Wardwell plays her hand in “Dreams in a Witch House”

“Dreams in a Witch House” is a 90 percent standalone episode in the middle of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina‘s first season. For that much of the 54-minute episode, the action — a demon wreaking havoc on the dreams of everyone inside the Spellman Mortuary — has little consequence over the greater storylines of the series. We learn a bit more about the aspirations and fears of the main characters, certainly, but little else is progressing or suspending the direction the overall story is moving.

The episode takes place almost entirely inside the walls of the Spellman house, after all.

The part that does advance the plot is the other 10 percent, that involving Ms. Wardwell.

For some time now, I’ve quietly been a bit confused by, very generally, what Ms. Wardwell is doing and why — more specifically, what separates her intentions from Father Blackwood, for instance. And why those two, Wardwell and Blackwood, seem so at odds with one another.

In “Witch Academy,” the motivations of Blackwood and the weird sisters’ actions became much clearer. You know, they’re just not big fans of Sabina’s.

On one hand, Blackwood feels emasculated by Sabrina. She has come out on top every time they’ve butted heads. How her baptism played out, he feels embarrassed and insulted. Because of her trial’s result, he feels less in control.

The weird sisters are jealous of Sabrina. Not only does it seem like this half-witch gets to do whatever she wants (see results above), but, god damn, she’s got pipes! She can sing!

It’s been less clear, to me, about what Wardwell is doing, creating a portal to see into Sabrina’s room, keeping a close eye on her at school by the demon inside her occupying the body of one of her teachers. Aren’t both Blackwood and Wardwell trying to deliver her to the dark lord all the same?

This episode now, “Dreams in a Witch House,” makes me think differently, at least a little bit.

Blackwood ordered hazing upon Sabrina, at the hands of the weird sisters. He’d like to see her tortured. But in this episode, Wardwell comes to Sabrina’s rescue. It’s crystal clear: She intends to keep her protected, first by pleading with the demon, Batibat, to leave the Spellman’s alone, and then by entering the dreams which the demon is manipulating.

Crucial to surviving this night is knowing you’re asleep when the bad things happening to you in your dreams are starting to happen, that way you don’t forfeit the key to the demon escaping the house. This important piece of information goes on forgotten by each character inside their dream — Zelda thinks she’s in fact killed Hilda; Hilda thinks she’s in fact tied to Zelda. Ms. Wardwell interferes in Sabrina’s dream, just when Sabrina’s seemingly bleeding to death, to tell her it’s a dream, and then to wake her up. Waking up is your one chance to escape — Wardwell pleads to Sabrina to wake up, then run. Save yourself. Get out of the house. Leave the others behind. You need to survive.

Sabrina, being a loyal Spellman and heroine of a main character, wakes up but does not leave. She puts her own ideas* and powers to the test to trick the demon into a trap. Trapping Batibat, eliminating it as a threat, ends the dreams (now nightmares) of all the others — saves the day.

(*What I love is when fictional TV and movies, like this one, play with our culture’s ideas and tropes of witches and wizards to accomplish something in their stories. Here, Sabrina weaves a dreamcatcher with yarn around her fingers. It’s that “Hand Trap” and “Cat’s Cradle” game we all played with our friends as kids. It makes what Sabrina’s doing here, although already awesome, all the more fun because it directly attaches it to, likely, a happy memory from your very own childhood.)

Sabrina is safe, as are the others, and Wardwell has played her hand. She’s entered a world of Sabrina’s that she’s not supposed to be able to — not, if she’s, as she presents to be, a human person.

It’s one thing that confuses Sabrina most during her dream. Ms. Wardwell enters the room and she’s explaining the situation to calm Sabrina down, while Sabrina’s thinking, What are you doing here? How do you know that? Why do you know that? How are you here?

Once awake, as is often the case, you forget details about your dreams — like that your teacher showed up to save you and had a perplexingly significant amount of information about what was going on and how to escape it. What Sabrina remembers is that Harvey, who she’s marrying in the dream, tried to choke her to death. So, lying in bed awake, Sabrina calls to ask him for some assurances that he’d never hurt her. It’s Harvey who brings up Wardwell’s name, that he’s looking forward to seeing Sabrina in Wardwell’s class the next day, and then it’s this that resurrects that part of her dream.

Wardwell was there. Why? How?

Like Sabrina, we’re trying to put the pieces together, too. Wardwell’s intentions are clearer than ever now, but we’d still like her to explain it herself.

Sabrina shows up at her door well past midnight.

This an explanation we’re about to get.

“Witch Academy” the best episode yet of Sabrina

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The trial of Sabrina Spellman

Our scope of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina‘s universe, Greendale, is expanding with its third episode, “The Trial of Sabrina Spellman.”

