Season 1, Episode 1
Airdate: Sunday, April 20, 2014, 10/9c on WGN America
[warning]Warning: If you haven’t finished or seen this episode, there are major spoilers ahead. [/warning]
FX’s American Horror Story threw down the gauntlet when it exposed television viewers to a whole new vision of horror. This year, WGN America is answering that challenge by way of its unique and wildly graphic series, Salem. The series stars Shane West as bad boy John Alden, whose family helped found the town, and Janet Montgomery, who steals the show portraying the local beauty Mary (later, Mary Sibley).
Those of you expecting a show resembling Arthur Miller’s The Crucible need to look elsewhere because Salem is far and away a different entity altogether. As a fictional interpretation of the infamous 17th century witch trials in Massachusetts, some of the places and names may be the same but the witches in this world do exist, and the consequences of going against their dark powers come at a deadly price.
In Salem’s premiere episode, “The Vow,” we see a contrast between the harsh realities of a Puritanical world controlled by fear, and the dangers of a supernatural one ruled by demons. Violence and its graphic nature is a near constant throughout the entire hour. Our introduction to Salem takes place at the stockade within the town square where an unfortunate soul, Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg), is being punished for acts of “self-pollution” with a female resident of Salem. According to the cruel minister George Sibley (Michael Mulheren), this behavior is unacceptable. If you haven’t guessed what that could possibly mean, let’s just say for Issac to engage in premarital sexual relations is considered a desecration to the soul among the Puritans. If the humiliation of being labeled a sexual deviant isn’t bad enough, Sibley takes it further by having the letter “F” branded on Issac’s forehead — a sign to everyone that he is forever marked a fornicator, making him an outcast.
Issac: “Isaac the fornicator. Hide your wives, hide your daughters, hell, hide your sheep!”
What makes this opening sequence of events so disturbing is the unflinching way the camera holds on Isaac’s facial expression; the pain and horror paralleled with Sibley’s inexpressive features just heightens the moment. I don’t know what’s worse, the idea that Sibley enjoys torturing others or that he is so solid in his beliefs that he sees his cruelty as justifiable.
One of Salem’s strong elements is its ability to be startling and very gritty with its attention to the visual aesthetics of the series. It is easily one of the nicest set productions for a television series right now. A lot of the atmosphere plays very well during the scary elements of “The Vow.”
The Power Of Love…Or Not
Every good drama needs a good love story. We get this with John and Mary, who originally start as star-crossed lovers á la Romeo and Juliet. In light of Issac’s punishment, their affair is kept hidden from everyone. It’s probably the only silver lining in the murky grey areas of the entire episode; that is, until John goes off to fight side by side with the French against the “Indians.” This one event sets into motion all the tragedy and malevolent events to come; it’s a point of no return and months later Mary finds herself pregnant with John’s child. What’s great about this moment is how wonderfully Montgomery portrays Mary’s innocence, especially when encountered with her worst fear— being pregnant all by herself. Ok, she’s not really by herself, there’s her close companion and servant Tituba (Ashley Madekwe)—yes, that’s straight out of your history books—and she’s there to assist Mary. We’re introduced to the magical element fairly quickly when Tituba takes Mary into the woods outside of town. We don’t get much of a context to Mary and Tituba’s relationship other than being close companions; however, there’s something quick, still, and calculating about Tituba that doesn’t come across as genuine.
As it turns out, Tituba performs some kind of magic using oil, and tells Mary the woods will “care” for the child. It’s interesting that Tituba steers Mary towards making damaging choices. For example, she speaks quickly and indirectly about the details regarding how Mary will get rid of her baby. What happens next is extremely surreal and disturbing as a flash of images and a hallucination plague Mary’s vision; we see bugs resting atop Mary’s bare belly and vines crawling up her legs towards her private parts. It’s bizzare and perverse but it is intentional — not for shock value but to project the same kind of violation and fear Mary experiences right before some kind of demon appears. Then, like magic, so to speak, Mary comes out of her spell and her belly is flat. The sorcery has worked, but is the ritual for Mary’s own good or Tituba’s?
Years pass and John makes a surprise return! The Salem we initially see has changed and there are now new power players in town.
What doesn’t seem lost amongst the fray, however, is John’s love for Mary, although it does feel a bit heavy handed.
Mark of the Beast, or How I Spent My Sabbath
Salem has a fairly large cast whose characters all have pivotal roles. The overlapping subplots get a bit muddled at times, but often, they are placed well in the storyline. Take for example Mercy (Elise Eberle), who appears not only psychotic, but possibly schizophrenic. Of course, back then she would have been considered touched by the devil. Eberle does a stellar job of scaring the bejesus out of you. She does not hold back in her performance, and of all the disturbing scenes in “The Vow,” Eberle easily stands out with one twisted look and a pounce. At her side is the town’s young minister, Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel). Until his revealing moment of having sex with a prostitute, Cotton had me fooled playing his over-the-top fear of the Lord routine. Even though he’s a total hypocrite, it makes him less imposing, and more short-sighted and weak. Cotton is also a young man with access to power, so one could say it’s almost expected that he take advantage of it.
Another twist is seeing a whole new Mary who is now known as Mary Sibley—the wife of the infamous George Sibley. Although Mary never stopped loving John, she believed he was dead after failing to return home after several years. Even Tituba convinced her John was gone forever. So left alone without a child or her love, Mary focuses on vengeance against the man she holds responsible for much misery in Salem—George Sibley. Mary reigns in her powers with Tituba’s help and stands in as the HBIC (Head Bitch In Charge.) She’s more reserved and there’s a coldness in her demeanor that was lacking early on. Mary’s sacrifice in the woods—giving up her baby—seems to come across as an exchange of power. I guess it’s Salem’s way of implying she sold her soul but there is no direct affirmation. It’s one of the show’s problems, but not so much as to distract from the problems at hand in Salem.
When former young lovers John and Mary see each other, it’s under complicated circumstances. As “The Vow” progresses, it’s clear John will always have a part of Mary’s humanity whereas Tituba will have a part of her pain. I can’t wait to see what happens when Tituba and John first see each other.
I really enjoyed “The Vow.” It is spooky when necessary, shocking when you least expect it, and very well acted. Some of the problems with this series premiere, however, revolve around the many plot points and events. A lot happens in this episode, which isn’t a good thing necessarily. There’s a lot of sexual content with everything from sexual orgies to the use of familiar animals such as toads. It’s a bit distracting, and I wish only a portion of the main characters had been introduced so the plot points all hit their marks in character growth. Unfortunately, “The Vow” feels rushed in various places. The core relationship between Tituba and Mary is vital, yet we are only given pieces of their backstories. I wouldn’t have minded if some of the graphic scenes, like the ones with the toads, had been cut. The episode is more action than story, which is OK but not at the cost of moving the story forward. I would have liked if “The Vow” had been split into two episodes rather than one, but that’s just me. Salem has a lot of potential with its main plot points, and the production design is great. However, if it doesn’t get to the heart of its characters’ backstories early on, Salem might lose some steam.
So what did you think of the premiere? Was it too gory? Or maybe you thought the black ooze orgy was a bit much. Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @conallen
Tune in to Salem on Sundays at 10/9c, only on WGN America.
Follow the series on its official site at http://www.wgnamerica.com/shows/salem, where you can also watch videos and clips of the episodes.
Photos: ©2014 WGN America. All Rights Reserved.
© 2014, Connie Allen. All rights reserved.
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