Farewell, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: You Never Really Earned Your Campy Confidence, But at Least You Were Bold
In which we marvel at the fact that the last big TV event of 2020 goes out not with a bang, but a deus ex trinketa.Photo Courtesy of Netflix TV Features Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Thank Hecate, honestly, for the Eldritch Terrors.
This certainly wasn’t the reaction I expected to have to Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s choice of final framing device when it was revealed, in all its eerie, Lovecraftian glory, to be the focus of Father Blackwood’s (Richard Coyle) mushrooming madness back in Part 3. I mean, waiting until the eleventh hour to introduce a cosmic pantheon of creepy tentacle monsters? To a show already struggling to keep track of the Church of Night’s conversion from off-brand Satanism to Maiden-Mother-Crone supremacy, not to mention Sabrina and Caliban’s Amazing Race for the Infernal Throne, whatever constitutes teenage romance in a mortal realm plagued by virgin-obsessed pagan gods, literal witch hunts, and the occasional body-hopping incubus? Nevermind the fact that, on top of everything else, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) took sneaky advantage of the Apocalypse-averting time loop that capped off Part 3 to make a secret double of herself. Adding a layer of Lovecraft to the mix? That just screamed Too Much.
But now here we are, on the heels of 2020’s last big premiere, and you know what? I was wrong. It turns out Blackwood’s Eldritch Terrors—all eight of them!—were exactly what Chilling Adventures of Sabrina needed to do its final chapter justice. In fact, they ended up being such a useful addition to the chaos wrought by Parts 1-3, it’s hard not to imagine what Chilling Adventures of Sabrina might have been had the Terrors been a clear part of the series’ framing right from the start.
Now, I’m not saying Part 4 was anything close to perfect. It wasn’t. Despite the Eldritch Terrors’ best efforts, the motivation behind everything going on in Hell remained utterly opaque (especially considering where everyone but Michelle Gomez’s Lilith ended up). The interiority of major side characters like Robin (Jonathan Whitesell), Mambo Marie (Skye P. Marshall), Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) and even Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) remained underdeveloped (like, almost offensively so?) Any evidence that the writers ever really got witches as feminist allegory remained frustratingly insubstantial (Sabrina’s rah-rah, witches! student council speech absolutely included). Ultimately, Part 4 of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina went out much the same way Part 1 came it: High on aesthetic and ensemble chemistry, thin on everything else.
And yet, in giving Sabrina et al eight distinct cosmic threats to anticipate, and the audience eight episodes over which to anticipate them, Part 4 also ended up giving the series a usefully rigid structure to cleave to as it marched our favorite dark witches towards the End of All Things—and when it comes to CAOS, more structure has always been better. This is a series, remember, that let a pile of viciously toxic men tread water as the power behind the Greendale coven for nearly three seasons before giving its otherwise fiercely feminist heroes a hot second to think, uh, maybe not?, and which never really managed to make sense of what was to be gained ideologically or thematically by having the Church of Night worship the Dark Lord in the first place—beyond, that is, opening the floor to a bevy of Hail Satan/Unholy Magdalene/sexy gore is sacred punnery. (#Aesthetic) What the Eldritch Terror plot at the heart of Part 4 makes clear is that what was missing throughout all of that was a truly cohesive narrative structure, an “if this, then that” scaffolding around which, had it been in place earlier in the series’ run, might have given Sabrina Spellman’s story the ability to organize itself into a truly feminist, Hecate-worshipping shape it always seemed to want to be, while still letting its gothy, blood-soaked weirdness roam free.
Which is all to say that yes—as thematically removed from Greendale/Hell as Blackwood’s Eldritch Terrors might have initially seemed, when introduced via murderous fever dream in the background of Part 3’s Green Man A story, the mythological rigidity they ended up giving CAOS in this, its final chapter, also gave the show a kind of freedom it hadn’t previously had. Why? Well, for one, it freed Sabrina and the rest of the coven from having to fight the toxic gravitational pull that was Blackwood’s black hole presence in Parts 1-3. But also, because something as alien and unknowable as the Eldritch Terrors cares zip for teenage melodrama. The Uninvited, The Weird, The Perverse, The Void—thanks to the deranged ministrations of (ex-)Father Blackwood, the misguided trauma of a newly resurrected Miss Wardwell (also Gomez), and all those eerily fortuitous appearances of the mysterious Trinket Man (James Urbaniak) whose existence is never sufficiently explained (my guess: God), the Eldritch Terrors were going to show up, one after the next, regardless of whatever other nonsense Sabrina (and Sabrina) and her friends got up to.
In practice, this meant that these final eight episodes were able not just to let Sabrina Spellman go on dates with dudes not named Harvey or Nicholas, run for class co-president with Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and steal the spotlight at the Fright Club’s life-or-death Battle of the Bands, but also to let Sabrina Morningstar marry Caliban, rule over the Nine Circles of Hell and host dance parties with mortal doppelgänger in their magicked golden dollhouse, all without the risk of ever losing the grander narrative thread. Other Chilling digressions that got to run wild without once distracting from Blackwood’s extra-terrestrial Eldritch Terror story arc? All those unnecessary (but totally fun) Fright Club performances (Ross Lynch is always at his best when he’s set loose on a guitar), all that slow-burn Nick+Sabrina/Harvey+Roz/Theo+Robin romance (look, Tumblr’s real, I get it), all those meta thrills garnered by bringing Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s Aunts Zelda (Beth Broderick) and Hilda (Caroline Rhea) into Sabrina Morningstar’s mirror universe, and all that emotional Spellman catharsis that’s been the show’s bread-and-unholy-butter from the start. That we didn’t get to see Nick (Gavin Leatherwood) rescue Sabrina’s body from space, or Roz, Agatha, and Prudence solidify their new Weird Sisters bond… well, that was disappointing. That Blackwood, over time, got reduced to a grubby, unloved man who just. kept. losing., episode after episode after episode, only to be beheaded, stuck like a human pin cushion, and blinded by a bunch of powerful, angry women before being cast aside like the trash he was? That was, uh… yeah, that was less so. The point is, regardless of everything else going on in Sabrina’s messy personal life, the Eldritch Terrors were all happy to follow the Right Reverend Lovecraft’s mad marching orders, making careful, plodding way for The Void at the end of the cosmic road. In terms of CAOS viewing experiences, we’re talking nearly 10 out of 10 here.