We could see the central resolution of the episode written on the wall, not just because it’s in the title. Sabrina wins her case to continue living her mortal life while holding onto her powers, with the exception that she attend exclusively the school for witches. This is where the story’s been leading.

But thinking about how the show is digging in now for the rest of its 10 season one episodes, with its initial conflict basically resolved, the more important takeaway from the episode is how it starts to trace the town’s relationship to the underworld. Specifically, stories about Harvey and a new character we meet, lawyer Daniel Webster, begin to create a picture. Basically, at least these two people have been exposed to this other world that Sabrina is now making deals in.

Harvey doesn’t know it, at least he’s not convinced he knows it. His story, that he tells Sabrina, involves him getting lost in the mine.* While he’s down there wandering around, trying to find his way back out, he sees a beast — yeah, that beast — and it terrifies him. Hearing this, Sabrina knows exactly what he’s describing but can’t say anything. He’s seen the devil and he doesn’t know it.**

(*This is the place his family — an angry dad and a caring older brother — is employed. Greendale seems like a mining town.)

(**Maybe, though, he subconsciously does.)

This certainly connects Harvey to Sabrina in an interesting way and makes you wonder what would’ve happened had she continued to tell Harvey the truth about the significance of her 16th birthday, rather than wiping that conversation from his memory.

The new character, Mr. Webster, was knowingly involved with the underworld; in fact, he made a deal with the devil that made him the world’s greatest defense attorney, but it cost him his daughter’s life.* He’s the one who comes to Sabrina’s aid to help her with her case, which he’s motivated to do because although he lost his bet with the devil, maybe she can be the one who finally beats him (the dark lord).

(*In his defense, he didn’t know it would.)

This episode tells us a lot.

Sabrina’s father signed her name into the devil’s book just days after she was born as his bargaining chip to marry Sabrina’s mortal mother. Her mother, however, baptized Sabrina in a human church a day earlier. Such a complex timeline is why Sabrina, here, had bargaining power to take the deal she takes.

But Greendale’s relationship to witchcraft, initially by the examples of Harvey and Mr. Webster, is important because of the John Doe brought to the mortuary, whose funeral was held during this latest episode. Ambrose continues to be concerned about the circumstances of his death, as he was a witch living in the mortal world whose death appears to have been premeditated.*

(*Another new character, Luke, is a warlock who shows up at the funeral and has apparently had a relationship with the deceased.)

Why is it concerning? Well, now, because this is the type of situation Sabrina is willfully walking into. How many other times have the worlds of Greendale and the dark lord crossed? And is there a certain negativity that exists because of it? Should Sabrina ever be found out, what does that mean for her?

Who killed the boy? Why?

We’ll see.

It’s a hurried baptism in second episode of Sabrina

This is what you’d call a rush job. It’s midnight in the middle of the woods, there are fires burning everywhere around Sabrina Spellman plus a coven of witches and warlocks looking on, her palm has been cut open*, she sees a vision of her parents and another of a red-hued future where witches are hanging lifeless from trees, and Father Blackwood is speeding through the reading of her, let’s say, rites. This is the chaotic, distracting setting we’re meant to experience, as directed by Lee Toland Krieger for “The Dark Baptism,” that of Sabrina’s, episode two of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

(*As is traditional campfire bro code.)

And suddenly, Sabrina catches an inconsistency between what Father Blackwood is telling her now and what he promised her earlier, where we left the premiere episode and pick up this one, in the family room of the Spellman house as he makes certain assurances of free will to her, to convince her to go through with her dark baptism. Interjecting into his spiel, Sabrina says, “That’s not what you said earlier,” and she starts to pull away, hesitate.

Really mentally present is this Sabrina, played by Kiernan Shipka, when few of us watching are. Two episodes in, I’m amazed at the way Sabrina compartmentalizes her life and stays so convincingly present in every part of it.

Earlier in this second episode, on Halloween, Sabrina’s birthday and day of the dark baptism, her Aunt Zelda is calling her niece out of school sick. When Sabrina asks why, she explains that the day is better spent in deep, internal thought. I didn’t think anything of this at the time because of course Sabrina doesn’t oblige — she goes to school and, not only that, a Halloween party that night, which makes her late* to the midnight baptism. But during the intense, hectic baptism scene, you bet I thought back to that explanation again.

(*Was she though?)

Yeah, I think I’d definitely want a day to think about what the hell is about to happen to me. But that’s just me projecting. When I’m about to go on a big vacation, for example, or even a three-day weekend, for goodness sake, I’m a useless warm body at my workplace for days. That’s not Sabrina.

