Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina” Revels in Darkness, Misandry, and Witchy Fun

Netflix’s adaptation of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is like the ultra-goth cousin of Riverdale, with which it shares a showrunner and universe. It’s set in the fictional town of Greendale, just over the Sweetwater River from our beloved murder town Riverdale. But if Riverdale can be called a murder town, Greendale is something much more sinister. Here, witches and warlocks live — witches and warlocks beholden to an ancient religion that worships the Dark Lord, literally the devil. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a stylish supernatural drama steeped in Satanism, cannibalism, necromancy, possession, and just about every kind of dark magic you can imagine. And within all the grim yet still campy horror, it tells compelling stories about power, consent, patriarchy, and identity.

Unfortunately, Sabrina is easily the least interesting character on the show, which hinges — sometimes too much — on the tug-of-war between Sabrina’s mortal life and her witch one. As a half-mortal/half-witch, she must choose between the worlds, a choice complicated by her attachment to her friends Roz and Susie but also to her mortal boyfriend Harvey who, frankly, is not worth the lengths she goes to to keep around. Yep, just another milquetoast boy getting in the way of a powerful woman’s journey toward self-discovery.

Sabrina is tellingly most interesting in her darkest moments, an insidious pull toward evil bubbling just beneath the surface, seen in terrifying glimpses like when a small smile creeps in as she slits one witch’s throat with a knife and when she tortures her high school’s principal (who certainly deserves it) with glee. Kiernan Shipka does her best work in these moments. Sometimes, the mortal drama Sabrina goes through — as with her relationship stuff with Harvey — doesn’t stand on as firm of ground.

Sabrina herself is torn between two worlds, which unfortunately causes a similar but frustrating schism within the show, which at times feels like several shows Frankenstein’d together, unsure of its strengths. Those strengths rest in the Academy of Unseen Arts, the school of witchcraft Sabrina attends only on the weekends. There, teen witches and warlocks are brought up in a Satanic religion diametrically opposed to and yet bearing a lot of similarities to certain sects of Catholicism in the way it indoctrinates its youth and enforces rules punitively. Traditions in the Church of Night are followed merely because they’re traditions. It isn’t until Sabrina starts to question them that the church’s facade starts to crumble.

What’s much more convincing than Sabrina’s ties to her mortal boyfriend is her struggle to reclaim ownership of her life, to push back about the seemingly blurry approach to consent when it comes to participating in one’s dark baptism, a coming-of-age ceremony that the show likens to a Quinceañera or Bar Mitzvah… only with more blood and spookiness. In this church, women — even teen girls — are convinced they should be sacrificed and eaten because it’s satan’s will. The show doesn’t hold back on some of these more shocking reveals. The show gets progressively darker though never macabre to the point of lifelessness.

Is someone going to tell the writers what this means?

In fact, for all its death and doom, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is strikingly full-of-life, having a lot of fun with its town of horrors. It pays tribute to other standout supernatural shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer — one episode bearing such a close resemblance to “Restless” that I’d be shocked if it wasn’t intentional. The production design is stunning throughout, that goth-glam look of Riverdale ramped up to extreme levels. Ambrose, Sabrina’s gay cousin under lifelong house arrest, has a seemingly endless collection of silk robes — and a quippy retort to everything.

Things really pick up once the supernatural world starts bleeding into the mortal world of Greendale. Sabrina’s friend Roz (Jaz Sinclair) has a degenerative eye condition that turns out to have the secret side effect of premonitions. Her other friend Susie, played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, starts seeing and communicating with the ghost of a former relative who had a reputation for defying gender expectations.

Here, though, is where the split nature of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does a disservice. Not enough time is granted to Susie, who certainly seems to be questioning the gender binary and also appears to like when certain people call them boy (Watson, by the way, uses they/them pronouns for the character, even though they/them pronouns haven’t been used on the show yet). There’s a lot of potential here, but Chilling Adventures of Sabrina sometimes gets so swept up in the horror and mythology that it doesn’t quite leave room for its more character-driven narratives — especially when it comes to the mortal characters — to breathe.

PRUDENCE!

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina also deliciously revels in misandry. The weird sisters, a trio of orphaned witches and the academy’s mean girls, love tormenting boys — especially Prudence, who basically makes a hobby of it. Male power is a toxic, predatory force on the show, and the church is consumed by patriarchy that Sabrina tries to push back against, occasionally with the help of her aunts, the bubbly Hilda and the certified Witch Mommi Zelda.

Again, there seem to be no bounds to just how dark Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is willing to go, but it has a sense of humor about that darkness, too. Zelda makes a sport of literally killing her own sister and bringing her back to life over and over, a ridiculous yet horrifying game. But there’s something deeper, darker, more human underneath her cruelty, and that “Restless”-esque episode pulls back the curtain on the Spellman family’s fears in a way that reveals just how human they are.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 129 articles for us.

38 Comments

  1. I’ll just copy this over from the Friday Open Thread:

    – I like that they went full on with them being Satanists, instead of doing it in some sort of apologetic half-assed way.
    – The thing that I really disliked about the show was that it seemed like Sabrina’s main motivation for just about everything is Harvey. Her entire universe revolves around him.
    – Who are Ambrose’s parents? How are they related to Zelda and Hilda? He calls them auntie, but they never talk about having a fourth sibling who would be his parent.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with so much of this. The supporting cast is so strong – I desperately want to see both Susie and Ambrose fleshed out way more in part two, and I also very much want to see more of Sabrina embracing her witchier sides, hanging out with the weird sisters, etc. And it’s definitely a pipe dream, but I’d love to see some Zelda/Madam Satan going on eventually.

