Kiernan Shipka has had a few many chances to test her emotional range as an actress, not only as the tortured daughter of Don and Betty Draper in Mad Men but more recently in horror flick The Blackcoat’s Daughter and as a different angsty child in Feud. She’s a proven holder of this skill, and she applies it to Sabrina Spellman, really for the first time, in “Witch Academy,” the fourth and best episode yet of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
So, what’s she need it for?
The deals she’s made are in the past. So, in this episode, we go with her into a whole new world as she begins her freshman orientation at the witch academy, and for the first time, she’s walking into a universe that she’s not wholly in control of.
At Baxter High, her human school, she has a devoted boyfriend and a strong group of friends, a group which she is the leader of. Her powers, that whole other world is a secret packed comfortably in her back pocket, almost like a safety blanket. If she’s really pissed about something — say, football players picking on her friend Susie — what’s to stop her from breaking out those powers and giving them a good scare? Nothing. We’ve seen her do it.
But at the academy, everything’s an unknown. Her schedule was selected for her (and it’s not what she wanted it to be).
That’s the start.
She doesn’t really know anyone — no one she can trust, anyway — and she doesn’t have friends to defend her, and everyone else has powers, too. What kind of fallback is it that you’re still hanging out in the mortal world with the rest of your time? None. In fact, these classmates consider it borderline disrespectful. “Her hearts not in it,” or “She’s half-assing it,” they could rightfully think.
Also, and this is most important, she’s a Spellman! Never before has that really mattered to anyone else, but at the academy, it puts a target on her back.
So, what’s Shipka need the range for? Sabrina’s the target of bullies, Prudence and the sisters. They’re ruthlessly hazing her, it turns out, at the instruction of the headmaster, Father Blackwood, and doing it with hazing rituals that, we also find out, have killed students in the past.
It’s really like real-life sleepover pranks gone horribly wrong, as it’s all things related to the 13 witches who were hanged — at first, overnight in a dungeon,* and then stripped and standing in front of that tree,** and finally, being escorted to that tree with a noose around her neck.
(*Salem comes to the rescue.)
(**There’s some serious Hunger Games shit going on in this one.)
It’s the second and third rounds, in my opinion, when Shipka whips Sabrina to her emotional bottom, and then so sweetly and vengefully back to her emotional strength from which we’ve seen this character mostly act in the first three episodes of this new series.
Shipka’s work this episode firmly plants Sabrina as the sentimental favorite of the show, which is different than us as viewers simply rooting for her because it’s her TV series. Now, we’ve developed an emotional connection to her; after all, the second round of The Harrowing, as they call it, was severely heartbreaking.
Sabrina’s stripped down to her undergarments, facing this tree she’s already a little weary of for other reasons, and told she must stay standing there until dawn and can never turn around no matter what, at the risk of death. What’s to cause her to turn around? Some Hunger Games shit. She hears voices behind her all through the night, first of her boyfriend Harvey as if he’s being tortured behind her, and later of her parents who just want to catch a brief sight of the daughter they never got to see grow up.
Camera close-ups help to focus in on tears running down her cheeks, show her shivering, and once morning comes, the first we see is the back of her,* and she’s hold onto herself, shaking, conveying that in these moments she’s the only person she has — a terrified loneliness, if you will. Once she turns around, she has dark shade around her eyes, she’s sweaty like she, all at once, went sleepless for a week and ran a marathon on a treadmill inside a house that was on fire.
(*We also find her this way the morning after the night in the dungeon.)
The third night, Sabrina’s ready and she gets her revenge on the sisters, and it’s a real, sweet, bad-ass bitch don’t-mess-with-me kind of turn that happens. I think it’s the first huge, OHHHHHHH! I’ve shouted in the series, so far. It’s a reunion of the kind of moxie that has made Sabrina so charismatic all along but with a darker, “Cheryl Blossom”-esque spin.
And, ooooooooh, baby, did I like it.
Kiernan Shipka knows how to bring it and, this time, she’s bringing it as Sabrina freaking Spellman.
Other things happened, too…
- At the academy, a possibly Love Interest No. 2 is introduced, Nicholas Scratch, played by Gavin Leatherwood. Seriously, though, either of those names could be a fictional character.
- In the human world, a sleepover between Roz and Susie goes horribly wrong. Susie’s uncle, it turns out, also “saw something” in the mines and has never been the same. When Harvey gets word of this, he wants to speak to him. But, I mean, this uncle of hers seriously has never been the same. He’s possessed by the devil and tries to kill Harvey when Harvey comes to his bedside to talk. So, what do we know? Not one, but two people have seen this monster in the mine.