entire army of Wonder Women, who could absolutely win wars, but who prefer diplomacy and democracy and prioritize wisdom over power.

So, the idea of a matriarchal succession of witches as a hyper-nationalistic branch of the military — which is sort of the antithesis of the subversive witchery that makes up that history and fiction that is so important to me personally — kind of freaked me out. I have been pleasantly surprised that many of the characters on Motherland also aren’t super sold on the system either. It’s way more murky than I expected it to be, which is a good thing, in my opinion! Did you know right away you were going to love this, or did you have similar worries?

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Valerie: My worries weren’t as deep and complex and, frankly, fucking smart as yours, because you know way more about history and I mostly know fictionalized versions, but I was hesitant because typically military type things, or even things that are hyper-fighty, aren’t my jam. Superhero movies even walk the line sometimes for me. I’m more into character than combat, and I just wasn’t sure on which side of things this show would fall. I was a little afraid they were going to try to make a show “for guys” (even though wtf does that mean) but with women, instead of tailoring the whole experience to be believable experiences for individual female characters. Do you think they’re doing a good job of a fictional matriarchy? I am enjoying that daughters take their mother’s names and little things like that. I know it’s no Themyscira, but do you like how they approached it?

Heather: Yeah, that’s a good way to describe my fears too! That it would be a show “for guys,” which I think for me means these sort of reductive gender stereotypes, flipped. So it’s like all the toxic masculinity and abuses of power we’re used to seeing in military narratives, but women in are the ones perpetuating it. (This was also my issue with Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which was pretty universally beloved!) What I like about Motherland is those issues are there, right, and of course they are, but there’s no clean line between right and wrong, and each of the main characters is bringing a different perspective on it because — as you said — each of their mothers have had different experiences with it. They’ve all got some inherited trauma and feelings about what’s noble and evil about this set-up. Captain Marvel is one of my all-time favorite ever movies, but I do understand why people call it Air Force propaganda. I would not call Motherland Army propaganda.

It seems like the show decided to prioritize the characterizations and relationships of the three main characters — legacy recruit and general Hermione Granger, Abigail Bellweather; naive and eager Tally Craven, and angsty rebellious queer Raelle Collar — over the world-building. I’m really curious to hear what you think about that choice, Valerie, especially as someone who’s a big fan of Wynonna Earp, which went that route early on and then filled in the world around the characters to great success.

Valerie: First of all, I find it VERY interesting to see you call Abigail a Hermione; I think Tally is much more a Hermione. A little shy at first, but actually the brightest witch of her age. Getting her pals out of trouble they can’t help getting themselves into. School spirit for days. Didn’t HAVE to go to magic school but wanted to. Abigail is more like “if Draco made better friends” in my opinion. Or…maybe…if Harry was raised by James. But I digress. As I mentioned earlier, character is more important to me than anything else, and the rest is what my friends and I call “totems shmotems.” (Borne of Legends of Tomorrow‘s plotline where they were seeking out totems for reasons we didn’t quite understand or care about because we were just there for the character interactions and general adventures.) That said, it’s always nice when the world does fall into place around these characters, and I think Abigail, Tally and Raelle all have gaps in their world knowledge that helps us learn along with them. Do you feel like you have a good handle on the societal structure of this world? Do you care to?

Heather: You’re right. When you put it like that, I agree! I don’t actually feel like I have a good handle on the structure, but I think maybe it’s because the writers don’t have one yet either, or! The network would rather see character development than world/society-building, which I get. Motherland doesn’t have the advantage of being a book series with all that world-building built in, so no shortcuts are available to them.

Valerie: Also, as you know, found family is basically a requirement for me and my TV shows these days, and I’m starting to get those reluctant sister vibes I love so much from our main trio. Do you think their bond will save us all, or do you think they’re too different and bound to tear each other apart?

Heather: Oh yeah, absolutely, their bond will save us. My favorite thing about the show so far is seeing both the evolution of the characters and the actors. The main trio was a little stiff and awkward with each other at first, but as the episodes have progressed, the actors have become more comfortable with the pacing of the dialogue and with each other, and it makes the series feel a lot more settled to me. A lot more believable. It gives me something to lean into and root for. Now that you’ve got me hooked on Critical Role, I’ve developed a little more patience around found family bonds forming, because I believe my calm diligent viewing will grant me a major emotional payoff!

Were you surprised to see the unapologetic queerness right out of the gate, Valerie? Raelle and Scylla went from flirting to on-camera hands shoved down pants in about ten minutes, long before anything similar happened on-screen with a dude.

Valerie: I was super surprised. I guess part of me still thinks of #Freeform as ABC Family sometimes and I forget that in reality it’s the same channel that houses The Bold Type and all its glorious queerness, and hell even Siren with its polyamorous relationship between a man, a woman, and a mermaid. But they didn’t waste any time! If they hadn’t established that Abigail liked sleeping with boys before they got to school, I probably would have assumed all the girls were at least a little queer… and honestly after the orgy dance I’m not convinced they’re not. Does it still surprise you when things go all-out queer so quickly? Do you think that’s a result of us starting writing about TV in a time when ankle touches were scandalous?