Sabrina is so much more poised. She has an uncanny ability to compartmentalize her complicated life, so much so that not one of her friends really senses something’s up. So much so, that she loses track of, dancing the night away at her friends party, that she must sprint back to the woods to avoid being late to the biggest event of her life.

What must be going through her head? How long is she running for?

She’s in a full sprint all the way up to the gate, or what I’m going to call the gate, to the big show. Then, her white dress turns black, she walks through blue fire and up to her step, front and center to be baptized. It’s a jarring emotional and mental U-turn that develops so quickly, and is executed so perfectly on screen, but doesn’t seem to bother Sabrina, who’s still aware enough in the middle of it all to catch Father Blackwood in a lie and renounce her oath.

And that’s where we are. Much of the first two episodes was spent, as an audience member, wondering how Sabrina would get around the rules to have her cake and eat it, too.

This, honestly, was not what I expected. My expectation had Sabrina finding a way to maintain her human life, while committing to the coven. Either way, she’ll try to do both. But regardless, I didn’t see it coming that everything almost instantly returns to a version of normal — that, like, she says No! and then she and her aunties and cousin all just go back into their house.*

(*That part, I was kind of like, “Oh. Well, OK.”)

But of course, Sabrina’s not home free. Father Blackwood, Ms. Wardell and even the Dark Lord himself* will continue their efforts to recruit** Sabrina to sign her name to the list or, seemingly, make her life a living hell so long as she refuses.

(*If you read my last post, you saw the twist ending coming because of the blur effect.) 

(**Is it now, technically, recruiting?)

Sabrina’s conviction will be tested. What will happen to it when the two worlds she so expertly keeps apart start mixing together as the dark world aggressively seeks her?

What did you guys think of the second episode?

Camera sets the boundaries in Netflix’s new Sabrina

The first thing you’ll notice about Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the way it’s using camera effects as a narrative element, specifically to separate the worlds that Sabrina Spellman is tightrope walking still days before her 16th birthday — the witching world and human world.

How? Study even the following two stills from the series premiere, “Chapter One: October Country.”

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Here’s a still from the opening sequence. Sabrina, played by Kiernan Shipka*, is at the movies with her friends (humans), seeing a horror flick from which she is comically, inhumanely entertained if not aroused. Nothing special about this still.

(*Welcome back to my life, *cough* Sally Draper *cough*. I’ve missed you, so much.)

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Here she is later, in the woods in which she was born and will be re-born on her 16th birthday by a dark baptism. Notice specifically the blurred edges of the frame surrounding her. It’s this blurred feature director Lee Toland Krieger uses consistently throughout the episode to share scenes that are happening, generally, from the witching world. It’s within this same scene that Sabrina’s visited by three bratty, seemingly full-blood witches* and cursed. That scene is practically a blur-fest, as the camera circles Sabrina over and over while the witches, blurred almost in their movements, creep closer to her.

(*Sabrina’s half-blooded.)

This technique is used over and over again — early when Sabrina wakes up from a nightmare just before a bat flies through her window or when a witch kills and occupies the body of Sabrina’s teacher, Mary Wardell, or every time the witch’s “Familiar,” a raven visits Wardell.

The debate my wife and I had was whether the difference was based on the scene being something of the witching world or it being something evil, but I think both can be true; after all, witching is considered evil. Even Sabrina knows that and embraces it. It’s one of the entertaining things about the story, of course based on the Archie comic. Our main character is evil, or at least has dark powers and dark tendencies, but she enjoys the heck out it just like those horror movies.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a dark contrast to the late 90s sitcom, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. There’s a zombie-like, dark-drive-on-a-country-road spook within the first five minutes and a bloody murder five minutes thereafter. There are spiders. So many spiders. There’s a possessed scarecrow, hangings and the dark lord.*

(*Not THAT Dark Lord, but, I’m pretty sure, the other one?)

But that’s what makes the Netflix series so appetizing and so promising. It’s intense. But it’s funny, too.

Sabrina, at least for now, has a human life, friends in high school, and she’s kind of badass feminist teenager in that part of her life, starting a Women Protecting Women club in “Chapter One.”

Harvey’s there. So is Salem, the black cat, though Salem is not just a jukebox of punchlines this time. And, of course, there are Sabrina’s aunties.

The story in front of us is this: Sabrina has a few days left for her normal human life. At her dark baptism, she will have to leave that world to covert to the witch’s coven and go to an academy for witches. Though, she has a decision to make. Maybe she won’t sign her name over to it. Why does she have to give up everything about her human world, she asks. Why can’t she have some of both? That’s the track we’re on.

It’s important, that idea of two different worlds. Sabrina’s not totally into the coven’s side yet, which may explain the blurring effect. That world, to her, is not fully realized yet. The one that is, the human side, is in perfect high definition, so long as you have a good internet connection.