  3. I wanted this to be good but was so let down in the show’s treatment of POC, namely Prudence, and generally feel a lot of ways about the recent explosion of witchcraft in popular culture and the disservice it’s done to the culture of witchcraft, which is deeply rooted in POC lore and history.

    • Soooooooooo much yes to this!

      I can (grudgingly) accept that the show is going to focus on a specific region, and that they want to tap into the Salem/New England with trials stuff. So I’ll accept that the history of that coven seems to be super-white and echoes a lot of what the Puritans thought about witches.

      But they cast a number of characters as POC. That means that when they look to somewhat vaguely defined ‘ancestors’ for plot points, they should do that for all of the characters. (And NOT just by focusing on the white side of the biracial characters. Even the way Roz’s grandmother described The Cunning put the focus back on to white witches and didn’t talk about what it’d meant for their family, IIRC.)

      I feel like there’s potential in the world they’ve created, but I also think that the show has a LOT of ground to make up next season. If they have a coherent vision of their world, how Satan and the Church of Night fit in with the wider world, etc., then I think that it could be worthwhile. But if they’re making it up as they go along and they keep just looking to white American/British folklore, I think it’s going to fall flat.

  4. I honestly hate Sabrina as a character. She is just so fundamentally, deeply uninteresting to me, and her White Savior Complex is just. The Worst.

    I finished the season, though, because I *adore* the aunts (esp. Mommi Zelda, obviously), Ambrose, and Prudence. Positively dying to get more of Ambrose’s backstory. He and Prudence had the most interesting character development, by far.

  5. I have so many nuanced Thoughts & Feelings™ about this show, but they all get washed away in a glorious haze whenever Michelle Gomez a.k.a. Ms. Wardwell a.k.a. Madam Satan a.k.a. Lilith (good GRIEF) is on screen. Prrrrraise Satan.

  6. How Sabrina can be called the most boring character when Harvey is there out-boring her at every turn XD

    I’m upset we even introduced what’s his face the warlock second horse love interest when Prudence is right fucking there being more compelling and having better hair!

  7. “Sabrina herself is torn between two worlds, which unfortunately causes a similar but frustrating schism within the show, which at times feels like several shows Frankenstein’d together, unsure of its strengths.”

    This could be a critique of Riverdale–maybe it’s the showrunner’s thing.

  8. I watched one episode and that was enough. Sabrina is so dull, weirdly over confident even for a tv 16 year old, and there is just no humour at all. The dialoguewas just one big exposition fest and the aunts cardboard cut outs.

    And Salem can’t even talk? Don’t the creators remember who the best character was from the 90s series??

  9. Ok first off Ambrose is pan, not gay.

    Secondly, did anyone else find the polaroid blackmail scene in the mine suuuuuper gay shaming??

    Also want to chime in and agree with everyone that Harvey is a snooze fest and I’m looking forward to Sabrina 2.0 and her inevitable hookup with Prudence. Here’s hoping season 2 is an upgrade.

    • That mine scene wasn’t really gay shaming in my opinion, because it was about those boy’s insecurities which made them not want to be seen as gay rather than being gay being seen as wrong by the other characters.
      It’s still a bit disturbing when we find out later from Hilda that one of the boys was sexually abused by a camp counselor as a kid and no one believed him.

    • I think that scene was sort of indicative of one of the show’s problems. To me it felt like there was a lot of lip service paid to being progressive and how Kids These Days are woke, but when it came down to it there was a lot of really unfortunate behavior. I see how that scene was supposed to be targeting these bullies with their own fears, but it was still just a tired, homophobic joke. NTM that in a later episode Hilda called out one of them as being a bully because he’s a survivor of sexual abuse?? As if he should be ashamed of what happened to him, not as an act of empathy or understanding. And don’t even get me started on how Prudence was punished for the Harrowing.

      There were things I enjoyed about this show don’t get me wrong, but I think it would’ve been much stronger if the writers hadn’t been so interested in performing progressiveness only to throw it away for shitty regressive plot devices

  10. I know the show is trying to make a statement about patriarchy with the storyline, but I’m not sure how I feel about it taking witches, historically a way for women to be empowered and throw off the shackles of domination and control, and make it into a horrible sexist religion where women are controlled constantly and lose autonomy over their lives and who they can or can’t love or have sex with.

    • Okay, fine, misandry in real life isn’t necessarily good, but in the context of a television show, it’s a nice switch from the de facto misogyny and male priviledge in most things. Horror, especially, has been bad about this — it’s why Alien and Buffy are such big deals; they let the “final girl” be the one who kills the monster, as opposed to Halloween (where he gets away) or *** SPOILER ALERT *** Nightmare on Elm Street (where Nancy doesn’t).

  11. I do not want this show to ever end. Watched it on a whim and love it.
    I have very mixed feelings about the bad reviews since I am certain that there are so many layers to this show, you have to think critically about so much people might be missing things.

    Like isn’t this show using the Church of the Night to call out real world religions?

    “There, teen witches and warlocks are brought up in a Satanic religion diametrically opposed to and yet bearing a lot of similarities to certain sects of Catholicism in the way it indoctrinates its youth and enforces rules punitively. Traditions in the Church of Night are followed merely because they’re traditions.”

    And Sabrina, being an independently thinking and intelligently subversive person, decides to not follow the traditions that everyone else is pushing on her. Finally, a protagonist that is logical.

    So much misandry and tearing down of the patriarchy.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.