Heather: Alison and Emily’s ankles touching in the Pretty Little Liars series finale while every straight couple had cinematic sex is EXACTLY what I was thinking. I will never not be bummed out about how that played out. So, yes, I was surprised! And delighted! I said, out loud, “Oh. Well!” I also love that we don’t know exactly what the deal is with Scylla, both because I’ve got a great soft spot for queer villains, but also because I feel pretty confident the Spree aren’t completely who we’re being led to believe they are. I’ve read The Hunger Games, okay. I’ve read the Divergent series and Maze Runner. I live in the United States in 2020. I’ve got some questions! What’s your read on her, Valerie?

Valerie: I didn’t trust her for a while and it stressed me out but as the shiny newness of everything starts to wear off and we’re starting to see things aren’t quite as they seem, I’m starting to wonder if our girls aren’t about to go the way of Adora in She-Ra and realize that the system of ideals they were raised to believe were Right and True might not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

That said, Scylla does technically talk to a mass-murdering balloon (maybe? The details of how the Spree kills people falls squarely in the category of “totems shmotems” at this moment) and it stresses me out that she can (and does) change her appearance, BUT after this most recent episode, I’m starting to truly believe that she at least really cares about Raelle and even if she’s playing everyone else, or has some long-game, I don’t think she’s using Raelle the way she maybe was when things started out. That said… Raelle is a girl on the edge and I don’t think it would take much to get her to join the Spree. What do you think? Can we trust Scylla? Am I being charmed by her pretty, pretty eyes or is she more complicated than her setting-her-own-face-on-fire thing makes her seem?

Heather: I don’t know if we can trust her and I love that. (I don’t love that whole face/fire thing, though! I didn’t like it when it kicked off the pilot and I don’t like it now! But I get it. Fire and stakes and all that. But I don’t like it!) I think you and I both have watched and written about so much TV over the years, and you especially with sci-fi and fantasy, nothing really surprises us too much. I like not knowing! I like the rare feeling of being excited to find out what the actual deal is with a queer characters!

Just a TV-loving, Twitter-addicted nerd who loves reading, watching, and writing about stories. One part Kara Danvers, two parts Waverly Earp, a dash of Cosima and an extra helping of my own brand of weirdo.

Valerie has written 253 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Yay for this post! I saw this show mentioned on another site a few days ago, and devoured all the episodes over the weekend :). I had been disappointed by Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – despite having a couple of LGBTQ secondary characters and a few queer-ish sex scenes, Sabrina’s own romantic trajectories were very straight, plus the whole witch mythology was so weirdly patriarchal.

    So Motherland has been interesting in actually showing a society where women appear to be in the most powerful roles (not just in the military, but also in politics, if that Hague meeting is representative), and where the gender hierarchies have been flipped in other ways (that guy saying “everyone knows women are stronger than men” etc.).

    Then to have Raelle be queer without any in-world angst or issues is amazing! I mean, yes, at the start, it looked like her girlfriend might be evil, but as you both commented, the show has started more clearly questioning who is right/wrong in this world, and Fort Salem/Sara Alder clearly have some troubling issues. I think the bigger problem is that the representation of what military training makes the stringency of rules look inconsistent; sometimes, Raelle can get away with not being in training or whatever, and other times she can’t.

    I agree the acting isn’t always as strong as it could be, but that it has improved, and the trio of leads has some good friend chemistry now. (Reminds me of The Bold Type and Trinkets in terms of three friends, one of whom is queer, with some racial diversity thrown into the mix too.)

    Anyway, hope there’s more coverage of this show, esp. since you’re on the mend now, Heather!

  2. I started watching ready to hate it, but it’s actually not bad for a YA show. The three protagonists are a little bit cliché but I love the whole alternate universe thing going on and if you’re not into teen drama watch it for General Adler!

  3. I love this show so far and am glad you’re finally able to cover it! I’m honestly just waiting for the tables to turn and the military to come out as the real Big Bad tbh.

    Also I’m really hoping they explain more about the Cession (ie where Raelle is from). They seemed surprised that’s she’s white and from there, so I’m hoping for more rad POC.

  4. We’re all under the impression that we’ve seen Scylla in three different forms besides her “normal” one, right: The blonde from the beginning of the pilot, the redhead the blonde turns into in the car/who later turns into Scylla in her room, and the necro guard Raelle was assigned to patrol with. This isn’t making sense to me.

    I assume that the dark-haired Scylla we see most of the time is the real one, as her ex recognized her on sight and said they grew up together. So why did that blonde commit the act of terror, then get in her car and burn the disguise away to reveal the redheaded girl’s face? Wouldn’t she go back to the regular Scylla form while alone in a car? Can Scylla wear a disguise on top of a disguise?