Which brings us, I guess, to everything that happened once The Void showed up. AKA, Sabrina Spellman’s heroic death, in Sabrina Morningstar’s already heroically dead body.
Your mileage may vary, but even after all the good will Part 4 built up with its propulsive Eldritch Terror engine, I found both Sabrinas’ deaths—Morningstar after busting through a magical portal between universes whose power she should have been more than equal to, Spellman after spending a month hanging out with a deranged Blackwood in some far-flung frozen mountain cave, during which period a lot of compelling shit was happening with her family and friends back in Greendale that none of us got to be a part of—deeply unsatisfying. Not just because they were both barely seventeen, with so much of their lives still ahead of them (although there is that), and not just because it’s the height of absurdity that Hecate wouldn’t step in to do, well, anything after the sturm und drang of the coven re-dedicating itself in her name in the season premiere (although there’s that, too, which Miranda Otto’s Zelda explicitly calls out in her and Hilda’s last gloomy scene). Mostly, it was unsatisfying because it was all just so unnecessary. Like, Sabrina (Spellman) getting handed Pandora’s Box by James Urbaniak was a goofy bit of deus ex trinketa that I was more than happy to go along with it if it meant Team Greendale would be able to defeat the Void with enough time to spare for a warm & fuzzy, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or She-Ra: Princesses of Power-style epilogue to close out the episode. That they instead had Sabrina use the box in such a careless way, and then furthermore had her family and friends go about “rescuing” her with just as much lack of care, only to have her die without reconnecting with anyone in The Sweet Hereafter but Nick was nonsensical. More than nonsensical—it was insulting.
Look: The thing with a show like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is that it takes some real doing to make any Big Heroic Death a convincing final move. Snatching resurrection from the jaws of mystical execution? That’s the supernatural drama’s answer to the sitcom reset, a bit of storytelling grease that lets shows like CAOS move efficiently from the chaotic energy needed for the climax of one season, to the emotional equilibrium needed for the start of the next. I mean, over the course of the series’ short four-part run, Ms. Wardwell, Agatha, Elspeth, Melvin, Hilda, and even Sabrina were all killed (and/or sacrificed) at one point or another, only to be resurrected in short order. Hell, at the end of Part 3, everyone—save Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) and Sabrina—died truly gruesome deaths, only to be resurrected in the selfsame eldritch egg time loop that let Sabrina double herself in the first place.
Which is all to say, neither Sabrina’s death needed to stick. The only reason they both did is that they coincided with the series finale. And that’s what felt insulting. If you’re going to make killing your hero(es) your divine move—which at least two other supernatural recent shows did in their own series finales this year, with (arguable) aplomb—you’ve got to make the case that real, everlasting death is the only thing that will make the final beats of your story work, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina just… didn’t. Sabrina’s two deaths left holes in the world, sure, but not in a way that really means anything real within the world the series spent 36 episodes building. We don’t see the lives her mortal/hobgoblin friends end up leading, after she’s gone. We don’t see how her family honors her memory, beyond a bronze statue they erect in the Academy days after her death(s). We don’t see what happens to Salem, her familiar, without her there to protect and guide. We don’t see what Hell becomes, without her to join Lilith in reshaping it. We don’t see what becomes of the coven, after she’s effectively freed it from the lingering misogyny of both Blackwood’s and the Dark Lord’s clutches. We don’t see any of it, save for what happens to Nick, who seemingly pursues an early death in the Sea of Sorrows, the quicker to meet up with an angelic Sabrina (Spellman, one presumes) in the airy, cream-colored afterlife that’s the show’s one tiny nod to the idea that Hecate has stepped in to help the coven in any way at all. (Zelda reminds the audience, in Sabrina’s eulogy, that while witches haven’t traditionally been able to “die,” Hecate’s role as guardian of the crossroads might mean Sabrina made it to the Sweet Hereafter. Which, true enough.)
If all of this sounds like a lot more grumbling than a show as gleefully campy as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina deserves—especially for ending what really was its most well-plotted season yet on a note as uncomplicatedly saccharine as #Nabrina is #endgame—well, fair. It’s just such a bummer to see a project you’ve been rooting for from the beginning, with an ensemble cast who’s always outmatched the material they’ve been given, finally become the show it should always have been, only to throw away even that promise on a truly baffling finale. I just want better, for all of us.
Luckily, a new year is literally at hand. For my part, I’ll use it to hope for better. For yours, well, maybe you’ll have already kicked it off by enjoying this final entry in the Sabrina Spellman saga more than I did. If you want that for you, I want that for you.
In the meantime, I’ll be watching YouTube to see what the Fright Club might do next.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is now streaming, in its entirety, on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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