    What if that wasn’t Scylla in her room at all, but the same redhead from the first scene checking up on her, and being forced to switch to Scylla’s form when Raelle showed up? That would mean that, while Scylla does have her ex’s death on her conscience, she hasn’t yet committed any acts of terrorism.

    I saw an interview where the three main girls said not to assume anything because this show has some crazy twists they didn’t see coming, so now I’m questioning everything!

    • I had similar questions! Based on the evidence we have, it seems like Scylla’s true form is the “strawberry blonde”/pale redhead.

      Which means she was the “terrorist” in the opening scene who caused the deaths of 1600 people.

      So…she’s pretty evil, right? But also seems to have genuine feelings for Raelle?

      And if that’s her true form, then she’s been doing the ‘hot brunette’ glamour/spell since childhood (since Porter recognizes her as ‘hot brunette”), which just seems like… a lot?

      But maybe since her parents were draft dodgers, they encouraged her to have a disguise even when she was little kid? I don’t know. Lots of questions that will hopefully be answered by the show in a coherent way.

  5. Okay, I’ve watched all four episodes, and I have a question. We see that the trio are massively powerful together, but is it the harmonic convergence of them or is Raelle doing the heavy lifting? The way the Spree is interested in her make me think the latter, but she doesn’t seem able to do that stuff on her own. If it’s her, then how did the Spree know? If it isn’t her, then why is the Spree so interested in her in particular?

      • I agree that her mom is Spree! I mean, Raelle told Tally that the bird from her mother’s “blue ribbon thingy” was attracted to anything blue…like the balloons. I’d go as far as to say her mother started Spree because she felt trapped and wanted to return home. I think Adler realized this and staged Raelle’s mother’s death because she doesn’t want to lose her throne. To avoid mutiny, Adler forged letters from Raelle’s mother to her daughter, claiming Spree was the enemy. I believe either Abigail and/or her mother will realize Adler’s antics soon and have to make a difficult choice whether to maintain their elite status or fight for what’s right.

        From the way Raelle described it, it didn’t sound like they recovered too much of her mother’s remains. It’s possible she survived or someone helped her survive. Maybe she used the last of her energy to preserve herself in a blue balloon? Maybe she’s the one sending messages and trying to reunite with her daughter?

        Overall, I think Adler is Voldemort, The Biddys are unaware Horcruxes, Abigail is Draco, Tally is Hermione, and Raelle is a reluctant Harry.

        • In addition, I think Adler’s lived too long to not have more goals than just maintaining the power she has. I don’t think she wants to completely stop Spree. I think she just wants to keep them in check. It’s possible she could be behind it, too. With Spree came more respect from the “normal” people because they couldn’t fight the war without the witches. If Spree were gone, they’d try to get rid of the witches somehow. They’d lose their power. I think Adler wants complete power. She doesn’t seem to care about “normal” people, just her witches. She did a poor job reassuring the mother who lost her daughter, and she’s always slow to react to Spree’s moves. If you think about it Spree isn’t attacking Witches for enforcing the draft; they’re attacking humans. Besides the risk of a lost reputation, Adler isn’t losing much. It isn’t until Spree started attacking witches that she started to really show rage…but then again…she drains her own witches of their life force. So, who’s to say she really cares too much about them besides filling her army and keeping her young? Either way, I think we can all agree Adler isn’t trustworthy. I think she knew the girls together would be powerful, and she wants to use their power to take over the world.

  6. i still like this show, but most of the time i’m pretty confused about what’s happening and why stuff matters. the lead trio are engaging enough to make the show an interesting watch; think it would be improved by context.

    the AS coverage will make it even better to follow along.

  7. Nice to see some much deserved coverage for this show here. I know it’s only episode 4 going on 5, but I feel like the show is relevant enough to have a bigger exposure.

    I like all three leads but for me it’s Scylla who holds the show together. The actress is charming, which makes it really hard not to root for her and her and Raelle together and her scenes are arguably the best in each and every episode, especially when it concerns a cliffhanger.

    I hope we get a renewal announcement soon, because I am starving for more.

  8. I liked what I saw but unfortunately, for me, the show is too triggering. I know the people are not necessarily doing it from free will but I can’t watch people die the way they do. At the end they had a number to call (trying not to have spoilers in this comment). But I wish I knew ahead of time. I can’t watch it for my mental health.

    • I am not happy with the use (in multiple episodes) of the use of spells(?) that cause people to kill themselves. The show is too violent as it is and that aspect of it, in a show targeted toward teens and young adults, is not OK. I did see a quick PSA at the end of one episode, but none before or after the pilot.

  9. Thank you for doing a review of this. I had no idea of the MAIN queer plotline. What’s so unique about this show, is that the queer relationship is literally center stage and is a big deal not because of its queerness.

    Anyway I will keep watching this YA so thanks!

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